Cardinal Jaime Ortega: A Product of Two Castros, Three Popes, One Discreet US Hand

NEWS ANALYSIS: Havana’s retired archbishop’s July 26 death compels a review of his complex legacy.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega
Cardinal Jaime Ortega (photo: Public domain/Wikipedia)

Editor’s Note: Longtime Cuba observer Victor Gaetan spent six weeks in Havana during Lent 2010, at the height of tension over political prisoners soon after Orlando Zapata Tamayo died following his hunger strike over prison conditions. Gaetan saw the “Ladies in White” — a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners who were freed as part of a 2010 agreement being spat on in the street. He met seminarians, nuns and religious, many doing extraordinary, selfless work for the poor. He spent time with lay leader Oswaldo Paya, a devout Catholic with a vision of how the Church should lead a peaceful transition to democratic institutions. And he interviewed Cardinal Jaime Ortega twice briefly.


Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino was criticized by many Cuban Americans as being too close to Cuba’s dictatorial regime. Yet, even in death, state officials found a way to humiliate the Cuban archbishop: Prominent Catholics, including priests, were denied entry to the cardinal’s requiem Mass on July 26, while secular politicians sat in front pews, including the island’s first vice president.

The speedy scheduling of his interment, held less than 48 hours after his death at age 82, is suspected of being related to the regime’s recent clampdown on public assembly, including a ban on religious processions.

Just days after Cardinal Ortega’s funeral, Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs revoked the Catholic Church’s permits for National Catholic Youth Day celebrations, an Aug. 4 retreat involving more than 3,000 youth. Organizers responded by holding the event inside Church property.

Welcome to the Church in Cuba, fashioned by one of the Western Hemisphere’s most controversial Churchmen: Jaime Ortega, Havana’s archbishop for the last 38 years and cardinal for the last 25.

“In the political realm, he made too many concessions to the regime,” summarized Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, spokesman for the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate, in a conversation with the Register. On the other hand, a peer who knew him well, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, called the cardinal “a dedicated man of the Church and an exemplary Cuban.”

Cardinal Ortega’s death compels a review of his complex legacy.

For the Church, which is still feared by authorities as a locus of potential political opposition — a Church still persecuted (think of the Ladies in White, beat up as they march for freedom after Mass each Sunday) and cynically manipulated (think of how the communist regime has used papal visits in 1998, 2012 and 2015 to elevate its global reputation) — is also fruitful and dynamic as a result of Cardinal Ortega’s leadership.


Rome Kept Its Eye on the Island

Jaime Ortega was no rogue actor. From the start, Rome was with him.

Despite Fidel Castro’s harsh suppression of the Church in the first years of the revolution, with hundreds of foreign-born priests and religious expelled, schools confiscated and local priests harassed or jailed or sent into exile, the Holy See never withdrew its diplomatic presence.

Msgr. Cesare Zacchi served as the pope’s representative in Havana from 1961 to 1975.

He is credited with persuading Castro to curtail plans to send priests to work camps and to release those detained, including Father Jaime Ortega, who was confined for about eight months, beginning in 1966.

Father Ortega returned to his hometown in Matanzas province on the northern shore of the island after his ordeal. He was assigned to a parish, but there was such a shortage of priests that he covered multiple parishes, like others of his generation. He also commuted to Havana to teach moral theology at the seminary. Before his 1964 ordination, he had spent several years studying theology at the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Quebec, Canada.

Just six weeks after taking office in 1978, Pope John Paul II named Father Ortega the bishop of Pinar del Rio in western Cuba. He was consecrated by the apostolic nuncio and Havana Archbishop Francisco Ricardo Oves-Fernandez.

A mere three years later, in 1981, John Paul II elevated Bishop Ortega to the Church’s premier post on the island, archbishop of Havana (with Fidel Castro’s agreement, Cardinal Ortega told me in Havana in 2010).

The circumstances were odd. He was named to replace Archbishop Oves-Fernandez, who was still alive but “diagnosed” with bad nerves, shipped to Rome and then to El Paso, Texas, where he served until a heart attack killed him in 1990.

Archbishop Oves-Fernandez’s fate resembles that of Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty and Czech Cardinal Josef Beran: All were seen as being sacrificed in the Vatican’s efforts to placate communist regimes.

It was said Fidel Castro never liked Archbishop Oves-Fernandez, who had been evicted from the island on a boat to Spain with some 150 priests in 1961. He made his way to the Holy See, where he enlisted help to get back to Cuba, with Msgr. Zacchi paving the way. Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop in 1970, but he was never accepted as an interlocutor by the government, which would only deal with the nunciature. Castro clearly made room for Cardinal Ortega.


Archbishop Ortega’s First 10 Years

Three major accomplishments marked the archbishop’s first 10 years as Cuba’s leading Catholic: new outreach to the Church beyond the island, especially to the nearby Church in the U.S.; new engagement for laity; and expanded charitable service to all, across the island.

