HAVANA — When a young parish priest named Jaime Ortega stepped out of a Cuban detention camp in the spring of 1967, at the height of the Communist revolution's attempt to stamp out religion, his father handed him a one-way ticket to Spain and urged his son not to look back.
But Ortega refused to go.
Forty-five years later and now a cardinal, Ortega heads the island's Roman Catholic church, which has returned from the wilderness to become the most influential independent institution in the country. In recent years, the 75-year-old clergyman has negotiated with President Raul Castro for the release of political prisoners, given the government advice on economic policy and allowed church magazines to publish increasingly frank articles about the need for change.
And after Pope Benedict XVI pays a pre-Easter visit, Ortega will have played a part in getting two consecutive pontiffs to turn their spotlight on one of the most secular countries in Latin America.
"My impression of Jaime Ortega is that he's just the right man at the right time over these years," said Tom Quigley, a former Latin America policy adviser at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It seems to me the events of the last couple of years have proved his quiet leadership to have been very effective, and the church is in a much better position today than it has been at any time since 1960."
Ortega has used his pulpit to criticize Cuba's Marxist political system and call for greater economic and political freedom, but also to steer the island's young people away from what he warned in a 1998 speech was "a type of United States subculture which invades everything."
Ortega's tenure has not been without controversy.
Dissidents, U.S. diplomats and even some Vatican power brokers have disparaged the cardinal's cautious approach, saying he often seems more concerned with church renovations than with human and political rights. Some even see him as an apologist for the government that once imprisoned him.
"He has a very tough job," said Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, an Ortega supporter who acknowledged that many Cuban exiles view the cardinal warily. "For those who are Monday-morning-quarterbacking from Miami and don't have on-the-ground experience, it's going to take more time for them to change their opinion of him."
Ortega, a plump, jovial man often spotted on the cobblestone streets of Old Havana wearing a simple priest's collar, became archbishop of the capital in 1981, and cardinal in 1994, just as the Communist government was easing up on religion. It had excised the last references to atheism from its laws and regulations, and removed prohibitions on worship by party members. Following Pope John Paul II's historic 1998 tour, which Ortega helped organize, Fidel Castro declared Christmas a national holiday for the first time since that status was abolished following the 1959 revolution.
Still, the island remains the least overtly religious country in Latin America, with less than 10 percent of the population practicing. Despite years of lobbying, the church has virtually no access to state-run radio or television, is not allowed to administer schools and has not been granted permission to build new places of worship. The island of 11.2 million has just 300 priests. Before 1959, by comparison, there were 700 priests for a population of 6 million.
For many years, Ortega rarely spoke out against the government or opined on policy. He has confided privately to diplomats and others about his tumultuous relationship with Fidel Castro, saying the two were often not on speaking terms.
By all accounts, his interaction with Raul, Fidel's less doctrinaire brother who took over in 2006, has been better. Ortega has said he meets regularly with the younger Castro, sometimes giving him advice on the economic reforms the president is pushing. And even if the pews are not packed, that interaction at the highest level gives the church a unique role in a country with no legal opposition or independent press.
In 2010, the cardinal sat down with Castro and a Spanish diplomat in a meeting that cleared the way for the release of dozens of intellectuals, social commentators and opposition activists imprisoned by Fidel in a notorious 2003 crackdown.
Church publications also have begun pushing for more sweeping economic and political change, and Ortega himself publicly urged Castro to speed up the changes.
"I think this feeling has become a kind of national consensus, and its delay is producing impatience and unease among the people," Ortega told the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva (New Word) in 2010.
Castro credited the church with helping the prisoner releases go "harmoniously," portraying Ortega as unafraid to fight his side.
But many dissidents have been less charitable, particularly about Ortega's tacit acceptance of the government's insistence that most freed political prisoners go into exile.
"I don't think the Catholic church was fundamental or influential in our liberation," said Julio Cesar Galvez, a prisoner sent into exile in Spain in July 2010. "The Cuban Catholic Church ... simply served as a front for the totalitarian Cuban regime."
It is not the first time Ortega has been accused of not doing enough.
In 2007, the cardinal tried to close the church magazine, Vitral (Stained Glass), which was becoming more aggressive in criticizing the government. Publication was ultimately allowed to continue, but its editor was removed and became an open dissident.
The affair caused anger even at the Vatican, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks and separately obtained by The Associated Press.
A May 14, 2007 dispatch written by Washington's mission to the Holy See quotes the chief of staff to Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone as complaining that Cuba's government must have been happy with Ortega because "the Church did its dirty work."
The cable added: "Vatican officials have hinted in the past that Ortega had become too cozy with Castro."
"From Cardinal Ortega all the way down to provincial nuns, the Church mostly avoids challenging the GOC (government of Cuba)," said another dispatch, this one written by U.S. diplomats in Havana in 2008. "On issues large and small, Catholic Church strategy is to capitulate to GOC positions, preemptively if possible."
Since those cables were written, Ortega's role in freeing the dissidents has become known, critical articles are reappearing in church magazines and the cardinal is more publicly supportive of the Ladies in White opposition group. A Western diplomat told AP Ortega is viewed positively, but should use his pulpit more effectively and be less cautious.
"We think he has more power than perhaps he realizes and wish he would use it," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the cardinal publicly.
Ortega declined to be interviewed, but the criticism must sting for a man who has ridden out the tempestuous tides of Cuba's revolution from his earliest days in the church.
Ortega is only the second cardinal in Cuba's history, succeeding Manuel Arteaga Betancourt, who died in the first years after the revolution. He was born in 1936 near the central city of Matanzas and began studying for the priesthood when he was 19, training for some time at a seminary in Montreal. He returned to Cuba and was ordained in 1964.
At the time, many priests were expelled from the country or became marked men. Communist party members were banned from worship and churches were left to decay. Catholic hospitals and schools, including the Jesuit high school in Havana where Fidel Castro studied, were nationalized and secularized.
In turn, many priests actively supported groups opposed to the new Communist government, even hiding weapons in some cases. In 1963, Cuba passed a law requiring all men between the ages of 17 and 45 to make themselves available for military service, including priests.
Ortega's name came up for military service in 1966, but as with other religious men, the government considered him untrustworthy to join the force, sending him instead to a military work camp in Camaguey that interned intellectuals, homosexuals, dissidents, clergymen and others who ran afoul of the government.
While Ortega has not spoken publicly about his eight months at the camp, other inmates describe 4 a.m. wake-up calls, screaming guards, dirty water and atrocious food; days spent doubled over cutting sugar cane and nights grabbing restless sleep in uncomfortable hammocks.
Many fled Cuba the moment they got out, joining a burgeoning diaspora in South Florida, Spain and elsewhere. But Ortega has said leaving was not an option.
"I never dreamed in all my time (in the camp) of leaving Cuba," he said in a 2011 speech, explaining why he turned down his father's ticket out. "Cuba, for me, is my homeland ... I feel it in the smells in the air, the threatening skies of a hurricane, the sweet afternoons of a false winter, the way people speak, and their music."
Ortega's supporters point to his past as evidence of his quiet courage, and say his ability to work with the government despite his personal suffering is a sign of his deep religious conviction.
"National forgiveness must begin with personal forgiveness," said Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights activist and de facto spokesman for many island dissidents, who has known the cardinal since the 1980s. "That is the first prayer of all Christians, and Ortega believes in it."
Associated Press reporters Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami, Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
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