Havana’s Cardinal Ortega: Stepping Down and Staying Put

NEWS ANALYSIS: Cuba’s long-time archbishop resigns, but like the Castro brothers, is staying in the public eye.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, retired archbishop of Havana; below, with Fidel and Raul Castro and with U.S. Secretaty of State John Kerry, and at bottom, Victor Gaetan interviews the cardinal.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, retired archbishop of Havana; below, with Fidel and Raul Castro and with U.S. Secretaty of State John Kerry, and at bottom, Victor Gaetan interviews the cardinal. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — In his final homily as archbishop of Havana on May 8, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino assured a packed cathedral that bishops never retire.

“Cardinal Jaime Ortega … will continue to serve the Church in Cuba and our people … because the bishop is a priest in fullness and serves until death,” he declared, using the third person. Ortega turns 80 in October.

He will move to a former seminary, now a cultural center, directly behind the Havana cathedral.

The Vatican announced on April 26 the acceptance of the cardinal’s required letter of resignation at age 75 — four years after he offered it — and the appointment of Archbishop Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriquez, 67, to lead Cuba’s most populous city.

Archbishop Garcia is a low-profile shepherd who has quietly led the Church in the eastern city of Camaguey since 2002.

Described as a bishop in the Pope’s mold, “with the smell of his sheep,” Archbishop Garcia represented Cuba at the all-important 2007 meeting of Latin-American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, where Pope Francis played a leading role.


Thanks to the Government

Pivotal to Cardinal Ortega’s 35-year tenure have been relationships developed with President Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, who took power in 2006.

On May 8, the cardinal thanked the government for “advancing without setback, through critical periods and difficult times, a path of dialogue not understood by many.”

He offered “special thanks” to President Raul Castro for giving “decisive impetus” to dialogue, highlighting U.S.-Cuba normalization talks in 2014, when Cardinal Ortega served as a personal messenger between Pope Francis and the heads of state.

Cardinal Ortega’s critics claim he became too close to the regime, refusing to confront it over an abysmal human-rights record, the routine harassment and detention of political opponents and a dysfunctional economy that has impoverished the population for decades.

“The Church has the same talking points as the Castro regime,” Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, told Reuters last fall. The Ladies in White meet every Sunday at St. Rita Church in Havana and march after Mass to protest the incarceration of political prisoners — whose existence Cardinal Ortega denied in an interview with Spanish radio last year.

Although he successfully negotiated the release of 126 political prisoners in 2010-2011, he compelled them to accept exile in Spain, which was the government’s position.

“In exchange for concessions for his Church, he ingratiated himself with the Castro regime to such a degree that he ended up being perceived as one more component of it,” declared a May 1 editorial on Diario de Cuba, a popular news site representing views of the Cuban exile.

One thing the Castro regime proves: An aging elite retains power on the island.


Despite being described 10 years ago as close to death, Fidel still dominates state-controlled media when he wants. After President Barack Obama’s historic visit in March, Fidel wrote an article criticizing him for being disingenuous.

President Raul Castro already announced his resignation in two years, but remains large and in charge on innumerable fronts.


Martyrs of the Church

As a result of the Castro family’s longevity, Cuban-American Catholics like German Miret don’t imagine Cardinal Ortega departing soon.

Miret, a lay leader and author of Martyrs of the Church in Cuba (Alexandria Library, 2016), told the Register, “We don’t expect the cardinal to go away.”

He continued, “Archbishop Garcia will probably work more in the Church itself, with the people, and leave the political aspects to Cardinal Ortega. Anything could happen in Cuba. How long can the repression go on? But as long as Raul is in charge, the cardinal will represent the Church before the power. That’s what many of us [in Miami] assume.”

“Archbishop Garcia is a good man — I’ve heard that repeatedly. He will be a missionary. He is a man of the people. All I hear is praise for him from other Cuban-Americans,” said the author.

Miret added that his community hopes to welcome Archbishop Garcia to Miami: “With Cardinal Ortega, it has been tense, for quite a while. This new archbishop has no past of disappointment. He can start a new life with the Cuban exile.”

“We are 1 million Catholics, or 1.5 million, in exile, and we would receive him with open arms, with open hearts,” Miret concluded.


