A ‘Bishop Of The People’ For A Cuba In Transition / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

Juan de la Caridad García, the new archbishop of San Cristobal de Havana.
Juan de la Caridad García, the new archbishop of San Cristobal de Havana.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, 26 April 2016 — After nearly 35 years as head of the Archdiocese of Havana, Jaime Ortega y Alamino, the only Cuban cardinal and a crucial figure in the thaw with the United States, has been replaced. Pope Francis decided to accept his resignation, presented since 2011, and appoint in his place Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez, Archbishop of Camagüey, a man who is considered a “bishop of the people” and who is connected to the world of missions.

In an interview by telephone from Camagüey, a few hours after his appointment was confirmed, Garcia said he hopes his episcopate will serve to increase the dialogue with the Cuban government, so that “the Church can be present in spaces that belong to it, such as education, the media and prison ministry.”

He also said that his ministerial service will be based on the final document of the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting of 1986 in which the Catholic Church said it wanted to be “praying, missionary and embodied” in the reality of its own people.

Ordained as a priest in 1972 and consecrated a bishop in 1997, Juan Garcia belongs to a new generation of bishops who act as bridge with regards to the infighting among the ecclesial institution itself, especially on issues related to its relationship with the government.

“With his discretion and centrism, he is the person less engaged in the intestinal struggles of the Cuban Church,” said Lenier González, deputy director of the civic project Cuba Possible, who considers that with this appointment “the historical cycle of old Cuban episcopate is closed.”

A Surprise

The news was greeted with surprise within the Cuban Catholic Church. The Vatican is very private with the selection process. Consultations with the clergy and the faithful and decisions about whether or not the candidate is accepted take place in the deepest secrecy.

The international press had referred to the possibility that Emilio Aranguren or Dionisio García, the bishops of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba respectively, would succeed Ortega. Also contemplated as a possible candidate was Juan de Dios Hernández, a Jesuit like the Pope and one of the auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese.

Dagoberto Valdes, a Catholic layman who runs the magazine Convivencia in Pinar del Río believes that “the Pope has appointed a pastoral and missionary archbishop, which is what the Church needs at this time, especially the Havana Church.”

“The missionary work of Monsignor Juan has marked the Church in Camagüey. I am sure that this identity will be very well received in Havana,” said Valdes, who also considers this appointment as “a gift from the Pope to the people of Cuba.” According to him, Juan Garcia is a bishop who “truly smells of the flock,” as the Pope wants.

For Arturo Gonzalez, Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Clara in central Cuba, Juan Garcia is a man of the people, close to the faithful. “He is a very good man, he is a man of much prayer. He is a man of few words, but very clear,” said the prelate.

The Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, agreed and also described him as “a man of few words.” He adds that it is “very good news for the people of the Cuban capital.”

Wenski, who recently returned from a pastoral visit to the island, said Garcia is a bishop who “has worked very hard for his diocese and is also very close to his clergy.”

The new archbishop of Havana, Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez, with Cuban President Raul Castro at the inauguration of the new headquarters of the San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary in Havana.(Gaspar el Lugareño)
The new archbishop of Havana, Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez, with Cuban President Raul Castro at the inauguration of the new headquarters of the San Carlos and San Ambrosio seminary in Havana.(Gaspar el Lugareño)

Raul Castro loses an ally

Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been a key figure in the thaw that led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington. It was he who, in 2011, negotiated the release and subsequent departure of most of the prisoners of the Black Spring and it was he who was responsible for hosting three papal visits in Havana, which helped to strengthen an image of greater openness towards the outside.

Cardinal Ortega presided over the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba during three successive periods and was one of the main architects of the pastoral letter “Love Hopes All Things” of 1994, which harshly criticized Fidel Castro’s government in the middle of the so-called Special Period.

In recent months, Ortega was criticized by sectors of the opposition, especially after he made statements to the Spanish radio station Cadena Ser in which he denied the existence of political prisoners in Cuba.

The Archdiocese of Havana announced through an official note signed by Juan de Dios Hernández, that the cardinal will have his retirement residence in the Padre Felix Varela Cultural Center, a building that formerly housed the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary.

A Cuban priest who asked not to be identified said that the departure of Monsignor Ortega allows the placement of a figure that does not fear the Cuban government, “because he owes nothing to them.”

He recalled that when Monsignor Garcia was appointed Bishop of Camagüey, “They had to go look for him in Cespedes because he went there on a mission. He is a bishop of the people.” And he said that by naming him a door has been opened for a whole generation of priests who were his compañeros in the seminary to acquire greater prominence within the Church, although they had not been able to do it until now because of the presence of the almost octogenarian cardinal.

The Challenges for the New Archbishop

Leinier Gonzalez believes that the new archbishop has before him dissimilar challenges. Among his main challenges is “reconstructing the pastoral work of the Havana Church” which, according to this analyst, is in profound crisis. Another important aspect will be the massive exodus of young priests and laypeople to foreign countries. In several parts of the world, and particularly in Miami, there is a large community of Cuban priests who were ordained on the island and who, for different reasons, ended up emigrating.

Another obstacle the new archbishop could face is the fact of always having worked in ecclesiastical areas outside of the capital, he said. Camagüey is an extensive archdiocese, but it is predominantly rural, while Havana is mostly urban.

Taking over the leadership of a territory where the national government is located, as well as the nunciature and the different political actors and embassies, the archbishop should also be more exposed to national politics. All this along with the proximity of the former archbishop, living just a few blocks away, and the figure of the president of the Cuban Bishops Conference, which for now rests with Dionisio García.

After the replacement of the cardinal, several questions arise about who will be the visible head who will carry forward the dialogues and negotiations with the government.

Some analysts compare the appointment of the new archbishop with the election of Francis in Rome, whom many see as a pope of transition.