HAVANA (Reuters) - Cardinal Jaime Ortega rose from labor camp inmate in the 1960s to become one of Cuba’s leading political figures, leveraging a non-confrontational style into a rare position of influence for someone outside the Communist Party.
With Pope Francis visiting Cuba next week, Ortega’s role in boosting the power of the Roman Catholic Church on the island has drawn both praise and scorn.
Cuba’s small but vocal dissident community and hardline Cuban-American exiles in Miami believe he has become too cozy with the government and should be doing more for human rights and democratic freedoms.
Ortega, 78, enjoys unrivaled access among religious leaders to Cuban President Raul Castro and he has long been an ally of Argentine-born Pope Francis since their years together in the Latin American Bishops’ Council.
A soft-spoken cleric with a ready smile, Ortega negotiated the release of 126 political prisoners in 2010 and 2011. He also played a role last year in Cuba’s detente with the United States, leading to the renewal of diplomatic relations after 54 years of Cold War hostility.
Some experts have compared his cautious calls for change and religious opening to the work of Karol Wojtyla under Communist rule in Poland before he became Pope John Paul II.
“Like Ortega, John Paul II had an attitude of non-confrontation that would allow the Communists to see their own shortcomings,” said Andrea Bartoli, dean of international relations at Seton Hall, a Catholic university near New York. “The moderation and the opening are connected. It is because you are not confrontational that you can open these spaces.”
But critics say he has abandoned victims of oppression in exchange for a seat at the table of power.
“The Church has the same talking points as the Castro regime,” said Berta Soler, leader of the nominally Catholic dissident group Ladies in Whit.
She wants Ortega to forcefully denounce the government’s harassment of her group’s activists, dozens of whom are routinely detained by police for hours for participating in weekly demonstrations.
Ortega drew sharp criticism when he told Spain’s Cadena Ser radio in June there were no political prisoners in Cuba. Two weeks later, Cuba’s leading dissident human rights organization published a report saying there were 60 political prisoners, including about two dozen held for conducting peaceful protests.
Ortega himself served eight months in a labor camp in 1966-67 at a time when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government was rounding up religious figures, gay men and other perceived enemies.
Those camps, known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), marked a low point in Cuba’s human rights record but Ortega is introspective rather than angry about that time. He said the suffering he saw was a “unique experience” that taught him a great lesson in compassion.
“In the middle of it all was a tremendous experience, to know life as one could never learn in theological school,” Ortega told government-run Radio 26 in his hometown of Matanzas last year.
Although Ortega considers himself a man of dialogue, he also takes an occasional dig at his critics.
“They are not very present among the people of Cuba,” Ortega told Cadena Ser. “The dissidents, those that are called dissidents, are more present in the foreign press, in south Florida, and in blogs.”
Church officials say Ortega’s job is to stand up for basic principles such as religious freedom and the well-being of all Cubans, not to promote any partisan political agenda.
“That’s how it was with Jesus Christ. He was recognized and applauded, then sacrificed, and then recognized again,” said Orlando Marquez, a spokesman for the Church in Cuba and editor of its monthly magazine, Palabra Nueva.
Ortega, who declined requests for an interview, helped the secret negotiations that led to the breakthrough announcement by Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama last December that the former Cold War enemies would restore diplomatic ties.
When Pope Francis had missives for Castro and Obama at a delicate stage of the talks, Ortega was his messenger, according to the second edition of the book “Back Channel to Cuba,” published this month.
The pope asked Ortega to personally deliver the letters, so the cardinal flew to Washington and arranged a secret meeting with Obama in the White House.
“To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. ofﬁcials kept Ortega’s name off White House visitor logs,” authors Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande wrote.
John Paul appointed Ortega bishop in western Pinar del Rio in 1978 and archbishop of Havana in 1981, when Cuba was still officially atheist.
As former Cuban leader Fidel Castro softened his stance on the Church, Ortega’s influence grew. In 1992, Cuba reformed its constitution, changing the state from atheist to secular and guaranteeing freedom of religion.
John Paul, who promoted Ortega to cardinal in 1994, visited in 1998, improving ties with the government and prompting it to recognize Christmas as a holiday.
Ortega’s standing gained further after Fidel Castro ceded power to his younger brother Raul.
Then came the moment when Ortega became a real power broker and, in the process, alienated some former sympathizers.
By 2010, the Ladies in White had grown into a respected movement, many of them the wives of 75 political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring.
Their weekly vigils following Sunday mass at a Havana church were disrupted by pro-government groups staging “acts of repudiation,” which often turn into ugly shouting matches and occasionally become violent.
After failing to get the government to withdraw its supporters, Ortega appealed directly to Raul Castro, who agreed to meet the cardinal.
Before long, Ortega and Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago, with support from the Spanish government, were negotiating the release of the Black Spring detainees who remained in jail plus dozens more - 126 in all.
“That was a qualitative leap, when the cardinal played a very important role,” Marquez said.
It also, however, marked the beginning of his rupture with the Ladies in White.
When all the Black Spring prisoners were free, the Ladies in White sought Ortega’s backing as an opposition group. He declined, saying his task was to free the prisoners, not agitate against the government.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray