Not Everyone Agrees With Cuban Cardinal’s Approach

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CNS) – The March visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI has helped reawaken people’s interest in the Catholic Church, according to the Archbishop of Havana who was visiting the U.S.
But it also has stirred criticism of the church’s efforts to work with the government more and may be connected to a fire of suspicious origin that gutted a travel agency that organizes charter flights from Florida to Cuba.
Remarks at an April 24 forum at Harvard University by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino about the church’s role in Cuba riled some of the outspoken critics of the Castro government in both Havana and Florida.
In a speech at the university’s Kennedy School of Government, Cardinal Ortega spoke at length about the “profound reawakening” the church is seeing in Cuba, augmented by the pope’s visit.
“The church is living a spring of faith in Cuba,” Cardinal Ortega said, adding that the pope’s visit left people impressed by his meekness and kindness and that enthusiasm to “delve more deeply” into faith will live on in the hearts of Cubans.
He also spoke about the increased role taken by Caritas, the church’s aid organization, in providing assistance to Cuba’s needy, including the elderly and victims of natural disasters. And he explained his role in meeting with President Raul Castro to work toward ending increased harassment of the Ladies in White, and the release of their relatives from Cuban prisons.
In Boston a couple of nights earlier, Cardinal Ortega’s response to some questions from the audience raised hackles among opponents of the Cuban government.
Moderator Jorge Dominguez, vice provost for international affairs at Harvard University, asked Cardinal Ortega to respond to criticisms made by exile groups in Miami who say the cardinal is too close to the Castro regime.
“From the start of the difficult years of persecution in Cuba there have been criticisms of the bishops of Cuba from the left and from the right, and also within the church,” Cardinal Ortega replied.
“If you start thinking of the church as a political organization – many would like us to be the opposition party in Cuba – but we cannot be that,” he said. “It goes against the nature of the church.”
The cardinal defended his decision to have 13 protesters removed by police from Havana’s Basilica of Our Lady of Charity a few days before the pope arrived.
Saying the protest was staged “by people in Florida,” the cardinal called the 13 protesters “former delinquents” and stressed that, contrary to some news reports, none of them was harmed in any way.
He also spoke of the need for reconciliation among all Cubans, both inside and outside the country, a topic stressed by the pope while in Cuba.
“If the exile community is going to have a role in the new Cuba, they need to start now … by building bridges,” he said.
Cardinal Ortega’s comments sparked a flurry of criticism from the Cuban exile community in the U.S.
Such criticism is to be expected, according to Mario Paredes, board chairman of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders and presidential liaison for the American Bible Society, who helped coordinate Cardinal Ortega’s visit to the United States.
“The fact that (Cardinal Ortega) doesn’t criticize the regime directly is seen as his collaborating with the regime, which is untrue,” Paredes said.
“The cardinal is doing what he is supposed to do,” he continued, noting that the cardinal’s role is “to bring people to faith, to call on collaboration in rebuilding Cuba, to bring Cubans to reconciliation.”
In Florida the same week, city, state and federal investigators said they were looking into the possibility that arson was behind an April 27 fire that gutted the Coral Gables offices of the charter travel agency that organized two planeloads of pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami to Cuba for the papal visit.
Reuters reported that the owner of Airline Brokers, Vivian Mannerud, said she suspected arson “because of the indignation of the pope’s visit.” She said she had not received threats to her business recently, but that the company was targeted in the early 1990s by activists who opposed any effort at easing the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba.
The company’s role in bringing pilgrims to Cuba for the papal visit was well publicized in Miami. It is one of dozens of companies nationwide offering charter flights to Cuba under certain circumstances, following regulations set by the Treasury Department, which enforces the trade embargo. [hr] Contributing to this story was Donis Tracy in Cambridge.