Crusading cardinal

  • July 14, 2010
Cardinal Jaime OrtegaEvery Sunday morning for seven years the Ladies in White attended Mass at Havana’s Santa Rita Church then marched in peaceful protest for husbands, fathers and sons locked up as political prisoners in Cuban jails.

For the most part, the marches were silent and easily ignored by the Castro government. Then last March, to mark the seventh anniversary of  the “Black Spring,” when 75 dissidents were arrested, hastily tried and harshly sentenced, the Ladies in White became bolder, marching into off-limit Havana neighbourhoods. The government dispatched agents to disrupt the marches and harass the women. That brought Cuba’s crusading 73-year-old cardinal into the fray. Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrated Mass with the women at Santa Rita and then took up their cause with the government of President Raul Castro.

Thus the world can be changed.

The role of Cardinal Ortega and other Church leaders, along with the fearless Ladies in White, is being hailed as a catalyst to Castro granting freedom to 52 political prisoners over the next four months. It is the largest Cuban amnesty since some 100 political prisoners were freed after the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba. Much of the credit is going to the Cuban Church.

Speaking to NBC News, a Havana professor said, “It’s as if the cardinal (Ortega) performed his own type of miracle. Ortega accomplished in three short months what everyone else failed to do in seven long years.”

Ortega has opposed the Castro regime his entire adult life. Ordained in 1964 after studying theology in Laval, Que., Ortega spent a year in a Cuban work camp after criticizing government policy in the mid-’60s. As Havana archbishop in 1993 he signed a pastoral letter read from pulpits across Cuba calling for open dialogue and freedom. In a magazine interview this spring he lamented Cuba’s chronic economic failings and blamed them on five decades of dysfunctional Cuban socialism.

The Catholic Church was harassed and marginalized for years by Fidel Castro but a new era may be dawning under his younger brother, Raul. After Ortega met with Castro in May, he called their lengthy talk a magnificent beginning to a greater dialogue. The cardinal’s optimism has raised hope for the rebirth of a just society in Cuba that includes a prominent role for the Catholic Church.

It remains to be seen, of course, if that will transpire. The world will be watching to see how fast Castro releases the first 52 political prisoners and how fast he responds to calls to free the more than 100 dissidents that will remain in Cuban jails. Then he will have to undo decades of repression against the Cuban people and the Church.

That won’t happen overnight. But recent events mark a positive beginning, thanks to a determined cardinal and the Ladies in White.

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