NEWYORK (Reuters) – Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who came to leverage a rare level of political influence in Cuba for someone outside the Communist Party and played a key role in the island’s now defunct detente with the United States, has died Friday at the age of 82.
Nelson Crespo, the personal secretary of Cardinal Ortega, told Reuters that Ortega, 82, had passed away at 6.16 a.m. after a long battle with cancer.
A labour camp inmate in the 1960s when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government was rounding up religious figures and other perceived ideological enemies, Ortega became archbishop of Havana in 1981 at a time when Cuba was still officially atheist.
For more than three decades that followed, as Castro’s stance on the Roman Catholic Church softened, Ortega boosted its visibility and power, building a working relationship with the government thanks partly to his non-confrontational style.
Ortega hosted three popes, and negotiated the release of dozens of political prisoners in 2010 and 2011.
The softly spoken cleric rose to become one of Cuba’s leading political figures, particularly after Cuba reformed its constitution in 1992, changing the state from atheist to secular and guaranteeing freedom of religion. When Raul Castro became president in 2010, Ortega backed his attempts to open up the country and to restore relations with Western nations.
At a critical moment in secret talks between Cuba and the United States that led to a detente in December 2014, it was Ortega who relayed messages between Pope Francis, Castro and then-U.S. President Barack Obama.
Some critics said he abandoned victims of oppression, becoming too cosy with government, in exchange for a seat at the table of power.
Shortly before retiring in 2016, he said there were no political prisoners in Cuba, although Cuba’s leading dissident human rights organisation countered there were 60, including about two dozen people held for conducting peaceful protests.
Ortega also refused to back the Ladies in White as an opposition group. The group was founded by female relatives of imprisoned dissidents in 2003, who after their family members were freed continued to protest for the release of other political prisoners.
Church officials said Ortega’s job was to stand up for basic principles such as religious freedom and the well-being of all Cubans, not to promote any partisan political agenda.
Ortega studied theology in Quebec and became parish priest in the mid-1960s in his birthplace of Jagüey Grande in Matanzas province, also taking care of neighbouring parishes because of a shortage of priests.
He served eight months in a labour camp in 1966-67, an experience he said taught him a lot about life.
He was named bishop of Pinar del Rio by Pope John Paul II in 1978 and archbishop of Havana three years later. The pope appointed him cardinal in 1994.
Havana Archbishop Juan Garcia Rodriguez posted a brief note on the Church’s webpage lamenting the cardinal’s death (https://iglesiacubana.org/cocc/pages/articles/1051).
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Steve Orlofsky)