Easy to Criticize Cardinal Ortega from Miami

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The ferocity of Cuban exiles leaves one amazed at times. They have not mellowed with age. Any hint of collaboration with the brothers Castro will earn their wrath, no matter who the offender is or how difficult his situation may be.

A recent article from the Associated Press described how Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the Catholic Church in Cuba, is being criticized for being too chummy with the Cuban government. Ortega is 75 and will likely retire soon, but there have been calls for his immediate resignation.

There’s been grumbling about Ortega before, but the latest criticism came in the wake of Pope Benedict’s visit to Havana in March. The chief accusation is that he failed to speak up on behalf of dissidents before and after the pope’s visit and in exchange, the government did not embarrass Benedict.

In one incident that outraged anti-Castro observers, Ortega called the police to collect some protesters who were demanding an audience with the pope. Ortega called them “former delinquents.” Carlos Garcia-Perez of Radio and TV Marti called Ortega a “lackey.”

In another incident, Cuban dissidents were released from prison as a goodwill gesture in advance of Benedict’s visit, then promptly exiled to Spain. The cardinal drew fire for not speaking on their behalf, which is ironic since Ortega has often pleaded for the release of dissidents.

Ortega has defenders inside and outside Cuba. The most prominent in Florida is Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who has to ride herd on the Cuban exiles in his archdiocese.

“To suggest that somehow he is a lackey of the regime is ludicrous,” Wenski told the AP. “Some of the cardinal’s harshest critics here are looking for a scenario that is easy to advocate outside of Cuba.”

Wenski is a conservative who isn’t going to be mistaken for a communist sympathizer. He also spoke a word of truth – it’s a lot more difficult to be a proponent for freedom in Havana than in Miami’s Little Havana. Like many religious leaders in Cuba, Ortega has had to negotiate a delicate balance between maintaining the church’s principles on human rights and keeping Castro’s boot off its throat.

It is not only the Catholics who have had to deal with this. The bishop of the Methodist Church in Cuba, Ricardo Pereira, studiously avoids discussing politics on his occasional visits to Florida. His church has flourished since the Cuban government relaxed its rules on religious practices around 1990, and you could say he is trying to keep the revival going.

Or you could say he has a lot to lose. His predecessor, Bishop Armando Rodriguez, spent many years in prison. A pastor from Cuba who emigrated here once complained bitterly to me that Pereira was in the pocket of the Cuban Minister of Religious Affairs.

It’s true that, as Jesus said, you can gain the world and lose your soul. Submission in the interest of survival would empty any religious group of its identity and self-respect.

But that’s an awfully easy argument to make from the outside. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew better than anyone, once remarked that martyrdom is a gift that is not given to everyone.

Cuban exiles who demand that religious leaders martyr themselves should test their own nerves by moving back to Cuba and speaking out. Courage is a lot easier to find in the land of the free.

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