Luz Escobar and Mario J. Penton, Havana/Miami, 26 July 2019– Cardinal Jaime Ortega (1936-2019), a key figure in the secret talks that led to the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba, died at age 82 on 26 July in Havana, after a long illness, according to ecclesiastical sources.
“Jaime Ortega was a figure of great weight during the last decades, both in the life of the Cuban Church and in the life of our people. A controversial figure, no doubt, but one whose intention was always to serve Cuba and the Church,” said Father José Conrado Rodríguez, pastor of the church of San Francisco de Paula.
Although on many occasions he did not agree with the Ortega line, Father Conrado confessed that he always “respected” the figure of his teacher, for “his love for Cuba” and his “desire to do good.”
“Jaime always looked for the Church to be present in the life of the country. He was attentive to problems that affected the life of the nation, such as emigration,” he added.
“He tried to solve big and serious problems and he did it with the best will, although personally I think he was not so happy about the way he faced them,” added the priest, very critical of the closeness, under Ortega’s leadership, between the Cuban Church and the State.
Jaime Lucas Ortega was born on 18 October 1936 in Jagüey Grande, in Matanzas province. He entered the seminary in 1956 and after four years of studies he was sent to Canada. He returned to Cuba in 1964 to be ordained a priest.
His ministry was interrupted for eight months in 1966 during his confinement in the Military Units of Production Aid (UMAP), forced labor camps established by the communist regime of Fidel Castro, where religious, homosexual and the disaffected were sent. The following year he was appointed pastor of his hometown.
In 1969 Ortega was promoted to the head of the cathedral of Matanzas and nine years later consecrated bishop of Pinar del Río by Pope John Paul II. During these years he also taught at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary. In 1981, the Polish Pope appointed him archbishop of Havana, and in 1994 he was named a cardinal, the second Cuban to reach the highest title granted by Rome.
In that year he was one of the main architects of the pastoral letter Love Hopes All Things, which contained strong criticism of the Government, and especially of the dreaded State Security. In those years, the voice of Ortega was one of the most critical in the concert of Cuban bishops, condemning the “violent and tragic” events of the sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo.
“His appointment as cardinal was a gift from Pope John Paul II to the Cuban Church. The Pope wanted the Church to break with the silence it had been forced into and leave the temples to evangelize,” said the priest Castor José Álvarez Devesa from Camaguey.
Father Álvarez believes that one of Ortega’s great achievements was the pastoral structure he built in his archdiocese, which are called the ecclesiastical provinces. “He organized vicarages, pastoral councils, linked the faithful with the Church and through his attitude of dialog important things were achieved, such as the pilgrimage of the Virgin of Caridad de Cobre throughout the Island, which has been a blessing,” he said.
According to the priest, the Cuban Church “has had very great challenges” with the introduction of the Marxist system. “Cardinal Jaime chose to return to Cuba and serve his country and his Church,” he added. Álvarez also highlighted Ortega’s role in condemning the death penalty on the Island and the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country.
During the almost 35 years that he was in charge of the Archdiocese of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega restored dozens of temples, established a Diocesan Pastoral Council to make the work of the Church more effective, and established the headquarters of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba.
One of Ortega’s works is Cáritas Havana, created in 1991, which preceded Cáritas Cuba, the largest NGO on the island that distributes medicines, food and other types of aid on a daily basis. Ortega played an important role in the creation of socio-religious publications New Word, in 1992; Lay Space and Love and Life.
As a cardinal, in 2011 Ortega participated in the process of releasing the 75 political prisoners of the Black Spring and in the subsequent banishment to Spain of many of them. He was later criticized for having affirmed, before international media, that there were no political prisoners in Cuba.
The priest was considered the architect of three papal visits to Cuba — John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012 and Francis in 2015 — who officiated massive public masses in spaces previously reserved for power.
In 2010, Ortega inaugurated a new headquarters for the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, which was the first new construction by the Catholic Church on the island since 1959. The cardinal also committed his figure to the creation of the Félix Varela Cultural Center, an educational institution that is an alternative to the educational monopoly of the Cuban State.
Instrument in the secret negotiations between Washington and Havana
“I was the letter,” Ortega said about his role in the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba that allowed the reestablishment of relations between the two countries during the presidency of Barack Obama.
As the cardinal revealed, years after the two neighboring countries ended a break of more than half a century, Pope Francis secretly entrusted him with the delivery of a letter to Raúl Castro and Obama.
“Perhaps the most important part of my mission came when President Raúl Castro asked me to transmit on his part a message to President Obama, of which I would be the bearer when I took the letter of the Holy Father to the president in the White House,” recalled the Cardinal during a speech.
The message commissioned by Raúl Castro was that Obama had not been responsible for the policy towards Cuba, that he was an honest man and that in Havana they knew his intentions to improve relations with the Island.
Obama thanked Castro for his words and sent a verbal message with the cardinal: “It was possible to improve the existing situation,” despite the differences. On 17 December 2014, the date of Pope Francis’s birthday, Cuba and the United States announced the restoration of diplomatic relations.
Both parties recognized the work of the Catholic Church as a mediator, although sectors of exile and opposition in Cuba strongly criticized Ortega because he did not demand an improvement of human rights and freedoms on the Island.
After more than three and a half decades at the head of the Havana archbishopric, Ortega said goodbye in 2016 when Pope Francis accepted his resignation and in his place appointed the Camagueyan Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez.
Recently, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba granted the Cardinal the Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Distinction . The bishops of the eleven Cuban dioceses were present at the ceremony.
Church sources reported that Ortega Alamino’s body will be exhibited in the cathedral of Havana for three days starting this afternoon, “according to the Vatican protocol.” They also said that the funeral will be Sunday at 3:00 pm.
Through a tweet from President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Cuban government offered its condolences for the death of Cardinal Ortega. “His contribution to the strengthening of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban State is undeniable,” the leader wrote.
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