By NICHOLAS CASEY
SANTIAGO, Cuba—As young men, Jaime Ortega and José Conrado Rodríguez
were teacher and student at a Cuban Catholic seminary. Decades later,
the teacher, now a cardinal, and the student, a country priest, are
dueling over the soul of the island—and the part the church should play
in saving it.
Their debate is over the church's role in pushing for reform as the
53-year hold on power of Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl starts to
wane. Cardinal Ortega, the senior Catholic clergyman in Cuba, offers a
cautious critique of the government, while Father Rodríguez, from his
parish pulpit in Santiago, preaches more open opposition.
On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Cuba, only the second visit
to the nation by a pope. On Friday, he said that it is "evident that
Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer responds to reality," and
he urged Cubans to "find new models."
After Pope John Paul II called for greater freedom in Cuba during his
visit in 1998, Fidel Castro didn't budge much on his policies, which
included restrictions on the church. But President Raúl Castro,
pressured by domestic challenges, has been quietly leaning on the church
to pick up some of the burden from his financially ailing state,
including giving the church a new role in education. Mr. Castro has even
opened the door to criticism from several religious periodicals as he
inches the island toward reform.
The current pope arrives to attend ceremonies related to a Cuban
Catholic icon, Our Lady of Charity, a figurine of Mary said to be
discovered 400 years ago by Cuban fishermen. Behind the scenes, the
church faces its biggest dilemma since the 1959 revolution: How should
it take advantage of this new space and pressure the Communist regime to
Cardinal Ortega, who preaches caution, made the pope's visit possible.
Benedict's imminent arrival is the latest in a string of apparent
successes for the cardinal on an island that, until recent years, was by
law an atheist nation where Christmas was eliminated as a holiday.
The cardinal, 75 years old, meets regularly with Raúl Castro, and has
obtained concessions such as the release of political prisoners and a
new tolerance for government officials attending Mass openly.
He was even permitted to help start a new business school—a first in
Communist Cuba—to train entrepreneurs amid legal changes allowing Cubans
to start small businesses. He has rarely criticized the Communist regime
in public, a posture that has made him a target of criticism.
Father Rodríguez, 60, has a different approach. He believes the church
has a moral duty to speak out against Communism—a calling, he says, that
led it to oppose Communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. In a small
church on the other side of the island from the cardinal's Havana
cathedral, Father Rodríguez lambastes the Cuban government as backward,
self-serving and tyrannical.
Years ago, Father Rodríguez wrote a scathing letter to Fidel Castro,
which he read from the pulpit to cheers from worshipers. Shortly after,
the church sent him to study at a Spanish university for a few years.
Upon his return, he continued to be outspoken, and now church officials
have moved to transfer him to a remote parish.
Each of their approaches carries risks. While Mr. Ortega's overtures to
Raúl Castro have paid dividends, they could offer the regime legitimacy
and enable the Communist Party to resist more sweeping reform. Father
Rodríguez's hard-line approach, on the other hand, could prompt the
government to roll back recent liberalization of religious policies, or
prompt people to take up his opposition message in a violent way,
something the church doesn't advocate.
Raúl Castro has reformed parts of the economy, allowing Cubans to set up
small private businesses and to buy and sell homes. But Cuba still
depends heavily on subsidies from Venezuela and remains far from
developing a robust economy.
There are no reliable figures on the number of Catholics in Cuba. The
Vatican says about 60% of Cuba's residents are Catholic. Some clergymen
involved with the island estimate that about a half-million of Cuba's 11
million people attend church on a typical Sunday.
The Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry said in a written statement that
religious rights had been defended since the revolution and that the
government had a long history of good relations with the Vatican. "In
Cuba there exist broad religious freedoms," the statement said.
Through his spokesman Orlando Márquez, Cardinal Ortega declined to be
interviewed for this article. Mr. Márquez said the cardinal's work was
"to encourage reforms the government has initiated." He added: "It's
possible to say the changes have been slow, insufficient or limited. But
they did begin."
Some in the church's hierarchy describe the cardinal as unhappy with the
Communist system, but willing to work within its confines to secure
change. "He doesn't see his role as a Jeremiah…that's to say a prophet,"
says Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of Miami who has known the cardinal
since the 1990s. "His role is to be a pastor, to accompany the people."
Father Rodríguez, sometimes dubbed the "people's cardinal," is a
favorite of Cuban dissidents. "He's a man with a perfect political
vision—a crusader and a saint," says José Luis García, a Cuban dissident
and doctor who was jailed for seven years after publishing an
On Sunday morning, after attending Mass at Father Rodríguez's Santiago
church, parishioner Ilena Canales referred to him "a marvel—a priest who
talks about human rights. No one can quiet him. He speaks his mind to us."
The debate over the proper relationship between the church and secular
authority traces back to the Gospels, which describe Jesus saying:
"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto
God the things that are God's." At a gathering last year, the cardinal
quoted the passage, reminding listeners that the early Christian
martyrs, facing an adverse Roman government, "proclaimed their faith"
rather than "attacked the structure of power."
Father Rodríguez sees that passage differently. "It means
everyone—including the state—must answer to divine law," he recently
told a gathering of Cuban exiles in Miami. "The church must liberate the
The two clerics came of age after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which was a
disaster for the church. Fidel Castro deported hundreds of priests and
nuns, closed all Catholic schools and nationalized church land.
