By Mark I. Pinsky
HAVANA — Over the past half-century, Fidel and Raul Castro have ensured
— through exile, purges and execution — that no political figure or
generation has emerged as their obvious successors. Time and again, the
brothers have stacked the ruling Cuban Communist Party with gray
hard-liners nearly as old as they are, determined to preserve their
Given this reality, post-Castro Cuba will need someone trusted by all
segments of society to help shepherd this nation into a new era, without
bloodshed or upheaval. Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop
of Havana, is that man. The son of a sugar mill worker, Ortega is
uniquely equipped to fill any power vacuum.
At this point, it's impossible to predict what the island's transition
from the communist regime to whatever follows will look like: A
spontaneous, cataclysmic rising like Iran, 1979, or implosions in
Eastern Europe, 1989, is highly unlikely, despite the hopes of the exile
community in Miami. Perhaps transition will be more like this year's
largely non-violent Arab Spring.
However, if the process resembles Chile's peaceful, slow-motion
evolution from military dictatorship to democracy during the 1980s,
Ortega will be well-positioned to exercise his influence in the economic
and political transformation.
The Vatican generally frowns on priests, bishops or cardinals taking
formal political roles, but Rome is more vague on their roles in
democratic movements. And precedents exist for Catholic prelates
assisting such transitions. Pope John Paul II and the Polish Catholic
Church he once headed are credited with hastening the 1991 downfall of
the Soviet Union, and, later, with serving as an honest broker in Poland
in the transition from Soviet-style-communism to Western democracy. In
the Philippines in 1986, Cardinal Jaime Sin was instrumental in bringing
down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Catholicism in Cuba today
For 30 years after Cuba's 1959 revolution, church attendance plummeted,
in part because of government restrictions and sanctions. Although no
reliable statistics are available, observers say the Catholic Church has
experienced a slow but steady resurgence under Ortega's leadership.
About 60% of Cubans identify themselves as Catholic, but weekly
attendance at services is estimated at just 250,000. At the same time,
the government has permitted a growing number of Protestant and
Pentecostal mission trips from the United States, posing a potential
challenge to the Catholic Church.
For now, Ortega, 74, a charming, amiable man, is ensconced behind a
nondescript gate in a poor section of this beautiful but crumbling city,
holding the key to what Cuba will look like in a post-Castro era.
Notwithstanding, he strongly — adamantly — eschews any ambition to fill
a political role. If Ortega outlives the Castro brothers, he will make
an ideal if unelected candidate to lead, a master of realpolitik who
walks a fine line between principled opposition to some government
policies, and practical accommodation to others.
Ortega is trusted — if warily — by the Castro government. He has said on
visits to the U.S. and Europe that the Cuban people's primary concern is
less with political liberalization than with a pressing need for
economic revival. He insists that the U.S. economic embargo should be
lifted— an article of faith by the regime, as well as by the
overwhelming majority of Cubans. Like Pope John Paul II, he also
criticizes the excesses of Western capitalism.
Despite Raul Castro's baby steps in the direction of a mixed economy,
the nation is in trouble, Ortega has said. And he's right, at least from
what I observed on a recent, five-day visit to Havana, my first in 30 years.
Most Cubans scramble to subsist on their common in tourist areas, and
beggars are back, making heart-rending hand gestures to their mouths,
requesting money for food. Pedicab drivers and street hawkers are
increasingly aggressive, and low-level government corruption is rampant.
Ortega has his critics, though, among Miami's more intractable opponents
of the regime, some of whom still expect to fly into Havana and take
over after the Castros. More vociferous exiles denounce Ortega as an
opportunist. None was pleased when, in 2008, the cardinal conducted a
Mass in the Cathedral of Havana for the health of ailing President Fidel
Among the most vocal skeptics about Ortega's future role is a trio of
Republican members of Congress. They are led by Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, who
once characterized Ortega as a "collaborator with the Castro regime" for
his insufficient support for dissidents. The others are both Florida
Republicans: Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
From time to time, Ortega travels to the U.S. to accept awards or
honorary degrees, and for low-profile meetings with State Department
officials. Some of Ortega's earlier U.S. visits generated controversy,
in particular invitations to conduct Masses. In May 1995, he celebrated
a Mass for 800 "brothers and sisters" in Miami, but refused to criticize
then-President Fidel Castro. He was heckled outside a Mass he conducted
in June of that year in New Jersey, called a "traitor" and "Judas."
Today, opposition websites such as "The Real Cuba" deride Ortega as
"Castro's secretary" and paint a red beret on his picture.
Yet by his actions on their behalf, Ortega has earned some credibility
among government opponents. As a young priest in the 1960s, he served
time in a "re-education" labor camp. When released, he declined to go
into exile. Last year, he pleaded the case for the island's imprisoned
dissidents in a four-hour meeting with Raul Castro, negotiating an
arrangement that would send released prisoners to exile in Spain.
Not long after the releases, Ortega was instrumental in another
agreement with the government that allowed any of the island's 200
remaining political prisoners to move from jails far from their homes to
prisons in their home provinces.
For years now, the tropical winds have been shifting in favor of Ortega
and the Catholic Church. In 1991, the Communist Party announced that
religious believers could be party members, immediately raising the
church's profile. Ortega played a key role in arranging John Paul's
historic 1998 visit to Cuba, where Fidel was conspicuously deferential.
Before the papal visit, Castro allowed Ortega to deliver an
unprecedented, half-hour address on the state network.
In recent years, Raul Castro has appeared twice in public with Ortega,
once for the dedication of a new U.S.-supported Catholic seminary, and
earlier for a beatification Mass for a Cuban priest, Jose Ollalo, known
as the "father of the poor."
But whatever Ortega might be thinking privately about his future role,
for now he needs to be careful — and quiet — on the subject, as he has
been in meetings I have had with him in the U.S. and Havana. Centuries
ago in England, imagining the sovereign's death was treasonous; in Cuba
the situation regarding revolutionary icons is equally unthinkable.
Friends of freedom and better relations between the U.S. and Cuba can
only hope that, when the moment arises, Jaime Ortega will be ready to
step forward as his country's indispensible, perhaps inevitable, man.
Mark I. Pinsky, longtime religion writer for theLos Angeles Timesand
theOrlando Sentinel, is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide
for the Perplexed.