Cuba's Cardinal Steps into the Spotlight

Article excerpt

Byline: Associated Press

HAVANA -- When a young parish priest named Jaime Ortega stepped out of a Cuban detention camp in the spring of 1967, at the height of the Communist revolution's attempt to stamp out religion, his father handed him a one-way ticket to Spain and urged his son not to look back.

But Ortega refused to go.

Forty-five years later and now a cardinal, Ortega heads the island's Roman Catholic church, which has returned from the wilderness to become the most influential independent institution in the country. In recent years, the 75-year-old clergyman has negotiated with President Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.

And after Pope Benedict XVI pays a pre-Easter visit, Ortega will have played a part in getting two consecutive pontiffs to turn their spotlight on one of the most secular countries in Latin America.

"My impression of Jaime Ortega is that he's just the right man at the right time over these years," said Tom Quigley, a former Latin America policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It seems to me the events of the last couple of years have proved his quiet leadership to have been very effective, and the church is in a much better position today than it has been at any time since 1960."

Ortega has used his pulpit to criticize Cuba's Marxist political system and call for greater economic and political freedom, but also to steer the island's young people away from what he warned in a 1998 speech was "a type of United States subculture which invades everything."

Ortega's tenure has not been without controversy.

Dissidents, U.S. diplomats and even some Vatican power brokers have disparaged the cardinal's cautious approach, saying he often seems more concerned with church renovations than with human and political rights. Some even see him as an apologist for the government that once imprisoned him.

"He has a very tough job," said Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, an Ortega supporter who acknowledged that many Cuban exiles view the cardinal warily. "For those who are Monday-morning-quarterbacking from Miami and don't have on-the-ground experience, it's going to take more time for them to change their opinion of him."

Ortega, a plump, jovial man often spotted on the cobblestone streets of Old Havana wearing a simple priest's collar, became archbishop of the capital in 1981, and cardinal in 1994, just as the Communist government was easing up on religion. It had excised the last references to atheism from its laws and regulations, and removed prohibitions on worship by party members. Following Pope John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, which Ortega helped organize, Fidel Castro declared Christmas a national holiday for the first time since that status was abolished following the 1959 revolution. …