Father Rodríguez was a boy when the fighting broke out. His home was
burned by revolutionaries and an uncle of his was executed for allegedly
being a spy, he says. In 1966, Cardinal Ortega, then a young priest, was
sent to a labor camp along with scores of intellectuals, gay Cubans and
The two men crossed paths in the 1970s when Cardinal Ortega, having
emerged from internment, taught Father Rodríguez in a morality class at
a Havana seminary. "We were friends then," recalls Father Rodríguez, who
still carries in his briefcase a photo of the two from that time. "I can
say he is a man with all the virtues of a cardinal and all the defects
of a cardinal."
The paths of the two men soon diverged. Cardinal Ortega began to scale
church hierarchy in Havana; Father Rodríguez remained in his country
parish. In the early 1990s, Mr. Ortega was made cardinal. Near Santiago,
Father Rodríguez looked on as the collapse of the Soviet Union and its
subsidies to Cuba ushered in the "special period," a time of chronic
food shortages. "I watched as every Sunday my parishioners were
thinner," he says.
In 1994, Father Rodríguez wrote his open letter to Fidel Castro and read
it from the pulpit. "Although many common people excuse you by saying
that you are unaware of the truth of what is happening, I do not share
that view," he said. "What is it that you do not know of the disgraceful
plight of almost 11 million Cubans on this island?" A recording of it
was distributed in Miami, which catapulted Father Rodríguez to fame but
also angered the government.
He soon received word that the church was sending him to Spain for
several years to study at a university there. "I cried," he says. Living
in post-Franco Spain, along with his visits to former Eastern Bloc
countries like Hungary and Romania, taught him something about
dictatorships in transition, he says.
In 2006, Fidel Castro stepped down due to illness and handed the reins
of government to his younger brother Raúl. The younger Mr. Castro
indicated an interest in reform. He also inherited a crumbling economy.
Signature social programs from the revolution, from health care to the
education system, were struggling. The church was the only group outside
of government in a position to help.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow, the government admitting that they
needed the church," says Archbishop Wenski, the Miami prelate. Cardinal
Ortega and his bishops saw an opportunity for the church to regain
influence by helping the government.
The church, although still officially banned from educating Cubans,
established summer "training programs" for Cuban teachers, whose corps
had been hit hard by talent leaving the island. It quietly began to run
child-care programs in churches to supplement overcrowded government-run
From his end of the island, Father Rodríguez saw little cause for
celebration. In 2007, he says, Cuban security forces stormed his parish
and beat and arrested more than a dozen dissidents that had been allowed
in. Mr. Rodríguez called the attack the work of "terrorists."
In 2009, Father Rodríguez challenged Raúl in a public letter. "We need
to have the enormous bravery to recognize that in our homeland there are
constant and unjustifiable violations of human rights, seen in the
scores of political prisoners and in the battering of the most basic
liberties: of expression, information, press and opinion," the letter read.
As government pressure against dissidents continued, the cardinal showed
himself capable of getting results.
In spring 2010, the Ladies in White, a group of wives of 75 political
prisoners rounded up in 2003, were physically attacked in front of a
church by pro-government mobs, an incident caught on film.
Rather than speak out publicly, Cardinal Ortega reached out to the
government. The mobs stopped. The cardinal proposed talks with Raúl
Castro to release those of the 75 prisoners still behind bars.
"The cardinal had been less outspoken before, but this would be the
spark for him in a new public role," says Father Juan Molina, a
Salvadorian-American priest in Washington who knows the cardinal.
What resulted, in mid-2010, was a watershed moment in Cuba. Raúl Castro,
seated beside the cardinal, explained that prisoners would be let go—the
first such deal in years. But there was a catch: Most of the prisoners
agreed to leave Cuba for Spain.
Fidel Suárez, one of the last prisoners released, says he wanted to
return home. But when he spoke with Cardinal Ortega by phone from jail,
he wasn't given that option, he says.
Mr. Suárez says he asked the cardinal to meet with him publicly in the
capital before he left for Spain, to express solidarity with the
dissidents. Mr. Suárez recalls "there was a silence on the other line
and he finally said, 'God be with you.' He didn't want to meet with us."
The cardinal's spokesman says Mr. Suárez chose voluntarily to go to
Spain and didn't request a personal meeting. "Some people have spoken of
an alliance between the church and state to banish the prisoners [from
Cuba], but that is simply not true," the spokesman says.
Cardinal Ortega's negotiations were widely viewed as a human-rights
victory. He scored again late last year when Raúl Castro and the Vatican
agreed to the visit by Pope Benedict.
Father Rodríguez, meanwhile, was in danger of being pushed to the
fringes. Early last year, officials from Father Rodríguez's Santiago
archdiocese informed him that he would be transferred from Santiago,
Cuba's second-largest city, to the tiny village of El Cristo, where he
had ministered as a junior priest.
In interviews at the time, Mr. Rodríguez railed against the church,
saying it was trying to muzzle him. He sent a letter of complaint to his
archdiocese, copying in the Vatican but bypassing Cardinal Ortega,
according to people familiar with the letter.
Mr. Márquez says Cardinal Ortega had nothing to do with the transfer.
Several clergymen say rotating priests is standard church practice.
For now, Father Rodríguez remains in his Santiago church, Santa Teresita
del Niño Jesús, while church officials search for a replacement. He now
says the new parish might be a good change for him. "I like the
countryside, and I'm just a peasant at heart," he says.
"I know that my words, my opinions, have caused the hierarchy some
problems. And to send me away does make the situation easier for them,
perhaps. But then again, the work I'm doing out here close to my
people—hierarchy can't do that kind of work, because it's the hierarchy.
That's why I'm here."
Archbishop Wenski says the two clerics aren't as far apart as they seem.
"They say God laughs when we're referred to as an organized religion,
and maybe we're seeing that here," he says. "These two men might be
putting emphasis on different notes but they're singing the same song."
Write to Nicholas Casey at email@example.com