Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A talk with Cardinal Jaime Ortega

Posted on Tuesday, 08.31.10
A talk with Cardinal Jaime Ortega

Cardinal Jaime Ortega's role as a broker of human rights in Cuba began
with the Ladies in White. In April the archbishop of Havana was outraged
when, for two successive Sundays, thugs of the Castro regime besieged
the weekly march of women protesting on behalf of relatives who are
political prisoners. Ortega dispatched a letter to President Raúl Castro
saying that ``for the church to tolerate this in silence would be an act
of cowardice,'' he told me last week.

Ortega and other church leaders had sent many such letters to Raúl
Castro and his brother Fidel over the years. What was different about
this one, the cardinal says, is that he got an answer. Within a week,
Raúl let him know that the Ladies in White would be allowed to continue
their marches unmolested. Within a month, Ortega was at his first
meeting with Raúl Castro, who began by telling him that he intended to
release all of Cuba's political prisoners.

Since then the 73-year-old cardinal has met three more times with the
79-year-old president to talk about the prisoner releases and the
possibility of change in Cuba. Not ``reform,'' mind you, and certainly
not ``democracy'' -- Raúl Castro does not like those words. Ortega has
nevertheless come away convinced that ``this is something new,'' as he
put it to me in an interview. Castro's prisoner releases, he contends,
``open possibilities.''

What is possible? That has become an important question as Raúl Castro's
not-reform creeps forward and as Congress considers legislation that
would shred what remains of the U.S. trade ``embargo'' by lifting all
restrictions on travel to Cuba and further liberalizing food exports. So
far, two dozen imprisoned dissidents have been released into exile in
Spain, the United States and Chile; the regime has publicly committed to
free 28 others of the more than 100 who remain. On Aug. 1 Raúl Castro
announced that the government would allow more private businesses and
self-employment activity, in part as a way to occupy the 1 million
workers -- 20 percent of the state labor force -- whom the government
plans to lay off.

One view is that this is a replay of the standard Castro strategy for
extracting the regime from a bind. The Cuban economy is even worse off
than usual: Food production fell 7.5 percent in the first half of the
year, and the last sugar harvest was the worst in a century. The last
time the island faced such a severe economic crisis, in the early 1990s,
Fidel Castro also loosened controls on private enterprise. As soon as
the economy recovered, he shut down many of the businesses he had
allowed. Releases of political prisoners are also not new: Fidel Castro
did it in 1969, 1979 and 1998.

Still, some in and out of Cuba argue that Raúl Castro is up to something
different. He understands, they say, that the Stalinist regime cannot
survive in its present form, and he wants to modernize and stabilize it
before he and his brother pass away. He faces stiff resistance from
Fidel Castro -- who, after a four-year absence, began popping up in
public within days of the first prisoner release. But Raúl, it is said,
is nevertheless determined to methodically press forward with a program
of change that will extend for years, rather than months.

Cardinal Ortega seems to subscribe to the rosier view. He was in
Washington last week to collect an award from the Knights of Columbus;
but it was his second visit in two months, and he has been meeting with
officials in the Obama administration and Congress. He suggests that a
big part of Raúl Castro's agenda is improving relations with the United
States so that Cuba's economy can be revived by U.S. trade and
investment. ``He has a desire for an opening with the U.S. government,''
Ortega said. ``He repeated to me on several occasions that he is ready
to talk to the United States government directly, about every issue.''

Does that include the democratic reforms the Obama administration has
demanded as a condition for improved relations? ``Everything should be
step by step,'' Ortega said. ``It's not realistic to begin at the end.
This is a process. The most important thing is to take steps in the

I don't doubt the cardinal's sincerity. But I also find it hard to
believe that Raúl Castro is Cuba's Mikhail Gorbachev. If anything, he
resembles Yuri Andropov, one of Gorbachev's aged and ailing
predecessors, who knew the Soviet system was unsustainable but lacked
the will or the political clout to change it. Ortega may be right that
his dialogue with Raúl Castro is something new in Cuba. But the time for
real change -- and for deeper engagement by the United States -- has not
yet arrived.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post


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