Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who presided over three papal visits to Cuba and served as an emissary between the Vatican and the White House during rapprochement negotiations, stepped down Tuesday and was replaced as archbishop of Havana by the current archbishop of Camagüey.
Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez, now archbishop of Camagüey in eastern Cuba, was named as Ortega’s replacement in the important and populous Archdiocese of Havana.
“He’s a man who is very discrete, a man of few words. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t say what he thinks,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who spent part of Easter Week with García in Cuba. “He’ll be a good archbishop in Havana; he’s already been a good archbishop in Camagüey.”
The low-key García, 67, spent most of his priesthood in his native Camagüey, becoming archbishop on June 10, 2002.
García “has before him many challenges. The first of those is reconstructing pastoral work in the Havana church, which is in profound crisis,” said Lenier González, a co-founder of Cuba Posible, a civil society project that encourages political dialogue in Cuba. “He will face a massive exodus abroad of young priests and lay people.”
Serving in Havana, the seat of Cuban government and power, where the Nunciatura Apostólica, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission, and other embassies are located will also be a departure for García, said González. “He must learn to lead an ecclesiastic territory different from that in Camagüey; one that is much more polycentric from many points of view.”
It remains to be seen whether García also will be elevated to cardinal as Ortega was in 1994 after serving 13 years as archbishop of Havana. New cardinals are often named in decrees, with several appointments made at a time.
Ortega, 79, submitted his resignation to the Vatican when he turned 75, as required. But it was not accepted until Tuesday. “Upon reaching the age limit,” according to the Holy See press office, Ortega’s resignation was accepted by Pope Francis.
When he turns 80 in October, Ortega would have lost his voting rights as a cardinal. As a cardinal elector, he took part in the 2013 conclave that chose Pope Francis.
In Miami Ortega, only the second Cuban to become a cardinal, was sometimes a polarizing figure. Some exiles thought he should have been a more vocal defender of human rights and been more critical of the Cuban government.
“I think he did very little in terms of standing up for human rights violations and freedoms in Cuba. I would hope the new archbishop will be more forceful,” said Andy Gómez, a Cuba scholar who has made two pilgrimages to Cuba for papal visits.
I think he did very little in terms of standing up for human rights violations and freedoms in Cuba. I would hope the new archbishop will be more forceful.
Cuba scholar Andy Gómez
“The Vatican kept [Ortega] longer than it would have normally because of the relationship he established with Raúl Castro,” he said.
Ortega was instrumental in negotiations with Castro for the 2010 and 2011 releases of the Group of 75 — dissidents serving long jail terms who were imprisoned in the 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring. But he was criticized for this too because a condition of release for most was exile in Spain.
In 2012, when a group of dissidents occupied a Havana church just days before Pope Benedict’s visit to the island, Ortega asked the government to force them out, and he later raised more controversy during a speech at Harvard University when he referred to the group as “delinquents.”
Last summer, prior to the September visit of Pope Francis to Cuba, dissidents said they approached him at a reception at the home of the head of the U.S. Interests Section and were rudely rebuffed when they tried to give him a list of political prisoners they hoped Castro might release in anticipation of the papal visit. The archdiocese has denied that Ortega used harsh words.
“It’s hard for someone here to do Monday-morning quarterbacking on Cardinal Ortega,” said Wenski. “He did what he thought was best and he did make a positive contribution to the church in Cuba.”
Ortega seemed to choose gaining space for the Catholic Church over confrontation, and during his tenure the church on the island grew and began helping people with all aspects of life, from providing soup kitchens and disaster relief to business training.
“In Cuba, he played a very important role in advancing the church in important ways,” said Wenski. “He wasn’t afraid to be controversial.”
In Cuba, he played a very important role in advancing the church in important ways. He wasn’t afraid to be controversial.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski
And as far as not speaking out against the Castros, Wenski said: “That’s not really the role of the church to do that. The only one that Cardinal Ortega had to please was the Lord.”
His successor will face challenges, from a severe shortage of priests and nuns, to crumbling churches in need of repairs to non-existent churches.
On the outskirts of Havana, however, the new St. John Paul II Church is under construction. It will be the first new church to be built in Cuba since the revolution.
With more Catholics returning to the faith, the archbishop “will face a lot of challenges, but they are exciting because they respond to the challenge of growth,” said Wenski.
Ortega was born in Jagüey Grande, a sugar mill town in Matanzas, and was ordained a priest in 1964. During a time when the government of Fidel Castro was rounding up religious figures and others perceived as enemies of the state, Ortega spent eight months in a labor camp in 1966-67.
Cuba was still officially atheist when Pope John Paul II appointed Ortega as a bishop in Pinar del Rio in 1978 and then three years later as archbishop of Havana. It wasn’t until 1992 that constitutional references to Cuba being an atheist state were dropped.
After John Paul’s visit in January 1998, relations between the church and state improved significantly and the government once again recognized Christmas as a holiday.
Among Ortega’s more prominent roles was serving as an emissary for Pope Francis during secret talks between the United States and Cuba that led to a diplomatic breakthrough on Dec. 17, 2014, and the subsequent reestablishment of relations, according to the updated book Back Channel to Cuba.
Ortega made a trip to the White House three months before the rapprochement was announced on a visit so sensitive that his name didn’t appear on the log of White House visitors. He hand-delivered a letter to President Barack Obama from the pope, who had become a behind-the-scenes mediator, and was offering to “help in any way possible.”
During Obama’s March visit to Cuba, the president met with Ortega during a tour of the Havana Cathedral and expressed his thanks for his role in the rapprochement.