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.



Recent Articles

Date Title
7/29/11 U.S. should not retreat from the hemisphere
By Bill Richardson, The Miami Herald
7/28/11 Castro Offers a Wave at Cuban Fete, but, Again, No Speech
By Damien Cave, The New York Times
7/28/11 Tampa airport to begin weekly charters to Cuba
By Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald
7/28/11 Kerry lifts hold on cash promoting Cuba democracy
Associated Press
7/28/11 Dutch bank ING may face U.S. sanctions
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/28/11 The Last Pilgrims to Havana
By Yoani Sanchez, Foreign Policy
7/27/11 A Breath of Freedom Suffocated
Christopher Sabatini, The Huffington Post
7/27/11 Cuba VP: Gov’t pushing ahead with economic reforms but not enough headway
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/27/11 The door opens for more Cuba travel
By Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald
7/26/11 Cuban court hears appeal of jailed U.S. subcontractor Gross
By Juan Tamayo, Miami Herald
7/26/11 Mass honors Cuban archbishop
By Daniel Roth, The Miami Herald
7/25/11 Chávez Returns, Saying Cancerous Cells Not Found
By Alexi Barrionuevo, The New York Times
7/25/11 Cuban archbishop a freedom-fighter with one weapon
By Myriam Marquez, The Miami Herald
7/25/11 Jailed American makes final court appeal in Cuba
By Paul Haven, Associated Press
7/25/11 A Cuban housing market? Gov't is lifting a taboo
By Peter Orsi, The Miami Herald
7/22/11 Cuban government hijacks the mega-music Rotilla Festival
Roots of Hope
7/22/11 Ros-Lehtinen urges constituents to post photos of Cuban human rights abuses
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/22/11 Mixed messages as Cuban high court hears imprisoned American’s final appeal
Associated Press
7/22/11 Diaz-Balart seeks to revive Bush-era Cuba travel
Associated Press
7/21/11 Issue #2: Current Situation & Future of the Relationship Between Cuba & the United States Files
Miriam Leiva, From the Island
7/21/11 Congresswoman says curbs on travel to Cuba ignored
By Stephen Levy, The Washington Times
7/21/11 Ping Pong Diplomacy: Will Cuba Catch Up?
By Christopher Sabatini, The Miami Herald
7/21/11 Cuba says 900 agricultural experts advising Venezuelan farmers
Associated Press
7/21/11 Businesses see potential profits in Tampa-to-Cuba flights
By Jose Girona, Tampa Tribune
7/20/11 Cuba’s shadow economy sees some daylight
By Paul Haven, the Associated Press
7/20/11 Current Record
7/20/11 Lacking a wholesale market, Cuba cuts prices for bulk purchases to aid private workers
Associated Press
7/20/11 Ready to Swim 103 Miles With the Sharks
By Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times
7/18/11 Blogger: Cubans thirsty yet wary
By Sarah Moreno, The Miami Herald
7/18/11 Hugo Chavez Cancer: Venezuelan President Delegates Powers To Vice President Elias Jaua
Huffington Post
7/18/11 Chávez Puts His Trust in Castro for Care
By Alexi Barrionuevo, The New York Times
7/15/11 Time for Reflection and Prudence
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Reconciliacion Cubana
7/15/11 Dems, State Dept near resolution on Cuba money
By Donna Cassata and Desmond Butler, Associated Press
7/14/11 Venezuela’s Chavez says he expects to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment
Associated Press
7/14/11 Congressional Amendment Threatens Cuban Families
Yoani Sanchez, Huffington Post
7/13/11 The Cuban Grapevine
By James Scudmore, More Intelligent Life Magazine
7/13/11 Obama Administration threatens veto over Diaz-Balart Ammendment
Executive Office of the President
7/13/11 My Reasons for the Bridge
Yoani Sanchez, Generación Y
7/13/11 Mother of Cuban dissident tells US lawmakers about son's death
By James Rosen, The Miami Herald
7/12/11 Chavez says cancer fight 'my longest walk'
By Christopher Toothaker, Associated Press
7/12/11 Cuba banker says state has lent ‘millions’ to more than 13,000 farmers under ag initiative
Associated Press
7/11/11 Cuba academic who wrote blistering anti-corruption essay says expulsion from Party overturned
Associated Press
7/11/11 Life at GTMO after fleeing Castro's Cuba
By Anthony Welsch, WBIR News
7/11/11 Transgender activist resigns after clash with Castro daughter
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/8/11 Cuba says detained US contractor Alan Gross’ appeal to be heard July 22
Associated Press
7/8/11 Cuba says 16 percent of islanders have access to some kind of online service
Associated Press
7/8/11 Cuban cellphones hit 1 million, Net access lags
By Marc Frank, Reuters
7/7/11 If Hugo goes
The Economist
7/7/11 DNC boss, president at odds on Cuba policy
By Mike Lillis, The HIll
7/7/11 Spain may change tone on Latin America
By Andres Oppenheimer, The Miami Herald
7/6/11 Human rights group says abuses in Cuba are growing
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/6/11 Cuba Travel Restrictions in the Spotlight in Brooklyn and Beyond
By Matthew Aho, Americas Quarterly
7/6/11 Our secret deportation list: It may be legal, but is it right?
By Jackie Bueno Sousa, The Miami Herald
7/6/11 In Cuba, the Voice of a Blog Generation
By Larry Rohter, The New York Times
7/5/11 Insufficient and Unclear Guidelines
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, From the Island
7/5/11 Cuba’s economic czar heads new generation of leaders
By Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press
7/5/11 Former US presidential candidate McGovern leaving Cuba without meeting friend Fidel Castro
Associated Press
7/4/11 Ballet Points to U.S.-Cuba: Friendship Is Not an "Impossible Dream!"
By Noel Erwin Hentschel, The Huffington Post
7/4/11 Cuban economic reform aims to bring a world of secret businesses into the light
Associated Press
7/4/11 TwittHab: Cuban tweeters meet face to face, celebrate budding community despite slow Internet
Associated Press
7/4/11 Cuba would hurt if Chávez is replaced
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/1/11 Cuba plans limited housing and auto market
By Marc Frank, Reuters
7/1/11 Chávez Says a Cancerous Tumor Was Removed
By Simon Romero, The New York Times
7/1/11 US must step up Cuba oil spill readiness - experts
By Jeff Franks, Reuters
7/1/11 U2’s Bono urged support for Cuban dissident Biscet
By Juan Tamayo, The Miami Herald
7/1/11 New Ways to Visit Cuba — Legally
By Michelle Higgis, The New York Times
7/1/11 Cubans honor ashes of New York pastor Walker who defied US embargo with 21 aid trips to island
Associated Press