Cardinal Ortega invited Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami to his 1981 installation, the first visit to Cuba by an American prelate in more than 20 years. With that gesture, Cardinal Ortega initiated a relationship between the Churches in Cuba and the U.S. that has been an ongoing source of financial and spiritual assistance to this day. In 1985, the two bishops’ conferences sponsored exchanges between their countries.

That year, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law visited Havana, meeting not only Cardinal Ortega but also Fidel Castro. Cardinal Law returned to Cuba in 1989. He initiated a program of direct aid between the Boston Archdiocese and the Church in Cuba, which also continues to this day. Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s presence at Cardinal Ortega’s funeral signified this close tie.

What led the Cuban government to allow this relationship to bloom, despite considering Washington, D.C., to be Enemy No. 1, was the fact that, since 1972, the U.S. bishops publicly opposed U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. The Church in the U.S. also represents wealth, resources and connections.

Even as a parish priest in Matanzas, when the Church was under regular attack (accused of being a bourgeois or counterrevolutionary force), Cardinal Ortega was noted for his strong commitment to catechism and lay involvement. This took a national dimension in the 1980s, with a renewal and reflection process that culminated in the historic 1986 Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano (ENEC), a gathering of priests, religious and laity. Consultations that engaged regular Catholics to think strategically about the future of the Church were considered a turning point.

As Catholic lay leader Oswaldo Paya told the Register in 2010, “ENEC had a tremendous impact on the Church’s orientation toward power.” The main debate was whether Christians should join communist structures, and initiate change from within, or remain outside.

As Paya explained, “The result was a decision on a plan with two main points: First, the Church had to go out and meet the Cuban people with the Gospel, and, second, no matter how difficult the conditions, the Church had to stay on Christ’s tasks. For the laity, this meant staying in your work and giving witness wherever you found yourself.”

The Catholic-led organization Christian Liberation Movement was a fruit of the ENEC process.

Archbishop Ortega’s third high-impact initiative in his first decade of service was founding Caritas Cuba in 1991, the first non-government-controlled charity since the revolution. Caritas provides an astonishing range of social services, including elder care, preschool programs, HIV/AIDs treatment and physical therapy, as well as food, clothing and medicine.


Welcoming John Paul II to Cuba

The demise of the Soviet Union caused the decimation of Cuba’s economy, dependent as it was on massive Soviet subsidies, especially for oil. Suddenly, Cubans did not have enough food. Electricity blackouts were a daily occurrence. Caritas Cuba was a mainstay of assistance. Using parishes as a distribution network, donations from around the world were funneled to the many poor.

The regime certainly did not shut down or restrict this aid during the “Special Period,” as the crisis was called, and the Church gained status and renewed privileges, such as visas for priests from abroad. In 1992, Castro began referring to Cuba as a secular state, not an atheistic one.

Scrambling to stay afloat and reimagine a future without Big Brother, Castro reached out to the Holy See, among other strategies. (Eventually, Venezuela came to the rescue, with free oil shipments when Hugo Chavez was elected president.)  

Archbishop Ortega, elevated to cardinal in 1994 (again, as agreed between Fidel Castro and John Paul II), helped facilitate Fidel Castro’s 1996 Vatican meeting with Pope John Paul II, who brought up normalizing the role of the Church, which had only 250 priests on the island at the time.

The Vatican immediately confirmed the Pope’s intention to visit Cuba, the first papal pilgrimage there. Even before the Holy Father arrived, the Church in Cuba gained new respect. For example, Castro reinstated Christmas as a national holiday in December 1997, having annulled it in 1968.

Pope St. John Paul II’s five-day visit was indeed monumental, with cascading impacts, large and small.

“After this visit, our community life has always been in crescendo,” Cardinal Ortega told the Register.

Meanwhile, religious processions were reinstated on the island. Construction began on a new seminary, the cornerstone of which the Holy Father had blessed. (Financed mainly by the Knights of Columbus, it opened in 2010.) Permits for repairs to Catholic churches were finally given. And a new pro-life movement began to grow, among medical professionals as well as the faithful.

But many were likely praying for a popular movement also to emerge, as occurred in John Paul II’s native Poland, that was willing to challenge the communist government, serving as a grassroots groundswell to balance the elite-level dialogue that Cardinal Ortega and Vatican officials were carrying out with the Castro regime.

A Cuban analogue to Poland’s Solidarity movement did flower in the years following John Paul II’s pilgrimage: The Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), founded by Paya and others and centered in a Havana parish, began collecting signatures for a referendum to change the constitution and introduce democracy. They successfully gathered more than 25,000 signatures when the effort was decapitated with the “Black Spring” arrests of some 75 leaders in 2003. These political prisoners were given harsh sentences and jailed across the island, ending the most authentic collective struggle for liberty Cuba had witnessed since 1959.


Between the Beatitudes and Brutality

Cardinal Ortega continued to broaden and deepen the Catholic Church’s role on the island in the first decade of the millennium. Besides providing services to the needy, many parishes began offering classes in subjects such as foreign languages, theater and, more recently, business, as the state cautiously allowed some private small enterprise.

