Hopes are high that the Cuban government will release political prisoners following the visit to Havana last week of Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister. And the trip, along with a Cuban cardinal’s negotiations earlier this month that resulted in the release of an ailing political prisoner and the transfer of about a dozen more to be closer to their families, signals the increasingly political role of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
The transfer of the prisoners was only the latest in a series of minor concessions attributed to Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s talks with the regime of Raúl Castro, which are expected to continue. While the Church maintains that it is not pressuring the government, Ortega, the man behind the talks, has been openly critical of the regime. After Castro faced international criticism because of the deaths of two prisoners on a hunger strike (U.S. President Barack Obama called the situation “deeply disturbing”), he spoke out in the April issue of the Church’s magazine, Palabra Neuva (“New Word”). Accusations of human rights abuses, along with economic woes, Ortega said, have placed Cuba in the “most difficult situation of the 21st century.”
And yet, despite his dissent, the outspoken Ortega has continued to influence Castro’s decisions. “Both sides calculate this as a ‘good move’ on the international chessboard that gives them respectability under the fire of recent negative campaigns,” says Canadian journalist Jean-Guy Allard, who lives in Havana. Allard says the Cuban government is using the Catholic Church as a way to address its deplorable human rights record without appearing to cave in to foreign pressure.
Ortega has a northern connection: he studied theology at the Société des Missions Etrangères in Laval, Que., from 1960 to 1964. “I know he was very influenced by this part of his life,” says Allard. “He adjusted quite well here,” says Roland Laneuville, a missionary in Kenya, who studied with Ortega. “It was almost shameful to see that he was talking French better than we could.” Laneuville remembers Ortega as an extremely friendly and approachable classmate who was an adept observer of human nature.
When Ortega returned to Cuba in 1964, he was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of St. Charles Borromeo, in Matanzas. His ministry was interrupted when he was detained in work camps in 1966. But following his release a year later, he steadily rose through the ranks. During his tenure as archbishop in the Archdiocese of Havana, he ordained 22 Cuban priests—a significant number, given the then-hostile climate toward the Church: Cuba was an officially atheist state until the 1990s, when it changed its status to secular.
After the policy change, a new Church-state relationship began. According to Allard, Ortega, appointed cardinal in 1994, “was the guy that changed the style” of the discussions, adding that he has carved out an important intermediary role in the highest levels of the government. And while the Church’s power to curtail Castro’s usually harsh stance against dissent is still unclear, the concessions won by Ortega may signal a move toward genuine dialogue on human rights.