By Jeff Franks
Monday, April 19, 2010; 6:04 PM
HAVANA (Reuters) - The leader of Cuba's Catholic Church said Cubans were
impatient for change to get the country out of what he called a "very
difficult situation" in an unusually blunt interview published on Monday.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega told church publication Palabra Nueva (New Word)
there was a national consensus that the government should "make the
necessary changes quickly" to end "economic and social difficulties" on
the communist-led island.
"Its delay produces impatience and unease in the people," he said.
"Our country is in a very difficult situation, certainly the most
difficult we have lived in this 21st century," said Ortega, whose public
statements are generally cautious.
Cuba is still suffering the effects of three hurricanes that struck in
2008 and of the global financial crisis that so depleted the island's
cash reserves that the government stopped paying bills to many foreign
President Raul Castro, who took over from ailing older brother Fidel
Castro in February 2008, has been criticized for not doing enough to
modernize Cuba's state-dominated economy.
He has said changes must be made carefully to ensure the survival of
Cuban socialism after his generation is gone.
Ortega, 73, said the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba also
affects the island, as do "the limitations of the type of socialism
Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuba's communist government
were highly contentious in the years following the 1959 revolution, but
improved since the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II.
Ortega said the church believes Cuba should release its estimated 200
political prisoners and called for the United States and Cuba to do more
to improve relations.
The cardinal lamented the February death of jailed dissident hunger
striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, as well as the harassment of the
dissident group "Ladies in White" by government supporters in recent
On Sunday, nine of the women dissidents were shouted down and jeered for
two hours by 100 government supporters who crowded around them while
they stood in a circle on Havana's Fifth Avenue.
They are demanding the release of husbands and sons imprisoned since a
2003 crackdown on government opponents.
"There should not be in our history this type of verbal and even
physical intolerance," Ortega said.
Cuban leaders say the dissidents are mercenaries working with the United
States and other enemies to topple the Cuban government.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Todd Eastham)