Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, who promoted the presence of the Catholic Church in the communist country and who was a key figure in the reestablishment of relations between the United States and the island, died Friday at the age of 82 in Havana, following a battle against cancer, according to church officials.
“Our condolences for the death of Cardinal Jaime Ortega. His contribution to the strengthening of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban State is undeniable,“ Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s hand-picked president, posted on Twitter.
Ortega’s successor, Havana Archbishop Juan García, said that the cardinal would be remembered for “his kind smile, his clairvoyant intelligence and the testimony of a devoted and sometimes afflicted priesthood.”
Jaime Lucas Ortega Alamino was born on Oct. 18, 1936, in Jagüey Grande, Matanzas. He entered the seminary in 1956, and in 1964 he was ordained as priest.
His ministry was stalled for eight months in 1966 after he was confined at a military labor camp known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, where the Fidel Castro government sent religious leaders, homosexuals and others opposed to the regime in the early years of the revolution. The following year, Ortega was named parish priest of his native town.
In 1969, he was promoted to be in charge of the Cathedral of Matanzas and nine years later, in 1978, he was consecrated bishop of Pinar del Río by Pope John Paul II. During those years he also taught at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary. In 1981, the pope named him archbishop of Havana, and in 1994 he was named cardinal, the second Cuban in church history to be named to the post.
That same year he was one of the main architects of the pastoral letter El amor todo lo espera (Love waits for everything), which contained strong criticism of the government, especially of the dreaded State Security. In those years, Ortega’s voice was one of the most critical among the Cuban bishops. He condemned the “violent and tragic” events on July 13, 1994, that resulted in Cuban authorities ramming a tugboat named 13 de Marzo, which was hijacked in an attempt to flee the island. The tugboat sank off the coast of Havana, and 37 people died.
“His appointment as cardinal was a gift from Pope John Paul II to the Cuban Church. The pope wanted the Church to break with the silence that had been forced on them, and to leave the sanctuaries and evangelize,” said the Rev. Castor José Álvarez Devesa from Camagüey.
Álvarez Devesa said that one of Ortega’s great achievements was the pastoral structure he built at his archdiocese, which provided a “faithful link with the Church,” opened dialogue and led to several symbolic events such as the procession of Our Lady of Charity statue across the island, “which has been a blessing,” he said.
Álvarez Devesa also highlighted the role Ortega played in condemning the death penalty on the island and advocating for the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country.
From Trinidad, in the center of Cuba, the Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez said that Ortega had great influence during the last decades, “both in the life of the Cuban church and in the life of our people.”
“Jaime always sought that the Church be present in the life of the country. He was attentive to problems that affected the lives of the population, such as emigration,” Conrado Rodríguez said. “He tried to solve big and serious problems and he did it with the best intentions, although personally I think that the way he confronted them was not always joyful,” added the priest, who has criticized the close relations between the Catholic Church and the government.
During the almost 35 years that he was in charge of the Archdiocese of Havana, Cardinal Ortega restored dozens of sanctuaries, established a Diocesan Pastoral Council to make the work of the church more effective, and established the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Cuba.
In 1991, Ortega created Cáritas Havana, which preceded Cáritas Cuba, the largest non-governmental organization on the island that distributes medicine, food and other types of aid on a daily basis. Ortega also played an important role in the creation of the socio-religious publications Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical y Amor y Vida.
In 2011 Ortega took part in negotiations for the release of 75 political prisoners rounded up during the so-called Black Spring and in the subsequent departure to Spain by many of them. He was criticized later when he publicly stated that there were no political prisoners in Cuba.
Ortega was considered the architect of three papal visits to Cuba: John Paul II in 1998, Benedict XVI in 2012, and Francis in 2015, who officiated Masses in areas previously reserved for the government.
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. The cardinal also created the Felix Varela Cultural Center, a training center that offered an alternative to the government’s monopoly on education.
“I was the letter,” said Ortega about his role in the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba that led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries during the Obama administration.
According to reports years later, Pope Francis secretly entrusted Ortega to deliver a letter to both Raúl Castro and Obama.
“Perhaps the most important part of my mission came when President Raúl Castro asked me to convey a message to President Obama, by being the bearer of the Holy Father’s letter to the president in the White House,” he recalled during a speech.
The message commissioned by Castro was that Obama had not been responsible for the policy toward Cuba, that he was an honest man and that in Havana they knew his intentions to improve relations with the island.
Obama thanked Castro for his words and sent with the cardinal a verbal message: “It was possible to improve the existing situation,” despite their differences. On Dec. 17, 2014, the date of Pope Francis’ birthday, Cuba and the United States announced they would restore diplomatic relations.
Both sides acknowledged the work of the Catholic Church as mediator, although sectors of the exile community and opposition in Cuba criticized Ortega harshly because it did not demand an improvement on issues of human rights and freedoms on the island.
Ortega spent three and a half decades as the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba. Pope Francis accepted his resignation in 2016 and appointed Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez from Camagüey as archbishop of Havana.
Recently, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba gave Cardinal Ortega the Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Distinction, which recognizes Catholic personalities and institutions for their work of evangelization. The bishops of the 11 Cuban dioceses were present at the ceremony.
This article was a collaboration between the Cuban digital outlet 14ymedio and el Nuevo Herald.