Cuba's Catholic cardinal says country in crisis
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Cuba's outspoken Roman Catholic cardinal says the country is
in one of its worst crises in recent times and that its people are
demanding political and economic changes sooner rather than later.
Jaime Ortega, the top Catholic cleric on the island, also called on Cuba
and the United States to restart a meaningful dialogue to normalize
relations, in an interview that appeared Monday in the church's official
Ortega said Cubans are openly talking about the deficiencies of their
socialist system, what he called a Stalinist-style bureaucracy and a
grinding lack of worker productivity.
"Our country finds itself in a very difficult situation," Ortega said in
the interview with Palabra Nueva - New Word. "Certainly the most
difficult times that we have lived in the 21st century."
He said that many differ over how to solve the nation's woes, but that
all agree on one thing: "that the necessary changes are made in Cuba
"I think this feeling has become a form of national consensus, and its
delay is producing impatience and unease among the people," Ortega said.
Cuba is mired in what many consider its worst economic rut since the
severe shortages of the so-called "special period" in the early 1990s
that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The island is dealing
with the fallout from three devastating 2008 hurricanes, a downturn in
world tourism and the global liquidity crisis.
President Raul Castro and other top Cuban officials have urged people to
work harder and warned that many state subsidies will have to be scaled
back. Cubans make tiny salaries of about $20 a month, but in return the
state provides free or near-free health care, education, housing and
Ortega is known for his straight talk on current events and sometimes
makes pronouncements that conflict with the communist government's
In the interview, the 73-year-old clergyman also criticized President
Barack Obama for failing to restart a genuine dialogue with Cuba. Ortega
said that the U.S. leader has fallen into the same pattern as his
predecessors by demanding democratic reforms and an improvement in human
rights as a prerequisite to end Washington's 48-year embargo, when those
things should instead be the final goal of any talks.
"Once again, the old (American) policy prevails: to begin at the end,"
Ortega said. "I am convinced that the first thing should be to meet,
talk and advance a dialogue. ... That is the civilized way to confront
Cuba never outlawed religion but expelled priests and closed church
schools following the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in
Tensions eased in the early 1990s, when the government removed
references to atheism from the constitution and let believers of all
faiths join the Communist Party. They warmed even more as a result of
Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.