After many years of shameful passivity, Cuba's Roman Catholic Church leader is finally beginning to speak out against the most blatant abuses of Cuba's dictatorship. But he may be doing it too timidly and too late.
Earlier this week, the head of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, made uncharacteristically strong statements in an interview published by the Church's official magazine, Palabra Nueva (New Word). There were headlines around the world proclaiming, "Cuban Church demands changes."
Ortega, 73, said that Cuba is going through "the most difficult times that we have lived in the 21st Century," and that there is a growing national consensus that "necessary changes be made in Cuba quickly."
In the interview, the cardinal addressed the international turmoil around the recent death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner who died after an 85-day hunger strike.
Ortega repeated earlier calls by Cuba's Conference of Bishops that the government respect the lives of prisoners of conscience, and asked Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident who is being fed intravenously at a hospital since he stopped eating in February, to abandon his hunger strike.
According to the cardinal, the role of Cuba's Church should be to "invite all sides to moderation."
"The tragic death of a prisoner because of a hunger strike has triggered a verbal war from U.S., Spanish and other media," the cardinal stated. "This strong media campaign contributes to exacerbating the crisis even more. It's a form of media violence, to which the Cuban government responds in its own way."
Media violence? I asked myself when I read those lines. Is he blaming the international media for reporting the death of a hunger striker who was rotting in prison for voicing his opinions? Is he accusing the world media of reporting the plight of Fariñas, who stopped eating to demand that the Cuban regime release the 26 of more than 200 prisoners of conscience who require urgent medical care?
Is the cardinal blaming international media for noting that Cuba puts people in jail for peacefully voicing their opinions? Is the cardinal criticizing foreign journalists for pointing out that, unlike the United States at the Guantánamo prison camp, Cuba does not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons?
Intrigued, I called Fariñas to ask him about his reaction to Ortega's statements. Fariñas was obviously glad that the cardinal had gone a little bit farther than usual in his statements, but wasn't exactly elated.
The cardinal's statements "were timid," Fariñas told me. "He himself was a political prisoner once, and he knows how political prisoners are being mistreated, how they are being beaten by the same people who are in power today."
Why do you think Ortega is so timid? I asked. "Because the Church hierarchy does not want to lose the handful of benefits that it has gotten from the government, such as permission to do seminars, some spaces on the radio and occasional appearances on television. I'm talking about the Church hierarchy because we can't say the same of the priests in the countryside."
Fariñas concluded that "the Church should put out a stronger statement about what's going on in Cuba. It should specifically refer to the 'repudiation acts' against the Ladies in White. So far, it has not said that these acts of violence can only take place when they are ordered by the regime's top authorities."
My opinion: Judging from the format and content of the cardinal's remarks -- a seemingly informal interview with the Church's magazine -- I would not be surprised if Ortega was under pressure from his own bishops to be a little bit more explicit than he has been so far.
From my own interviews with Cuban bishops and priests in the past, I know for a fact that many of them regard Ortega as too soft on Cuba's dictatorship.
They -- and Fariñas -- are definitely right. Latin America's Roman Catholic Church has a long history of priests who spoke out courageously against oppressive regimes, and in some countries, such as El Salvador and Chile, they paid for that with prison, torture and even death.
Ortega will go down in history as a Church leader who shied away from that basic mission. His statements are welcome, but he's no hero in my book.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.