A week after former President Fidel Castro gave his valedictory speech, signaling the end of an era in Cuba’s political life, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s resignation as Archbishop of Havana, a milestone in the life of Cuba’s Catholic Church.
He will be succeeded by Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, the archbishop of the city of Camagüey, as the new archbishop of Cuba’s capital.
For us, the retirement of the Cuban Catholic Church leader who, as Reuters put it, “became an influential figure where he was once despised and played a key role in the détente with the United States,” deserves a moment of reflectionfor these four key reasons.
He was the real deal
Cardinal Ortega, born in a sugar mill town in Matanzas Province, was ordained a priest in 1964, a moment that Cuba scholar Meg Crahan remembered as a challenging time for Cuba’s Catholics, when religious figures joined the exodus of other Cubans off the island and official discrimination was visited upon individuals “who made religion a way of life.”
Ortega, as the Washington Post wrote “was sent to a reeducation camp and forced to do manual labor, as the church struggled in a state that had declared itself officially atheist.” He was there for eight months.
After serving as a parish priest, he became bishop of Pinar del Río in 1978, and was appointed Archbishop of Havana in 1981. His rise in leadership coincided with gradual changes in the government’s attitude toward the Church which he, in turn, helped leverage to create greater space for its religious and social missions.
During the Special Period, a time of privation on the island after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Church used this larger space, as Meg Crahan wrote, to confront its failure to identify strongly enough with the struggle for social justice, before and after the Cuban Revolution.
As Ortega helped bring the Church in from the cold, it came to have the greatest influence and reach since 1959, as the New York Times put it, receiving permission to build more churches and conduct public festivals, and becoming a space for dialogue about Cuba’s politics and future. Its growing role now includes, as the Miami Herald said, “helping people with all aspects of life, from providing soup kitchens and disaster relief to business training.”
He made significant contributions to human rights in Cuba and reconciliation with the U.S.
Cardinal Ortega turned a dialogue with President Raúl Castro on the harassment of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers formed to support family members serving long prison terms, into a process that led to the release of dozens of political prisoners including all the remaining dissidents imprisoned following a 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.
He also played a vital supporting role in the behind-the-scenes drama that led to the reestablishment of ties between Cuba and the United States. In 2014, as Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande recount in their book Back Channel to Cuba, Cardinal Ortega hand-delivered letters from Pope Francis to Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and, in a secret visit to Washington, D.C., to President Obama offering his pastoral support for the diplomatic process.
Philip Peters, head of the Cuba Research Center, told Reuters, “It’s fair to say that the church’s role was pivotal, and Cardinal Ortega was at the center of it… He interceded quietly with both presidents, with Pope Francis, with U.S. senators, and others, to press both governments to re-establish relations.” As Carlos Saladrigas, of the Cuba Study Group, told the New York Times, “Ortega will go into the Cuban history books as a key player… He has pushed the boundaries very far.”
His courage made him a target of character assassins in the U.S.
After the Cardinal succeeded in getting political prisoners released in Cuba – a major goal of U.S. policy – domestic opponents of improved bilateral relations attacked Cardinal Ortega for engaging in negotiations rather than confrontation with Cuba’s government.
As the Washington Post reported, the Cardinal was called “a bootlicker” by a Florida-based columnist. Even the head of Radio and TV Martí, Carlos García-Pérez, published an article on his U.S. government financed website, in which he wrote”This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God.”
Yet, as Harvard Professor Jorge Domínguez observed at the time, “Who freed the political prisoners in Cuba? Not the European Union. Not the U.S. government. And not Radio and TV Martí. It was Ortega who convinced Raúl Castro to let them out.”
Even this week, Babalú Blog ran a crude cartoon labeling him “a Castro snitch with or without his priestly vestment,” proving no good deed goes unpunished even five years later.
His successor has big slippers to fill
His successor, Archbishop García, has been Archbishop of Camagüey since 2002. Since serving as a priest, he “has worked quietly to help rebuild the Cuban church, physically and spiritually,” and “has been described as a bishop in the style of Pope Francis,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.
His reputation as a man with a common touch was referenced in a statement by the Standing Committee of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops which read, in part, “As Pope Francis characterized him, one can say that the man named Archbishop of Havana is a shepherd who ‘has the smell of his sheep.'”
Archbishop García has praised Cardinal Ortega’s legacy, and says “we will try to continue his work,” though it is not yet clear whether he will he will carry forward Cardinal Ortega’s diplomatic work.
At age 67, he enters the arena at an exceptional and historic moment. As Carlos Saladrigas commented to the New York Times this week, “Clearly everyone hopes that he will continue to push things along.”
In an interview made public this week, but conducted shortly after President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, Josefina Vidal, head of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry’s North America division, assessed the trip, its impact on diplomacy going forward, and restates her government’s central commitments to preserving Cuba’s sovereignty and restoring ownership of Guantánamo.