Unique Case

No doubt, Cardinal Ortega gained new space for the Catholic Church in Cuba. From a political perspective, Cardinal Ortega’s legacy is indisputable.

When he became archbishop in 1981, the Catholic Church was still a pariah. People worked on Christmas. Public displays of religion were banned. The Cuba Constitution called the country “an atheist state.” A Christian could not hold a position of authority.

Thirty-five years later, the only dynamic institution outside government control is the Catholic Church.

The state is now officially secular, not atheistic. Christmas and Good Friday are respected as holidays. Religious processions are national occasions.

Permission was granted, first, for church repairs, and then a new convent and new seminary. Now, the first new church since the 1959 communist revolution is under construction, appropriately named St. John Paul II Church.

In Havana’s huge Revolution Square, typically associated with Fidel Castro’s bombastic tirades against capitalism and the United States, three popes have said Mass during global-news-generating visits managed by Cardinal Ortega: St. John Paul in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and Pope Francis in 2015.

Meanwhile, government officials look the other way — because technically it is illegal — while the Church provides child care, education, elderly care, medical assistance and charitable donations across the country.

Cardinal Ortega has overseen this transition.

And he has shaped it in critical ways by leveraging opportunities to influence the all-powerful Castro brothers — founders of the communist dictatorship that sent the young Father Ortega to a brutal labor camp for eight months, beginning in 1967, as punishment for his faith.


Myth and Reality

Sociologist Juan Clark confirms Cardinal Ortega was persecuted for being a priest with a special connection to youth in Castro’s Revolution, Myth and Reality (Alexandria Library, 2016), published this year for the first time in English.

The forced labor camps were organized during the height of an intense campaign against religion designed to decimate the Church’s influence on the island. Psychological and physical torture was routine in the camps, called Military Units to Aid Production, closed in 1968.

As Clark recounts, the objective was to destroy potential rival authority to the revolution’s dictatorship, and it extended from the 1960s into the 1980s.

Besides confiscating all Church property and closing Catholic schools, Fidel Castro tried to establish a government-controlled national church, along the lines of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, but the dictator could not find a priest willing to endorse schism.

Instead, he opted for a highly suppressed Church, functioning under his thumb.

The myth was that Cuba’s revolution didn’t outlaw Christianity, and the constitution of 1976 even guarantees freedom of worship; the reality was that Christians were punished and the Catholic Church was marginalized in innumerable, significant ways.


Lay Catholics Find a Voice

Two developments between 1985 and 1995 created the conditions for a new relationship between Church and state: The birth of a Christian lay movement created greater moral resolve among believers to resist the dictatorship by creating new forms of fellowship, and the regime itself began to perceive the Catholic hierarchy as a potential ally — especially because the Church has long opposed, on humanitarian grounds, the economic embargo against Cuba.

The Church faced a crisis by the mid-1980s. Church attendance across the island was an estimated 85,000, or less than 1% of the population.

So the Church initiated a consultative process engaging laypeople and the approximately 200 priests still serving the entire nation, which culminated in the Cuban National Ecclesial Encounter (ENAC) in 1986.  

“ENAC helped us realize that, staying true to our values, and close to Christ, we could triumph. Not through the government, but in solidarity with each other, in small Christian gatherings,” lay Catholic leader Oswaldo Paya, told the Register in 2010.

In 1987, Paya, his wife, Ofelia, and others formed the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) “for liberation from fear, from hate, from the culture of fear — everything the regime does to put the people on the defensive, and we say very clearly what inspires us.”


Economic Collapse

Fidel Castro began demonstrating a new attitude toward Catholicism in 1985, when he published a book-length interview with a Brazilian Marxist priest, titled Fidel and Religion: Conversations With Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology.

What really propelled Castro’s enthusiasm for a “strategic alliance” with the Church was the near collapse of the island’s economy in the 1990s.

With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost massive subsidies, its primary export market and most of the petroleum it imported from the Soviet Union at below-market prices — providing virtually all of the island’s fuel as well as hard currency, since the country re-exported what it didn’t use.

Cuba’s economy went into freefall. The “Special Period” of extreme hardship brought the country close to famine and extended until the end of the decade.

