Cubans united on need for change, says Roman Catholic cardinal Jaime Ortega
James Bone in New York
Cuba's foremost Roman Catholic said that Cubans are growing impatient
for change to address the island's worst crisis in more than a decade.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega told the church newsletter Palabra Nueva (New
Word) that Cubans were now united on the need for change.
"Our country finds itself in a very difficult situation. Certainly the
most difficult times that we have lived in in the 21st century,"
Cardinal Ortega said.
Although differences remain on how to address the country's woes, he
said that all agree "that the necessary changes are made in Cuba quickly".
"I think this feeling has become a form of national consensus, and its
delay is producing impatience and unease among the people," the cardinal
Cuba is facing what many consider its worst economic crisis since the
"Special Period" in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union,
which subsidised its communist system.
The devastation caused by three hurricanes in 2008 has been compounded
by a downturn in tourism and a fall in remittances from Cuban-Americans
because of the worldwide economic crisis and the depressed price of
nickel, its principal export.
The Cuban Government has cracked down on political opposition since a
prominent dissident, Orlando ZapataTamayo, died after an 82-day hunger
strike in prison in February.
Pro-government demonstrators have begun to disrupt the regular protest
marches after Sunday Mass by the "Ladies in White" — the wives of
political prisoners jailed in the 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.
Raúl Castro, 78, the Cuban President, recognised the need to reform when
he took over from his brother, Fidel, 83, four years ago. He warned
recently that, while many desperate Cubans were seeking immediate
change, it was vital to avoid "haste and improvisation".
The Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest independent institution
Though religion was never formally banned after the 1959 Cuban
Revolution, Catholic priests were expelled and Catholic schools closed.
The Government removed references to atheism in the Cuban constitituion
as tensions eased in the early 1990s, and Pope John Paul II paid a
historic visit to the island in 1998.
Grassroots Catholics played a major part in a 2002 democracy movement
known as "Project Varela" — named after a Catholic priest and Cuban
independence hero Felix Varela — that was later crushed by the Government.
The church hierarchy has often refrained from speaking out against
government abuses and Cardinal Ortega is generally cautious in his
In recent weeks, however, the Church has warned that the worsening
crisis could fracture the island's fragile social cohesion.
The church has backed efforts to encourage self-employment, which has
been legal but restricted since 1993 in an economy that is 95 per cent
It has also urged greater use of performance-based pay, an increase in
exports and better protection of foreign investment.
In Palabra Nueva, Cardinal Ortega, 73, called on the Cuban Government to
release its estimated 200 political prisoners and lamented the death of
Mr Zapata and the harassment of the Ladies in White. He also called on
the dissident journalist Guillermo Fariñas to end a hunger strike that
he began on the day that Mr Zapata died.
Cardinal Ortega also criticised President Obama for failing to open a
dialogue with Cuba by demanding democratic reforms before talks begin.
"Once again the old (American) policy prevails: to begin at the end,"
Cardinal Ortega said. "I am convinced that the first thing should be to
meet, talk and advance a dialogue. That is the civilised way to confront