Ivan Garcia, 4 July 2015 — Diplomacy does not seem to be Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s strongpoint. The archbishop of Havana behaved badly to a group of anti-Castro activists who were distributing a statement on a proposed amnesty law for political prisoners to diplomats attending 4th of July ceremonies at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, head of the US Interests Section in Havana.
The cardinal’s harsh comments came shortly after a musical group — clad in colorful Prussian blue uniforms with white caps — had finished playing the last notes of the national anthems of Cuba and the United States on their wind instruments and after a brief welcome by Mr. DeLaurentis.
Relaxed officials and accredited diplomats working in Havana were chatting with dissidents, musicians and Cuban intellectuals — they had been invited to Independence Day celebrations — as waiters served red wine, beer, fruit juice and canapés.
Activists Egberto Escobedo and Jose Diaz Silva approached Ortega, who was chatting with a group of bishops, to hand him a list of fifty-one political prisoners whose release the Forum for Rights and Liberties — a group led by Antonio Rodiles, Angel Moya and Berta Soler — had been requesting every Sunday for twelve weeks in the face of intense harassment by police.
“I don’t want you handing me another list. Send it to the ’worms’* broadcasting on the radio from Miami. If you keep bothering me, I’ll have them call the police,” responded Ortega angrily.
Diplomats, guests and foreign journalists were taken aback. His outburst was the talk of the evening.
“He seemed more like a Stalinist commissar than a compassionate agent of the Lord. We assumed the Catholic church was supposed to welcome all of us. But for some time now there has been a faction of the Cuban church that has not only turned its back on dissidents but has attacked us nearly as forcefully as the government,” said Victor Manuel Dominguez, a poet and freelance journalist.
An official from a western embassy, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed the opinion of his mission that “all that is being asked of Ortega is that he at least listen to a person’s demands, even if he does not agree with them.”
The Cuban archbishop’s verbal hostility stems from statements he made on June 5 to Cadena Ser, a Spanish radio station, in which he said that there are no longer political prisoners in Cuba.
This statement provoked a harsh response from activist Jose Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez. Antunez and other activists — including Rodiles, Guillermo Fariñas, Angel Moya and Berta Soler — were present during the cardinal’s tantrum.
“This is what one would expect from a society in which religious institutions that supposedly welcome all believers turns its back on dissidents. But this is what is happening. Intellectuals and a certain segment of the clergy remain suspiciously silent in the face of Sunday assaults on activists and the Ladies in White,” said Rodiles.
The Forum for Rights and Liberties convened a press conference for Friday to announce a request for amnesty and for the release of people imprisoned for other reasons but which, as Rodiles stated, “are widely known to be of a political nature.”
While the island’s Catholic hierarchy ignores the opposition, Havana and Washington agreed to open embassies on July 20.
Although the White House has stated that it will continue to advocate for respect for human rights and freedom of expression in Cuba, a member of the local dissident community is skeptical about the current environment.
“I fear that the US embassy will not invite any dissidents on July 4, 2016. Or they will only invite those from the moderate opposition,” said a freelance journalist.
The country’s military dictators have indicated that dissidents and government officials cannot co-exist under the same roof. If opposition activists are invited to embassy receptions, they will not attend. It’s one or the other.
*Translator’s note: Gusanos, or worms, is a derogatory term coined by Fidel Castro and once widely used by his supporters to describe Cuban emigres and exiles.