Cuba's Jaime Ortega
The high-wire walked by Cuba's cardinal
A look at Cuba's Jaime Ortega as he celebrates his 75th birthday and
offers a resignation that will almost certainly be rejected by the Vatican.
By Juan O. Tamayo
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega will celebrate his 75th birthday on Tuesday.
And, as required by Catholic Church law, he has offered his resignation
as archbishop of Havana.
Most analysts agree the Vatican is highly unlikely to accept the
resignation of a prelate who guides the most powerful non-government
organization in Cuba, officially atheist 1962-1991 and still
Raúl Castro's government has allowed Ortega to build a new seminary,
launch a business school and run charity programs that include homes for
the elderly and soup kitchens for the poor.
Ortega also helped carry out Castro's decision to free more than 100
jailed dissidents, and last year mediated a halt to brutal attacks by
state-organized mobs on the Ladies in White — female relatives of
Yet critics say Ortega has only weakly denounced human rights abuses
and tried to hold back Catholics who criticize the government, like the
Rev. Jose Conrado Rodríguez and fired magazine editor Dagoberto Valdés.
They also complain that he helped Castro get rid of the former
political prisoners because all but 12 went straight from prison to
Spain in what they denounced as a "forced exile." Ortega insists they
Valdés and others predict Pope Benedict XVI will not accept Ortega's
resignation now, at a time when the church faces "favorable
circumstances" and is preparing for the 400th anniversary next year of
Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity.
Ortega also is in good health — health concerns being the main reason
for the church rule pushing retirement from pastoral duties at age 75,
Valdes said by telephone from his home in the western province of Pinar
His resignation as archbishop may be accepted — he will remain a
cardinal — in two years, perhaps after a papal visit for the Lady of
Charity events, church officials said. And it's way too early to
speculate on a successor.
But even Valdes, who has clashed with Ortega in the past,
acknowledges that the Cuban church has gained much ground since the end
of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s plunged the island into chaos.
"Communism was not working, people needed something to believe in and
the church took on some of the state functions," said Uva de Aragon,
former head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International
Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in 1998 also unleashed a spike in
church attendance, marriages and baptisms. And while attendance dropped
off in recent years, the church now runs a variety of social welfare
Nuns run nursing homes, and some churches send parishioners to visit the
elderly and disabled at home. Others run free food programs and drug
dispensaries for adults, and religion, computer and other classes for
The new home for the San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary inaugurated in
November was the first such construction permitted since 1959, and
priests have been given more access to government-run TV and radio.
Church publications also have run essays praising or criticizing the
radical economic reforms that Castro has proposed, including a
significant opening for small private businesses and deep cuts in
central government controls.
The church also joined with a Spanish university in a Havana program
that offers a master's in business administration, and organized classes
for the new entrepreneurs on how to keep accounting ledgers. It is also
exploring the possibility of arranging micro credits for start-ups.
That's a massive improvement from 1961, when Fidel Castro expelled
hundreds of priests and nuns —13 on the ship Covadonga alone —closed all
church schools and seized almost all of their buildings.
The Villa Marista state security jail was a boys' school run by the
Marist Brothers. And Ortega spent 1966-1967 in one of the forced labor
camps for men "unfit" for military service, like practicing Catholics
"I understand the frustrations of the many people who want a stronger
confrontation with the government," said de Aragon. "But I don't
criticize because so much has improved, and we may see only the tip of
But others compare Ortega unfavorably with Catholic leaders in Poland,
Nicaragua, Venezuela and El Salvador who have been much more aggressive
in their demands for human and civil rights.
"He didn't do much for human rights or political prisoners, and what he
did was late and on Vatican orders," said Andy Gomez, senior fellow at
the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
Ortega's spokesman at the Havana archdiocese, Orlando Marquez, said the
cardinal already had submitted the resignation required by his 75th
birthday but declined to provide more substantive comments for this story.
NAMED IN '94
When John Paul II named Ortega as cardinal in 1994, Vatican officials
told a journalist that the pope wanted "to strengthen the church in
areas where it has suffered from interference or persecution by local
Yet Catholic activists in Cuba have often accused him of timidity in his
dealings with Fidel Castro and younger brother Raúl, who succeeded him
Ortega reportedly pushed Valdes to tone down the criticisms of the
government he published in Vitral, a Pinar del Rio diocesan magazine. He
resigned as editor and Vitral closed after a dispute with the local bishop.
The cardinal also kept his distance from Oswaldo Payá, who heads the
illegal Christian Liberation Movement. Payá's Varela Project gathered
25,000 signatures demanding a referendum on the communist system.
The Rev. Rodríguez was transferred recently from Cuba's second largest
city to a tiny rural church. He had criticized the Castros and
complained the church had abandoned its "prophetic" duty — denouncing
And when the Ladies in White urged him in September to help halt a
government crackdown on new dissident protests in eastern Cuba, he
replied that the church opposed all violence but issued a thinly
Anything "that could affect peaceful coexistence and upset the
well-being of the nation will not find support among those of us who
have a Christian vision of the world," said a statement issued by Marquez.
Valdes said that whatever the praise or criticisms of Ortega, the
Catholic Church has been helping Cubans achieve a better life and
remains committed to that goal.
"The Vatican takes a longer and higher view than any other
institution," he said. "It has all the time in the world, beyond any
temporary rain showers."