Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a Cuban Bridge to the U.S., Dies at 82

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Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the former archbishop of Havana, who helped re-establish relations between Cuba and the United States and revive Catholicism on the island, died on Friday in Havana. He was 82.

His successor, Archbishop Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, announced the death. In June he said that Cardinal Ortega was in a weakened state because of terminal cancer.

Cardinal Ortega retired in 2016, a decision that had long been expected because he was 79; the church requires bishops to submit their resignations when they turn 75. He, like many other bishops, was allowed to serve longer at the pope’s discretion.

With his resignation, he left behind a Cuban church whose reach was greater than at any point since Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959. Far from the days when Roman Catholics were marginalized and the cardinal, as a young priest, spent time in a labor camp, the church was openly active, building new places of worship, tending to the poor and prodding the government to speed up economic reforms.

Cardinal Ortega was the most powerful figure in the Cuban church when, in 2014, he helped open a dialogue between Havana and the United States that led the two countries to resume diplomatic relations. Pope Francis brokered the deal, after Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama had secretly turned to him for help.

According to later reports, after the pope had entrusted Cardinal Ortega to deliver a letter to both presidents, he became a secret courier, delivering messages among the principals; in one instance he made a clandestine trip to the White House.

“I was the letter,” Mr. Ortega said later about his role, meaning that he had delivered some messages orally.

“Perhaps the most important part of my mission came when President Raúl Castro asked me to convey a message to President Obama,” he said during a speech.

The message was that in Mr. Castro’s view, Mr. Obama had not been responsible for American policy toward Cuba, that he was an honest man and that in Havana they knew he wanted to improve relations with the island.

Mr. Obama thanked Mr. Castro for his words and sent the cardinal to deliver an oral response: “It was possible to improve the existing situation” despite their differences.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Pope Francis’s 78th birthday, Cuba and the United States announced the restoration of diplomatic relations.

Both sides acknowledged the work of the Catholic Church as mediator, although some in the Cuban exile community and opponents of the Castro regime criticized Cardinal Ortega for not demanding improved human rights and freedoms as part of the negotiations, saying he had been too conciliatory toward the Cuban government.

His supporters defended him as being astute and politically savvy in keeping the church relevant through difficult years.

During his more than three decades overseeing the Archdiocese of Havana, Cardinal Ortega restored dozens of sanctuaries and established the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Cuba. In 2010, he inaugurated the new headquarters for the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, the first building constructed by the Catholic Church on the island since 1959.

His achievements were noteworthy, considering that for much of his time the Cuban government was officially atheist and had banned believers of any faith from the Communist Party, the military and other professions.

Before he retired, Cardinal Ortega greeted President Obama at the Cathedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana on the first day of the president’s visit to Cuba in March 2016. Mr. Obama was the first American president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.

The son of a sugar worker, Cardinal Ortega was born on Oct. 18, 1936, in the sugar mill town of Jagüey Grande in the central province of Matanzas. He began studying for the priesthood at San Alberto Magno Seminary in Matanzas and completed his studies in Quebec.

He returned to Matanzas to be ordained on Aug. 2, 1964. At the time, Fidel Castro’s new Communist government was already undermining the Cuban church, which was vehemently anti-Communist; the government later accused prominent Catholics of trying to topple Castro.

In 1966, Father Ortega was among those confined to a military labor camp where Castro sent religious leaders, homosexuals and others who opposed his regime for “re-education.” After he was released, he became a parish priest in his hometown.

He was named bishop for the western province of Pinar del Rio in 1978, and in 1981 Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Havana. In 1991, Archbishop Ortega created Cáritas Havana, the first office of the Catholic relief charity in Cuba, which distributed medicine, food and other aid.

Providing such basic necessities was considered an essential first step before the church could start talking to people about religion and social change, as there had always been some question about how much sway the church had over the Cuban population. The Vatican said in 2015 that 60 percent of Cubans were Catholic, but the United States said that very few of them — perhaps only 4 or 5 percent — attended mass regularly.

Archbishop Ortega was named cardinal in 1994, only the second Cuban in church history to be so named. By then, something of a thaw between church and state was underway, and the new cardinal sought to work it to the church’s advantage.

He was able to facilitate three papal visits to Cuba: John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012 and Francis in 2015.

In 2011 Cardinal Ortega took part in negotiations for the release of 75 political prisoners who had been rounded up during the Black Spring, the 2003 crackdown on Cuban dissidents, journalists and grassroots activists. The regime had accused them of being agents of the United States. He was criticized later when he publicly stated that there were no political prisoners in Cuba.


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