A week after former President Fidel Castro gave his valedictory speech, signaling the end of an era in Cuba’s political life, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s resignation as Archbishop of Havana, a milestone in the life of Cuba’s Catholic Church.
He will be succeeded by Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, the archbishop of the city of Camagüey, as the new archbishop of Cuba’s capital.
For us, the retirement of the Cuban Catholic Church leader who, as Reuters put it, “became an influential figure where he was once despised and played a key role in the détente with the United States,” deserves a moment of reflectionfor these four key reasons.
He was the real deal
Cardinal Ortega, born in a sugar mill town in Matanzas Province, was ordained a priest in 1964, a moment that Cuba scholar Meg Crahan remembered as a challenging time for Cuba’s Catholics, when religious figures joined the exodus of other Cubans off the island and official discrimination was visited upon individuals “who made religion a way of life.”
Ortega, as the Washington Post wrote “was sent to a reeducation camp and forced to do manual labor, as the church struggled in a state that had declared itself officially atheist.” He was there for eight months.
After serving as a parish priest, he became bishop of Pinar del Río in 1978, and was appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1981. His rise in leadership coincided with gradual changes in the government’s attitude toward the Church which he, in turn, helped leverage to create greater space for its religious and social missions.
During the Special Period, a time of privation on the island after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Church used this larger space, as Meg Crahan wrote, to confront its failure to identify strongly enough with the struggle for social justice, before and after the Cuban Revolution.
As Ortega helped bring the Church in from the cold, it came to have the greatest influence and reach since 1959, as the New York Times put it, receiving permission to build more churches and conduct public festivals, and becoming a space for dialogue about Cuba’s politics and future. Its growing role now includes, as the Miami Herald said, “helping people with all aspects of life, from providing soup kitchens and disaster relief to business training.”
He made significant contributions to human rights in Cuba and reconciliation with the U.S.
Cardinal Ortega turned a dialogue with President Raúl Castro on the harassment of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers formed to support family members serving long prison terms, into a process that led to the release of dozens of political prisoners including all the remaining dissidents imprisoned following a 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.
He also played a vital supporting role in the behind-the-scenes drama that led to the reestablishment of ties between Cuba and the United States. In 2014, as Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande recount in their book Back Channel to Cuba, Cardinal Ortega hand-delivered letters from Pope Francis to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and, in a secret visit to Washington, D.C., to President Obama offering his pastoral support for the diplomatic process.
Philip Peters, head of the Cuba Research Center, told Reuters, “It’s fair to say that the church’s role was pivotal, and Cardinal Ortega was at the center of it… He interceded quietly with both presidents, with Pope Francis, with U.S. senators, and others, to press both governments to re-establish relations.” As Carlos Saladrigas, of the Cuba Study Group, told the New York Times, “Ortega will go into the Cuban history books as a key player… He has pushed the boundaries very far.”
His courage made him a target of character assassins in the U.S.
After the Cardinal succeeded in getting political prisoners released in Cuba – a major goal of U.S. policy – domestic opponents of improved bilateral relations attacked Cardinal Ortega for engaging in negotiations rather than confrontation with Cuba’s government.
As the Washington Post reported, the Cardinal was called “a bootlicker” by a Florida-based columnist. Even the head of Radio and TV Martí, Carlos García-Pérez, published an article on his U.S. government financed website, in which he wrote”This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God.”
Yet, as Harvard Professor Jorge Domínguez observed at the time, “Who freed the political prisoners in Cuba? Not the European Union. Not the U.S. government. And not Radio and TV Martí. It was Ortega who convinced Raúl Castro to let them out.”
Even this week, Babalú Blog ran a crude cartoon labeling him “a Castro snitch with or without his priestly vestment,” proving no good deed goes unpunished even five years later.
His successor has big slippers to fill
His successor, Archbishop García, has been Archbishop of Camagüey since 2002. Since serving as a priest, he “has worked quietly to help rebuild the Cuban church, physically and spiritually,” and “has been described as a bishop in the style of Pope Francis,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.
His reputation as a man with a common touch was referenced in a statement by the Standing Committee of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops which read, in part, “As Pope Francis characterized him, one can say that the man named Archbishop of Havana is a shepherd who ‘has the smell of his sheep.'”
Archbishop García has praised Cardinal Ortega’s legacy, and says “we will try to continue his work,” though it is not yet clear whether he will he will carry forward Cardinal Ortega’s diplomatic work.
At age 67, he enters the arena at an exceptional and historic moment. As Carlos Saladrigas commented to the New York Times this week, “Clearly everyone hopes that he will continue to push things along.” Read the rest of this entry »