THE OPPENHEIMER REPORT
Cuban cardinal says too little, too late
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
After many years of shameful passivity, Cuba's Roman Catholic Church
leader is finally beginning to speak out against the most blatant abuses
of Cuba's dictatorship. But he may be doing it too timidly and too late.
Earlier this week, the head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal
Jaime Ortega, made uncharacteristically strong statements in an
interview published by the Church's official magazine, Palabra Nueva
(New Word). There were headlines around the world proclaiming, ``Cuban
Church demands changes.''
Ortega, 73, said that Cuba is going through ``the most difficult times
that we have lived in the 21st Century,'' and that there is a growing
national consensus that ``necessary changes be made in Cuba quickly.''
In the interview, the cardinal addressed the international turmoil
around the recent death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner
who died after an 85-day hunger strike.
Ortega repeated earlier calls by Cuba's Conference of Bishops that the
government respect the lives of prisoners of conscience, and asked
Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident who is being fed intravenously at a
hospital since he stopped eating in February, to abandon his hunger strike.
According to the cardinal, the role of Cuba's Church should be to
``invite all sides to moderation.''
``The tragic death of a prisoner because of a hunger strike has
triggered a verbal war from U.S., Spanish and other media,'' the
cardinal stated. ``This strong media campaign contributes to
exacerbating the crisis even more. It's a form of media violence, to
which the Cuban government responds in its own way.''
Media violence? I asked myself when I read those lines. Is he blaming
the international media for reporting the death of a hunger striker who
was rotting in prison for voicing his opinions? Is he accusing the world
media of reporting the plight of Fariñas, who stopped eating to demand
that the Cuban regime release the 26 of more than 200 prisoners of
conscience who require urgent medical care?
Is the cardinal blaming international media for noting that Cuba puts
people in jail for peacefully voicing their opinions? Is the cardinal
criticizing foreign journalists for pointing out that, unlike the United
States at the Guantánamo prison camp, Cuba does not allow the
International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons?
Intrigued, I called Fariñas to ask him about his reaction to Ortega's
statements. Fariñas was obviously glad that the cardinal had gone a
little bit farther than usual in his statements, but wasn't exactly elated.
The cardinal's statements ``were timid,'' Fariñas told me. ``He himself
was a political prisoner once, and he knows how political prisoners are
being mistreated, how they are being beaten by the same people who are
in power today.''
Why do you think Ortega is so timid? I asked. ``Because the Church
hierarchy does not want to lose the handful of benefits that it has
gotten from the government, such as permission to do seminars, some
spaces on the radio and occasional appearances on television. I'm
talking about the Church hierarchy because we can't say the same of the
priests in the countryside.''
Fariñas concluded that ``the Church should put out a stronger statement
about what's going on in Cuba. It should specifically refer to the
`repudiation acts' against the Ladies in White. So far, it has not said
that these acts of violence can only take place when they are ordered by
the regime's top authorities.''
My opinion: Judging from the format and content of the cardinal's
remarks -- a seemingly informal interview with the Church's magazine --
I would not be surprised if Ortega was under pressure from his own
bishops to be a little bit more explicit than he has been so far.
From my own interviews with Cuban bishops and priests in the past, I
know for a fact that many of them regard Ortega as too soft on Cuba's
They -- and Fariñas -- are definitely right. Latin America's Roman
Catholic Church has a long history of priests who spoke out courageously
against oppressive regimes, and in some countries, such as El Salvador
and Chile, they paid for that with prison, torture and even death.
Ortega will go down in history as a Church leader who shied away from
that basic mission. His statements are welcome, but he's no hero in my book.
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