Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting
The vast majority of my journalism is accomplished far away from other media, but once in a while I end up as part of the pack when reporting a story, as was the case when I covered a May address by Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, Cuba during a visit he made to Creighton University in Omaha. Actually, there was just one other journalist there to my knowledge, but he was representing the local daily and so I needed to be on my game with tape recorder rolling and notepad and pen at the ready capturing Ortega’s remarks. As the leader of the Catholic Church in that island nation, he has navigated an uneasy relationship with the Communist regime. In recent years he’s presided over a revival of the church there and entered a dialogue with the hard line government, which has considerably softened in what can only be called a reform movement that’s transforming Cuba into a freer nation. Critics of Ortega contend he hasn’t pressed Cuban officials enough, but the evidence suggests a major change is underway and basic human rights are being respected in ways not see before under the revolutionary banner. My story appeared in El Perico, a weekly Spanish-English newspaper published in South Omaha.
Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message Repression in Cuba is Lifting
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
At a separate weekend event, Cardinal Ortega received an honorary law degree in recognition of his humanitarian work.
In introductory remarks last Thursday Creighton president Rev. John Schlegel, who’s visited Ortega in Cuba, praised the cardinal for “working relentlessly to mediate between the government of Raul Castro and the families of prisoners of conscience…Above all, Cardinal Ortega has proven to be a great pastor, a great leader, especially through challenging times, and a great priest.” Schlegel described Ortega as a “diplomat” seeking “the greater good, truth and justice.”
The estimated 125 attendees included Creighton faculty, Archdiocese of Omaha officials and members of Nebraska’s Cuban and greater Latino communities.
Speaking through a translator, Ortega charted the repression that followed the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Ortega sounded hopeful about the new, freer Cuba emerging. He referred to frank, cooperative exchanges between the church and government authorities that recently brought the release of 52 political prisoners.
This avowed son of Cuba proudly declared, “I am a Cuban who lives in Cuba. I never wanted to live outside Cuba. It is a country I love with all my heart.”
He drew parallels between early Christian religious leaders serving their flocks amid oppression and clergy and pro-Democracy dissidents finding their voices suppressed under Fidel. He said rather than take a militant tack, the Cuban church followed a pastoral, passive approach.
“The Cuban bishops have tried to be shepherds in this way in Cuba,” he said. “Its role is not to confront the established powers.”
However, he says “the church is always asking for religious liberty, so that its followers can live their lives in peace.”
He outlined where the church and Cuba are today in comparison with the post-revolutionary period. “Initially,” he said, “there was a great acceptance of the revolution because of finding so many points of value with it.”
Within two years though, he said “very strong confrontation” and persecution distanced the church from the regime and the revolutionary fervor. He said priests were expelled from the country, Catholic schools closed, ministries and other expressions of religion curtailed and various “attacks” made on the church. He was among many young men in the church sent to labor camps.
The harsh measures, he said, “had a negative impact on the Catholic faithful” and “marked the memory” of older Cubans. He said, “This is a mark that is hard to erase.” While the bishops decried human rights violations, he said “the church as an organization was very diminished and had no means of communicating with its people.” He characterized the Cuban church then as “a church of silence,” adding, “The attitude of the church then was one of patience, perseverance, prudence.”
He said despite restrictions imposed on social, political, religious practices, fear of arrest and economic hardship, many Cuban Catholics remained faithful and risked much to speak out.
A turning point was a reflective, renewal process the Cuban Bishops Conference initiated in 1981, extending to every diocese, culminating with the 1986 National Ecclesial Encounter Cuba. “This constituted a very decisive moment for the history of the church in Cuba,” he said. It laid the groundwork for Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba. As a result, he said, “the church in Cuba let itself be known to the world and Cubans themselves realized there was in Cuba a church that was alive and dynamic.”
Since the conference and papal visit, he asserts the church has taken more of an active, public, missionary role and today is a church “that lives for its people,” rather than “wrapped up in itself,”” welcoming whoever comes to it.
Framing this empowerment, he said, is a new spirit of dialogue between the church and government, which he describes as “more fluid” under Raul Castro. In a Q & A after his address, Ortega said, “It has been much easier to find somebody with whom to dialogue. There seems to be a greater openness to changes.”
He’s encouraged by greater religious freedom, whose public manifestations include massive crowds for outdoor rites and a recently dedicated seminary.
On the activist front, he said an intentional process of “pastoral action” with authorities negotiated improved conditions for political prisoners, who were allowed to have contact with their families before finally gaining release. “Our humanitarian gesture was accepted,” Ortega said. He also alluded to recently announced Cuban social-political reforms.
With Cuba now thriving, he said its experience demonstrates “the human spirit should not be endangered or limited” and that liberation needs to come in both the spiritual and social life of people, adding, “It should never be necessary to negate God in order to enjoy human rights or to be active citizens.”
Ortega acknowledges that for victims of Cuban injustice “the baggage” and “suffering” remain. For “true reconciliation among all Cubans,” he said, there must be forgiveness and understanding — only then will the wounds inflicted under the old regime heal. Cuba, he insists, is moving on in acceptance and he suggests the rest of the world move on, too.
University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s extensively studied Cuba, admires Ortega for “toeing the line for the purposes of advancing the church and its teachings and its ministry.”
Referring to criticism by some that Ortega’s been slow to press for more reforms, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “His approach perhaps wasn’t as quick as some would have liked, but the fact is it’s been successful. I think what he’s understood perhaps better than most was the limitations on what the church actually could do. He moved when he could and didn’t try to deal with issues he wasn’t able to have any answer or response to.”
- Cuba Bids Farewell to Nuncio (onecatholicorg.wordpress.com)
- Cuban bishops: Country is slowly moving toward a democratic system (onecatholicorg.wordpress.com)
- Spain receive 37 more Cuban ex-political prisoners (foxnews.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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