HAVANA — With the announcement late last year that Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, 77, resigned from the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops, speculation began about a new era for the Church in Cuba.
"The retirement of Cardinal Ortega is imminent," Nestor Carbonell, an author, analyst and Cuban-American Catholic, told the Register. "And that’s a healthy development."
Appointed bishop in 1978 and cardinal in 1994, Cardinal Ortega submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI when he turned 75 two years ago, as is standard practice.
The Holy Father asked him to stay through last year’s papal visit to the island and then for celebrations around the 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, depicted in a small statue of the Virgin found floating in a bay in 1612.
When Pope Francis took charge, he said he needed time to study the situation in Cuba, according to sources at the Archdiocese of Havana.
Holy Cross Father Robert Pelton, the University of Notre Dame’s director of Latin-American/North-American Church concerns, thinks Pope Francis is poised to put his mark on the Church in Cuba.
He explained, "Besides the fact that Pope Francis is from Latin America, he has experienced dictatorship — he has learned from the process of his own personal suffering in Argentina — and because he knows that reality, he will provide the kind of leadership we need at this moment."
"I have great admiration for the potential of the Cuban Church," said Father Pelton, who has visited Cuba several times.
Church’s Unique Role
On the sad, beautiful island of Cuba, where the communist dictatorship controls everything, the Catholic Church is the only independent institution, present across the island, capable of helping people.
It’s a status that puts special pressure — and obligations — on the Church and its leadership.
Extensive poverty (average income is, incredibly, less than $20 a month) has led the Church to solicit and distribute millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance, ranging from medicine and food to clothes and crutches — much of it coming from the United States.
In poor Havana neighborhoods, tucked in church gardens, one finds scores of young children being taught and fed by discreet Catholic religious well aware that it’s illegal for the Church to run schools.
When political opponents are imprisoned for criticizing the government — an increasingly frequent phenomenon — the Church is often the only source of support for relatives left at home.
In October, police arrested 909 regime opponents, the highest monthly total in four years, according to the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
While Pope Benedict was in Cuba in March 2012, more than 1,150 people were arrested to prevent them from protesting the lack of freedom in Cuba, according to the commission.
In late spring 2010, a group of brave women known as the Ladies in White, created to protest the unjust imprisonment of male relatives, turned to Cardinal Ortega for help.
Every Sunday after Mass, the Ladies in White march from St. Rita’s Church in Havana to a small park nearby, silently holding gladiolas aloft as a sign of remembrance. That spring, thugs were bullying them so badly that they could no longer gather.
The cardinal wrote a letter to authorities and succeeded in winning space for the Ladies in White to continue weekly protests relatively unmolested. This incident propelled him into a role as intermediary between the regime and regime opponents that became controversial.
From Prison to Exile
In 2010-2011, as a result of direct negotiations with President Raul Castro, Cardinal Ortega facilitated the release of more than 150 political prisoners, most jailed unjustly for demanding more freedom.
But according to critics, the cardinal was used by the regime to evict its most determined opponents: Most of the released prisoners were taken directly from jail to the airport and flown to Spain.
"I was called by the guards to the phone, and it was Cardinal Ortega," former prisoner Ariel Sigler told the Register. "He told me I would be released to fly to Spain with my family. I told him, ‘I won’t go to Spain,’ and he said, ‘Then you won’t leave jail!’"
Sigler’s relatives managed to get him to Miami for treatment, as he became paralyzed while incarcerated.
German Miret, a Cuban-American lay Catholic leader who lives in Miami, explained, "When the cardinal said the prisoners would be liberated, everyone thought they would be going home; but almost all of them were forced into exile, so I don’t accept the idea that they were liberated. Their jail sentence was exchanged for exile."
"The role of the Church should be to proclaim justice. An unjust government has to be condemned," said Miret. "There are many injustices in Cuba that are never mentioned."
The Catholic Church has long advocated that the U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed in 1959, be lifted to facilitate both trade and travel between the two countries.
As Richard Coll, Latin-American policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained, "Eliminating barriers between the U.S. and Cuba, not as a reward, but on the assumption that greater dialogue and exchange will make it more likely that human rights are respected — that’s been the long-standing position of the Vatican, the Cuban Church and the U.S. Conference [of Catholic Bishops]."
But two leading opponents of the Cuban regime told President Barack Obama in November not to lift the embargo until Cubans have more real freedom and to include government opponents in any negotiations. Though brief, the meeting was significant in demonstrating the increasing profile of Cuba’s dissident movement.
Psychologist and journalist Guillermo Farinas and Ladies in White leader Berta Soler were able to talk to President Obama at a fundraiser in Florida. Both have won the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for democratic activism.
Both have been beaten up this year while protesting. Farinas has been punished for criticizing Cuban state control of the Internet and other methods used to cut Cubans off from information and, thus, from the world.
As Nestor Carbonell points out, "As long as Castro maintains a blockade on the Cuban people, it makes no sense for the U.S. to unilaterally lift the embargo. I think we have broad consensus that Cuba needs to create a true democratic opening before the U.S. should change its policy."
He added, "Although Cardinal Ortega has often said the Catholic Church can’t function as the political opposition, he has come to the U.S. to lobby against the embargo. That’s political."
Catholics such as Carbonell, Miret and Father Pelton hope that, under Pope Francis, the Church in Cuba will put more emphasis on the need for political reforms — and the need to end the persecution of regime opponents, including the Ladies in White, Farinas and many others, such as Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, 30, a rapper known as "El Critico," who was jailed last March for criticizing the government and was recently in grave condition after he went on a hunger strike in prison.
Catholic observers point to three signs that Pope Francis might reorient the Catholic Church’s approach to oppression in Cuba, especially by acknowledging the "thirst for freedom, a word never used," said Miret.
First, Pope Francis is considered an admirer of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran bishop murdered in 1980 while saying Mass. Archbishop Romero was especially close to common people and peasants, who suffered during the Salvadoran civil war.
In May, Pope Francis received a blood-stained relic taken from the archbishop’s vestments. It was a gift from the president of El Salvador, who wanted to thank the Holy Father for "unblocking" the cause of sainthood for Archbishop Romero.
Father Pelton — who helped produce the 2011 film Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero for Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute — thinks Pope Francis is prepared to declare Archbishop Romero a martyr.
"I think he has learned from the process of his own personal suffering [in Argentina, under the 1976-1983 military junta]. As his leadership unfolds, it will prove to be a liberating process for the world," predicted the priest.
Sources in Rome point to the Pope’s selection of Archbishop Pietro Parolin as secretary of state as more evidence that oppressive aspects of the Cuban regime are on the Vatican’s radar.
Archbishop Parolin’s most recent post was papal nuncio to Venezuela, since 2009. In this capacity, he managed the Church’s firm stance against President Hugo Chavez’s encroaching state control on personal and religious freedom.
"This is a man who went toe-to-toe with the Chavistas and did not blink," observed a priest close to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Third, Pope Francis carefully studied Pope John Paul II’s historical pilgrimage to Cuba in 1998.
He edited a book, Diálogos Entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro (Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro), in Spanish in 1998, although he did not accompany Pope John Paul II on the trip, according to the Havana Archdiocese.
While on the island, one of Blessed John Paul II’s most famous prayers was, "Let Cuba open itself to the world, and let the world open itself to Cuba."
Catholics who care about Cuba are praying that Pope Francis will send a fresh breeze of solidarity toward a nation still locked against the rest of the world.
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.
He is a contributor to
Foreign Affairs magazine.