What also grew after the “Black Spring” repression was a movement of women protesting the incarceration of their husbands and sons.

Every Sunday after Mass at St. Rita’s Church in Havana, women dressed in white, often carrying gladiolas, marched in silent protest — the Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”). As their gatherings grew, so did harassment by state security, which sent agents to jeer, spit and intimidate them.

When I met a group of the ladies during Lent 2010 at the Payas’ house, which served as a gathering place, they were at their wits’ end: After seven years in horrendous prison conditions, many of their male relatives were sick. A political prisoner, Orlando Zapata, had died in February as a result of a hunger strike initiated to protest prison conditions.

The ladies brought their plight to Cardinal Ortega’s attention, although he did not publicly embrace or encourage the MCL movement. (As he told the Register, “The Church cannot be a political party or opposition.”)

The archbishop helped get a ban lifted on the ladies’ weekly gatherings and accompanied them at St. Rita’s in May 2010. His engagement, together with Spain’s foreign minister, led to negotiation of a mass prisoner release. The problem was, to gain freedom, the dissidents had to accept forced exile, mainly in Spain — a conditional release that led many to criticize the deal and Cardinal Ortega’s involvement.

By August 2010, the cardinal’s relations with high-level U.S. government officials, sometimes on Castro’s behalf (mainly, strategizing to lift the economic embargo), were unprecedented: He had discreet meetings in Washington with President Barack Obama’s chairman of the National Security Council; at the State Department; and with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, now the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. That same month, the cardinal received the highest honor bestowed by the Knights of Columbus: the Gaudium et Spes Award, with an honorarium of $100,000. The first recipient was Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1992.

But tragedy dogged Catholic lay leaders who tried to open political space for liberty.

Just five months after Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in 2012, Paya and a seminarian assistant, Harold Cepero, were murdered when the car in which they were passengers was rear-ended on a clear sunny day.

Cardinal Ortega presided at Paya’s funeral Mass.

“We didn’t invite him; he just appeared,” Ofelia Acevedo, Paya’s widow, recounted to the Register. “We were in such shock. Oswaldo was a well-known Catholic. Of course, the cardinal would want to come.”

State security arrested numerous mourners that day. Pictures of the cardinal that day show an utterly drained man.


Mediator for Pope Francis

It is said Benedict XVI decided to resign soon after he returned to Rome from Cuba.

As a fellow Latino bishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega had known Jorge Bergoglio for decades. The Argentinian had participated in Pope St. John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Cuba and even written a book about it. Cardinal Ortega is the source for what we know about Pope Francis’ pivotal talk during the conclave: As a result of his request for the Pope’s notes, Francis gave the Cuban permission to post them in the Havana archdiocesan magazine.

The most important role entrusted to Cardinal Ortega by the Holy Father, however, was to serve as his personal messenger.

At the critical first phase of the Holy See’s mediation between the U.S. and Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations, Cardinal Ortega delivered letters to President Raul Castro and President Obama in person on behalf of the Pontiff. (Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick offered to bring the letter from Cuba to the White House, but Cardinal Ortega would not let him.)

Arguably, the U.S.-Cuba agreement and prisoner exchange would not have been possible without Cardinal Ortega’s decadeslong cultivation of trust with the ruling regime.


‘It Did Work’

German Miret, a Catholic activist, author and retired businessman in Miami, has given much thought to the situation of his beloved Church and homeland.

Speaking with the Register about Cardinal Ortega’s legacy, Miret was at first cool: “When he negotiated with the government for the prisoners, they were not liberated. It was a mandatory move from jail to exile. That was not an achievement. It was no high point.”

As he broadened his lens, though, reflecting on the Church today, he revised his conclusion: “It seems to have worked. It did work. Many priests are doing a great job in Cuba. The hierarchy has sustained the Catholic Church by compromising, but the priests are doing a different job: talking to people, including young people. The Holy Spirit is working. I understand there are a lot of young people in the Church now, and there weren’t before.”

Orlando Gutierrez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate confirmed positive trends on the island.

“We are seeing a lot of activity, not among traditional human-rights organizations, but a new wave of civil society emerging,” he said. “What they have in common is: They want a free society.”

A wide range of Christian groups is now mobilizing. Among emerging leaders are a new generation of Catholic priests.

“I think the Church has done a tremendous job showing Christ’s faith and inspiring youth. This will have a big impact,” added Gutierrez.

“If the hierarchy had not done what it did, the Church would not have survived. It is an ambiguous situation, so you have to look at both sides of the coin,” said Miret. “The hierarchy had to deal with the government, so they did. Now, Masses are being said; the word is being preached; churches have been remodeled.”

In January, the first new church constructed since 1959 opened in Sandino, Cuba. It was built with funds raised by Tampa’s St. Lawrence Catholic Church on land donated by the state.

Miret added, “And a lot of work is being done with money from the Catholics outside — like the new seminary. Young priests are coming from there. So we all play our role.”

Such words are music to Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s ears.

Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international

correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine and The American Spectator.