Cuban cardinal pushed to close critical magazine
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
MIAMI -- A Vatican expert on Cuba told U.S. diplomats in 2007 that Cuban
Cardinal Jaime Ortega had pushed to shutter a highly regarded Roman
Catholic magazine that often criticized the communist system, according
to a State Department cable made available by WikiLeaks.
Cuba's government had wanted to close Vitral magazine for years but
feared a backlash and so "must be happy because the Church did its dirty
work for it," the expert noted. The publication wasn't closed, but its
editor resigned in a huff and its content was toned down.
Ortega's spokesman denied in an email that the church had bowed to
government pressures and said that although the Cuban government had
complained about Vitral and other church publications, "the complaints
never turned into requests for closures."
"It's not important if the fact is real or not, it's simply repeated
even though there's no firsthand source that confirms it in public,"
spokesman Orlando Marquez wrote. "It is good to ask who benefits from this."
The cable sent to the State Department by the U.S. Embassy to the
Vatican also mentioned previously unconfirmed reports that Vatican
officials at times had thought that Ortega, who also serves as the
archbishop of Havana, was too friendly with Cuban ruler Raul Castro.
"Vatican officials have hinted in the past that Ortega has become too
cozy with Castro," noted the cable, dated May 14, 2007, and classified
as "secret." It was one of more than 250,000 State Department documents
that WikiLeaks provided to McClatchy Newspapers.
Ortega recently has won wide praise for his unprecedented talks with
Castro, which helped win the release of about 115 political prisoners
over the past year. But some critics have claimed for years that he'd
failed to take a strong stance against human rights abuses. All but a
dozen of the jailed dissidents were taken directly from prison to
airplanes that flew them to Spain, in what critics have called a forced
Vitral, founded in 1994 by the Diocese of Pinar del Rio in westernmost
Cuba, was considered to be the best church publication on the island.
Its name, which means stained-glass window, referred to the rainbow of
opinions it published.
The magazine reported in April 2007 that "because of a lack of
resources, the editorial board ... will no longer be able to guarantee
publication." Director Dagoberto Valdes and most of his staff resigned.
The magazine all but halted its criticisms of the government and started
publishing every three months instead of two.
The announcement sparked speculation at the time that after Pinar del
Rio Monsignor Jose Siro Gonzalez, who backed Valdes, had retired in late
2006, his successor, Jorge Enrique Serpa Perez, had bowed to pressures
to shut down the publication.
One month later, Kirsten Madison, then-deputy assistant secretary of
state for Western Hemispheric affairs, went to the Vatican and met with
two monsignors who dealt with Cuba issues to ask their help with Vitral
and discuss the island's human rights situation, according to the cable.
One official who was new to his post repeated the version that Vitral
was closed for financial reasons, but the other was more experienced and
"offered a goldmine of information on the church in Cuba." McClatchy
isn't publishing the names because the cable asked that they be protected.
The more experienced official "said that the government had been trying
to close Vitral for years, but was afraid of the potential backlash.
When the local bishop (Siro) retired, Cardinal Ortega pressured new
Bishop Serpa to shut it down, apparently motivated by some animosity
towards the leadership of the magazine," the dispatch added.
The cable didn't detail how the official had obtained that information.
Valdes, who lives in Pinar del Rio, chuckled when the dispatch was read
to him but declined to comment. He now runs an independent online
magazine, Convivencia ("Fellowship").
"What I do know is that it (Vitral) did bother the government," he said.
An agricultural engineer, Valdes was demoted to a menial job in a state
tobacco enterprise in 1996 when he refused to stop working for the magazine.
In the emailed statement, Marquez, the communications director for the
Havana archbishopric, said Cuban bishops long had received complaints
about several church publications.
"Some of these publications dedicate more attention to the social
environment in which we live," Marquez wrote, adding that he knew of
complaints about Vitral before and after 2007 as well as the magazine
that he edits, Palabra Nueva ("New Word").
"Despite all the occasional complaints, which are not new, the bishops
have always defended the church publications before the authorities," he
Marquez noted that although the church respects the authority of each
bishop within his diocese, there was "only one occasion some years ago
in which Cardinal Ortega spoke directly with Dagoberto Valdes about Vitral."
Complaints about Vitral reached the Vatican's Embassy in Havana, he
noted, "and from that very (office) they asked Cardinal Ortega to visit
Dagoberto and talk to him about the complaints, but there was never any
talk of closing the publication."
(Tamayo reports for El Nuevo Herald in Miami.)