Struggling to survive, one of Fidel’s gambits was to reach out to the Vatican, and Cardinal Ortega obliged, facilitating Castro’s meeting with St. John Paul II at the Holy See 20 years ago — laying the groundwork for John Paul’s historic pilgrimage to Cuba in 1998.


Opening to the World

St. John Paul II’s visit to Cuba revitalized the Church. At least symbolically and for a few days, political authorities deferred to the pontiff’s message of faith, hope and love.

The saint’s most resonant words became a leitmotif for the next two decades: “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.”

The visit established a pattern of collaboration between the Castro brothers and Cardinal Ortega that shaped their interaction, orienting toward pragmatism and problem solving, to this day.

However, a core tension lies at the heart of a Faustian pact: Deference to an immoral government on behalf of a religion that worships Jesus Christ, who refused to capitulate to earthly power, is hard to sustain. Unity is sacrificed.

Based on his experience in Poland, St. John Paul II read the situation of communism in Cuba as requiring a long view and a non-confrontational spirit. The saint empowered Jaime Ortega as archbishop in 1981, elevated him as cardinal in 1994 and trusted him with the momentous task of managing his visit.

However, in Poland, the Pope participated in, and oversaw, a two-prong strategy: dialogue among elites concurrent with a grassroots revolt (Solidarity) against the regime.

Cuba’s version of Solidarity, MCL, was successfully crushed, despite promising beginnings within the Church. After collecting more than 25,000 signatures for a referendum to change the constitution and introduce greater democracy and freedom, the MCL’s Varela Project was decapitated in 2003, with the arrest of some 75 leaders, in a crackdown known as the “Black Spring.”

In communist Eastern Europe, the Church’s so-called Ostpolitik strategy lasted from 1964 to 1989. In Cuba, it is entering its fourth decade, with little evidence of a popular movement like Solidarity — unfortunately, in part, due to the Church’s decision to distance itself from MCL, under Cardinal Ortega’s influence. During Pope Francis’ visit, the cardinal found the time for the Holy Father to meet with Fidel, but not with the Ladies in White.


Close Encounter

On a rainy Saturday night in April 2010, I slipped into the back pew of a jewel-like chapel tucked under the arm of Havana’s massive 18th-century Baroque cathedral.

Cardinal Ortega was quietly offering a Lenten lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture) before some 60 deeply attentive parishioners. Accompanied by no assistants, and engrossed in the passage, he spoke for more than an hour.

Later, the cardinal told the Register he believes St. John Paul II unlocked progress for the Church on the island: “After the visit of the Pope, our community life has always been in crescendo. We are living in a more normal situation than before.”

The cardinal told me the Church in Cuba must not be an opposition party, because that’s not her role. Asked about Oswaldo Paya, he said, “The leader [of MCL] is a good Catholic man, but he doesn’t really have a program.”

He told me to look up Manuel Cuesta Morua, “a socialist, a very intelligent man with a program,” who is president of Arco Progresista, a social democratic political party.

Last year, Cuesta Morua, true to his ideology, could be heard saluting Venezuela’s “democratic” institutions, suggesting Venezuela (despite being in the throes of economic collapse as a result of corrupt, socialist policies) as a country Cuba should emulate.


Dying for a Cause

In 2012, Cardinal Ortega and Cuba’s most promising Catholic lay leader finally came together under horrible circumstances.

Paya and his colleague, former seminarian Harold Cepero, were killed in a suspicious midday car accident, on a flat road, in perfect weather, with few other cars around. Extensive evidence — and the driver’s recollection — point to state security involvement.

Cardinal Ortega agreed to concelebrate Paya’s funeral Mass.

The archbishop observed, “Oswaldo had a clear political vocation, and this, as a good Christian, not away from his faith or religious practice. On the contrary, he always sought inspiration in faith for political choices” — a habit that can get you murdered on that tragedy-laden island.

Despite the criticisms, Cardinal Ortega was able, over time, to persuade the atheistic Cuban government to let the Catholic Church minister to her flock. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told the Miami Herald, “It’s hard for someone here to do Monday-morning quarterbacking on Cardinal Ortega. He did what he thought was best, and he did make a positive contribution to the Church in Cuba.”


Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning

international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.