On the origin and purpose of the President’s trip, Ms. Vidal said, “Our country proposed that the President come, to get to know first-hand, although only for a brief time, reality in Cuba from Cubans themselves.” The visit also served as an opportunity to take stock of the progress made thus far in the normalization of relations, to identify outstanding issues, and to map the next steps in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Ms. Vidal said the two countries have identified and are pursuing “cooperation on issues of mutual interest that are to the benefit of both countries.” She affirmed, however, that until the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay is shut down and the territory is returned to Cuba, “we will not be able to say that there are normal relations between Cuba and the U.S.”
Asked how Mr. Obama’s address to the Cuban people was received in Cuba she said “Compared to the rhetoric that other presidents have used toward Cuba, in a general sense, it was respectful… of course, he defended the values he believes in.” She emphasized, however, that “the most important thing is that he was listened to with respect, and each Cuban has the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.”
Despite the “profound differences” between the U.S. and Cuba, and the fact that “the policy and strategy of the United States toward Cuba essentially has not changed,” Ms. Vidal said, “we know that at the same time he has been the only president of the United States who has decided to treat Cuba with respect and who has proposed to initiate a complicated process of normalizing relations.”
Going forward, Ms. Vidal said, “Cuba is willing to talk,” Vidal said, “with the U.S. about any issue. There is no taboo issue. We can discuss our vision of the world, exercise of international law, sovereignty, political models, democracy, human rights, to exchange points of view and experiences … Therefore, we’ve told the U.S., we have to discuss everything, but negotiating internal issues that are the sole responsibility of Cuba – never. Which is to say, Cuba is willing to negotiate the solutions to pending issues, like we negotiated, for example, the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but we are never going to negotiate with the U.S. issues of sovereignty.”
The interview with Ms. Vidal was conducted by Kamal Khalaf of the Lebanese news channel Al Mayadeen.
Nearing a majority, forty-nine Members of the U.S. Senate are now cosponsoring the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015, introduced by Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ). The bill, if enacted into law, would lift all remaining restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, including prohibitions on tourist travel. Senators Joe Donnelly (IN) and Bob Casey (PA), both centrists, are the most recent cosponsors of the legislation, joining 37 Democrats, 8 Republicans, and 2 Senate Independents. Last July, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment modeled on the bill allowing Americans to travel to Cuba, as Roll Call reported, “under any circumstances.” Read the text of the bill here, and the full list of cosponsors here.
First U.S. cruise to Cuba in over 50 years sets sail Sunday, Mike Clary, Sun Sentinel
On May 1, Carnival Corporation’s ship Adonia will begin its first cruise carrying U.S. travelers to Cuba, making it the first to do so in over 50 years. The lead-up to the voyage enmeshed the protests and the prospects of a federal suit, subsequently withdrawn, alleging discrimination when it was learned Carnival would enforce a Cuban regulation that prohibited Cuban-born persons from entering or exiting the island by sea via commercial vessels. Cuba’s decision tolift the policy on April 22 cleared the way for the 7-day long people to people cruise to set sail Sunday, and allow about 700 passengers to visit Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba aboard the Adonia.
Norwegian Cruise Line sets sights on sailing to Cuba by end of year, Fox News Latino
Frank Del Río, the CEO of the Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line, has announced that he hopes to offer cruises to Cuba by the end of the year, and that the company is in talks with Cuba’s government to seek approval. Del Río, who is Cuban American, said in a press release last week, “I am encouraged to see the governments of both Cuba and the United States continue to institute constructive issues across a wide spectrum … I am very much looking forward to sailing to Cuba soon aboard one of our ships in the company of many fellow Cuban Americans and other fellow Americans.”
Returning to Their Cuban Roots, Ernesto Lodoño, New York Times
New York Times editorial board member Ernesto Lodoño writes about CubaOne, a new program founded by young Cuban Americans to bring young Cuban Americans to Cuba for weeklong trips. Giancarlo Sopo, a founder of the program, told Lodoño, “All we ask is for people to think back on what they can give back to Cuba” after they visit the island with CubaOne. “It’s an idea that Cuban-American politicians who stubbornly defend the embargo as a viable strategy should ponder,” writes Lodoño. The Miami New Times spoke with CubaOne’s four founders about their goals for the program, and their evolving relationship with Cuba.
Updates to the List of Eligible Imports Produced by Independent Cuban Entrepreneurs, U.S. Department of State
The State Department has updated the Section 515.582 list, adding coffee and additional textiles to the authorized goods and services produced by private entrepreneurs in Cuba that may be imported to the U.S. As Politico reports, coffee produced in Cuba is organic, with Japan and France as its top importers, but much of it is government-produced, and therefore does not qualify for U.S. import.
Senate confirms Obama’s pick to be ambassador to Mexico, Richard Lardner, Associated Press
The U.S. Senate has finally approved the nomination of Roberta Jacobson, who has played a key role in talks reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba, to serve as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Ms. Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was nominated by President Obama in June 2015, but Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) blocked the possibility of a confirmation vote until earlier this week. Other U.S. senators and Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Sen. Rubio’s protracted delay of Jacobson’s confirmation, calling it potentially damaging to U.S.-Mexico relations.
