HAVANA — Over the past half-century, Fidel and Raul Castro have ensured — through exile, purges and execution — that no political figure or generation has emerged as their obvious successors. Time and again, the brothers have stacked the ruling Cuban Communist Party with gray hard-liners nearly as old as they are, determined to preserve their revolutionary legacy.

Given this reality, post-Castro Cuba will need someone trusted by all segments of society to help shepherd this nation into a new era, without bloodshed or upheaval.Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana, is that man. The son of a sugar mill worker, Ortega is uniquely equipped to fill any power vacuum.

At this point, it's impossible to predict what the island's transition from the communist regime to whatever follows will look like: A spontaneous, cataclysmic rising like Iran, 1979, or implosions in Eastern Europe, 1989, is highly unlikely, despite the hopes of the exile community in Miami. Perhaps transition will be more like this year's largely non-violent Arab Spring.

However, if the process resembles Chile's peaceful, slow-motion evolution from military dictatorship to democracy during the 1980s, Ortega will be well-positioned to exercise his influence in the economic and political transformation.

The Vatican generally frowns on priests, bishops or cardinals taking formal political roles, but Rome is more vague on their roles in democratic movements. And precedents exist for Catholic prelates assisting such transitions. Pope John Paul II and the Polish Catholic Church he once headed are credited with hastening the 1991 downfall of the Soviet Union, and, later, with serving as an honest broker in Poland in the transition from Soviet-style-communism to Western democracy. In the Philippines in 1986, Cardinal Jaime Sin was instrumental in bringing down the dictatorship ofFerdinand Marcos.

Catholicism in Cuba today

For 30 years after Cuba's 1959 revolution, church attendance plummeted, in part because of government restrictions and sanctions. Although no reliable statistics are available, observers say the Catholic Church has experienced a slow but steady resurgence under Ortega's leadership. About 60% of Cubans identify themselves as Catholic, but weekly attendance at services is estimated at just 250,000. At the same time, the government has permitted a growing number of Protestant and Pentecostal mission trips from the United States, posing a potential challenge to the Catholic Church.

For now, Ortega, 74, a charming, amiable man, is ensconced behind a nondescript gate in a poor section of this beautiful but crumbling city, holding the key to what Cuba will look like in a post-Castro era. Notwithstanding, he strongly — adamantly — eschews any ambition to fill a political role. If Ortega outlives the Castro brothers, he will make an ideal if unelected candidate to lead, a master of realpolitik who walks a fine line between principled opposition to some government policies, and practical accommodation to others.

Ortega is trusted — if warily — by the Castro government. He has said on visits to the U.S. and Europe that the Cuban people's primary concern is less with political liberalization than with a pressing need for economic revival. He insists that the U.S. economic embargo should be lifted— an article of faith by the regime, as well as by the overwhelming majority of Cubans. Like Pope John Paul II, he also criticizes the excesses of Western capitalism.

Despite Raul Castro's baby steps in the direction of a mixed economy, the nation is in trouble, Ortega has said. And he's right, at least from what I observed on a recent, five-day visit to Havana, my first in 30 years.

Most Cubans scramble to subsist on their common in tourist areas, and beggars are back, making heart-rending hand gestures to their mouths, requesting money for food. Pedicab drivers and street hawkers are increasingly aggressive, and low-level government corruption is rampant.

Ortega’s detractors

Ortega has his critics, though, among Miami's more intractable opponents of the regime, some of whom still expect to fly into Havana and take over after the Castros. More vociferous exiles denounce Ortega as an opportunist. None was pleased when, in 2008, the cardinal conducted a Mass in the Cathedral of Havana for the health of ailing President Fidel Castro.

Among the most vocal skeptics about Ortega's future role is a trio of Republican members of Congress. They are led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the powerfulHouse Foreign Affairs Committee, who once characterized Ortega as a "collaborator with the Castro regime" for his insufficient support for dissidents. The others are both Florida Republicans: Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

From time to time, Ortega travels to the U.S. to accept awards or honorary degrees, and for low-profile meetings with State Department officials. Some of Ortega's earlier U.S. visits generated controversy, in particular invitations to conduct Masses. In May 1995, he celebrated a Mass for 800 "brothers and sisters" in Miami, but refused to criticize then-President Fidel Castro. He was heckled outside a Mass he conducted in June of that year in New Jersey, called a "traitor" and "Judas." Today, opposition websites such as "The Real Cuba" deride Ortega as "Castro's secretary" and paint a red beret on his picture.

Yet by his actions on their behalf, Ortega has earned some credibility among government opponents. As a young priest in the 1960s, he served time in a "re-education" labor camp. When released, he declined to go into exile. Last year, hepleaded the case for the island's imprisoned dissidents in a four-hour meeting with Raul Castro, negotiating an arrangement that would send released prisoners to exile in Spain.

Not long after the releases, Ortega was instrumental in another agreement with the government that allowed any of the island's 200 remaining political prisoners to move from jails far from their homes to prisons in their home provinces.

Waiting, watching

For years now, the tropical winds have been shifting in favor of Ortega and the Catholic Church. In 1991, the Communist Party announced that religious believers could be party members, immediately raising the church's profile. Ortega played a key role in arranging John Paul's historic 1998 visit to Cuba, where Fidel was conspicuously deferential. Before the papal visit, Castro allowed Ortega to deliver an unprecedented, half-hour address on the state network.

In recent years, Raul Castro has appeared twice in public with Ortega, once for the dedication of a new U.S.-supported Catholic seminary, and earlier for a beatification Mass for a Cuban priest, Jose Ollalo, known as the "father of the poor."

But whatever Ortega might be thinking privately about his future role, for now he needs to be careful — and quiet — on the subject, as he has been in meetings I have had with him in the U.S. and Havana. Centuries ago in England, imagining the sovereign's death was treasonous; in Cuba the situation regarding revolutionary icons is equally unthinkable. Friends of freedom and better relations between the U.S. and Cuba can only hope that, when the moment arises, Jaime Ortega will be ready to step forward as his country's indispensible, perhaps inevitable, man.

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