Cuba’s Ladies in White said they trust Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega after a nearly four-hour meeting Thursday with the prelate, accused of being too close to the communist government and too remote from dissidents.
“It was an open dialogue where he listened to us and we listened to him,” Berta Soler said after she and three other leaders of the women’s group wound up the meeting at the offices of the Havana archdiocese. “We are very happy.”
Soler said the group also asked Ortega to intercede with ruler Raúl Castro because the repression against the women has increased in recent weeks, with scores detained to keep them from Sunday masses in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
“It would be good if he (Ortega) can intercede, if not to stop the repression at least to lower it,” she told El Nuevo Herald by telephone from her home in Havana.
The three hour and 40-minute session appeared to be part of an effort to warm up relations between Cuba’s Catholic Church and dissidents, on edge amid mutual recriminations since Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island in March.
Ortega was harshly criticized after he dismissed 13 dissidents who occupied a Havana church as having criminal records and little education. Soler described her recent meeting with Archdiocesan Chancellor Ramón Suarez Polcari as having “strong moments.”
The women had been requesting an audience with the cardinal since March 7 without a reply. They had last met in August of 2011.
The Ladies in White, founded in 2003 to demand the release of political prisoners, allege that there’s been a recent spike in the repression against dissidents, with 60 members detained to keep them away from papal masses and more than 50 Cubans jailed for political offenses.
Ortega should pass the women’s complaints to Castro at some point, Soler told reporters in Havana, although “the freedom of the political prisoners is in the hands not of the cardinal but of the government of Cuba.”
Soler said the women will always be grateful to the cardinal for interceding with Castro on their behalf in 2010, when government-organized thugs were regularly harassing them with lewd gestures and words.
Afterwards, the harassment was toned down and Castro began releasing more than 120 political prisoners. All but about 12 went directly from prison to exile in Spain, although Ortega insists their departure was voluntary.
“We appreciated his assistance, even if the result was not what we wanted,” Soler said.
The women also asked Ortega to relay to the Vatican their request for an audience with Benedict. Suarez Polcari angered them last month when he told them that he doubted the Castro government would allow the women to go to the Vatican.
Soler said the cardinal cautioned the women to be careful with the statements they make “because sometimes what we say is not what comes out on the media.” The women replied that they “speak openly,” she added.
The Ladies in White, who won the 2005 Sakharov Prize awarded by the European Parliament, also met on May 23 with the Santiago Archbishop Dionisio García, who is also president of the Cuban Conference of Bishops, and declared that session went well.
“We know that the doors of the church are not closed to the Ladies in White,” she noted. “We will continue knocking on the doors of the church.”