Artists Welcome in Cuba, George Stevens, Jr., Huffington Post
George Stevens, Jr. writes about his experience visiting Cuba on the historic cultural mission of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities’ (PCAH) and reviews the achievements of the bilateral meetings with Cuban counterparts last week. The PCAH co-chair, also an award-winning writer, director, producer, and founder of the American Film Institute, observed, “The meetings with the artists generated that shock of recognition that occurs when people from different worlds come together. There were strong feelings of collegiality and common purpose,” Stevens says. “After decades of hostility and separation, these were days of hope.” CDA helped organize and advise PCAH on the mission.
Polquin, Pingree want to let Cuba-bound planes refuel in Maine, Bangor Daily News
U.S. Representatives Chellie Pingree (ME-1) and Bruce Polquin (ME-2) introduced a bill Wednesday to permit planes en route to Cuba to stop to refuel at U.S. airports. With the Insourcing American Airport Jobs Act, Reps. Polquin and Pingree hope to facilitate more business for U.S. airports like Maine’s Bangor International Airport, where the U.S. embargo against Cuba prohibits Cuba-bound flights from making stopovers. Rep. Pingree said, “It just doesn’t make sense to chase away business from airports like Bangor because of some bureaucratic, out-of-date regulations. … Thousands of tourists are passing over the United States on their way to Cuba every day, and if they have to stop somewhere, why not let it be Bangor?”
Next week, Rep. Pingree will travel to Cuba on an organic food and sustainable farming-focused delegation with CDA.
Cuba reports new case of imported Zika, Radio Reloj
Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health announced this week that a tenth case of Zika virus has been detected in Cuba. The patient had been traveling in Guyana. No indigenous cases of Zika in Cuba have been reported to date.
In response to the severe drought affecting eastern Cuba, about 70,000 residents of the Santiago de Cuba province will receive water delivery service. Cuba’s National Water Resources Institute has imposed water rationing measures on the province, which it expects to keep in place through October. The INRH reports that the country’s reservoirs are at 47 percent capacity, a historic low for this period.
According to a list released by the dissident group Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Cuba’s government is holding 93 political prisoners, 21 of whom have been in prison for between 13 and 24 years. The list indicates an increase of 22 political prisoners since last June. In its annual report on human rights for 2015, the State Department criticized Cuba’s human rights record, citing among its concerns the detention and treatment of political prisoners.
Cuba rules out letting defectors play in national team, Nelson Acosta, Reuters
Cuba will continue to prohibit baseball players who defected from Cuba from playing for the national team in international contests. The U.S. embargo prohibits official transfers of players between teams in Cuba and Major League Baseball teams in the U.S. Major League Baseball has initiated talks with Cuba’s government on the matter, and has requested an exception from the U.S. Treasury Department to allow U.S. teams to sign Cuban players without their having to defect. 150 players defected in 2015, more than in any previous year.
Photo Series: The Strikingly Well Preserved Modernist Homes of Pre-Revolutionary Cuba, Anika Burgess, Atlas Obscura
Photographer Stephen Allen explores the modernist architecture of Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, including a home designed by architect Ricardo Porro, who was one of the principal architects behind Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte.
Review: Kimberly Bautista: Seeing Cuba from the Other Side, Jesús E. Múñoz Machin, Progreso Weekly
Jesús E. Múñoz Machin reviews “Obsession: Hip Hop from the Other Side,” Kimberly Bautista’s documentary film about Cuban hip-hop duo Obsesión, Magia López and Alexey Rodríguez Mola. “I am interested in giving leading roles to people of African origin and other ethnic groups who have been excluded by the media,” says Bautista of her decision to focus on Obsesión, whose music often takes up discussions of racism and gender in Cuba. The film focuses on how throughout their career Magia and Alexey “have centered their social struggles by means of their work, something that I hope will inspire more artists,” Bautista says. The film premiered in April at the 17th Havana Film Festival in New York.
Not enough beer to go around, Progreso Semanal
Progreso Semanal reporters break down Cuba’s beer production trends over the last 15 years and discuss Cuban beer-drinkers’ experience of the recently reported, tourist-induced beer shortage on the island. Private restaurants and individual buyers also compete for supplies, while “shortages have become routine” as the demand has risen quickly, especially over the last year. “The days when beer cartons gathered dust in storage rooms are over,” Mario Durañona of the Provincial Enterprise for Gastronomy, Lodging and Recreation told Progreso Semanal.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
Philip Hammond arrives in Cuba to help ‘forge new links,’ Press Association
Britain’s Foreign Minister Philip Hammond arrived in Cuba Thursday, making him Britain’s first foreign secretary to visit the island since before Cuba’s Revolution. During his visit Hammond will meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and other officials to “sign a bilateral agreement restructuring Cuba’s debt to the UK and will agree to future UK-Cuba cooperation on financial services, energy, culture, and education,” according to a statement from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Hammond will also hold meetings to discuss economic and social developments in Cuba, and the status of human rights, commerce, and global public health efforts on the island.