A proud Cuban who pressed for greater freedom for his Church and for an end to the U.S. embargo on his homeland, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, retired archbishop of Havana, died July 26. He was 82.
Serving as head of the Archdiocese of Havana for almost 35 years pushed the cardinal into a prominent role as a spokesman for Cuban Catholics on national and international issues, but he also devoted much of his energy to supporting the island’s active Catholics and encouraging them as missionaries to their neighbors.
Cardinal Ortega welcomed St. John Paul II to Cuba in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI in March 2012 and Pope Francis in September 2015 and again, briefly, the following February.
Pope Francis conveyed his sympathy to the deceased cardinal’s family and to the clergy and faithful of Havana in a telegram sent July 27 by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to Archbishop Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez of Havana.
The pope prayed for the eternal rest of Cardinal Ortega who “served the Church and his brothers and sisters in the different assignments that Providence entrusted to him.”
The late Cardinal John O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, led an archdiocesan pilgrimage to Cuba for the papal trip in 1998. Pope John Paul II left Cuba “filled with joy” because he accomplished his mission, Cardinal O’Connor told a Mass congregation in Havana before departing Cuba.
Cardinal Ortega used every opportunity possible to plead with the U.S. government to end its economic blockade of his country, echoing the position of successive popes that the blockade was keeping thousands of people poor while doing little to pressure the Cuban government to expand freedoms and human rights.
In 2014, when it became clear that U.S. President Barack Obama might be willing to loosen the embargo, Pope Francis gave two letters to Cardinal Ortega, asking him to deliver one to Raul Castro and the other to Obama.
As a public figure, Cardinal Ortega devoted much energy to pressing his government to allow the Catholic Church in Cuba to have a public voice and to help serve the poor.
While the cardinal worked hard to get churches restored and reopened in Havana, he encouraged people to host prayer meetings in their homes.
Born in Jaguey Grande, Cuba, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1964 after seminary studies in Cuba and at the seminary of Foreign Missions in Quebec.
His first assignment, as a parochial vicar in Cardenas, was interrupted in 1966 when he was detained and sent to the agricultural forced labor camp, known by its Spanish acronym UMAP.
Cardinal Ortega rarely spoke publicly about the eight months he was in the camp, although he did so during an interview in 2014. Cardinal Ortega told the newspaper Giron: “From a human point of view, it was atrocious perhaps, if considered from the outside. But everything has to be looked at—in faith we look at everything like that—in the light of God. If God wanted this to happen, then what would He want from this?”
St. John Paul II named him bishop of Pinar del Rio in 1978 and archbishop of Havana in 1981. He was made a cardinal in 1994. He retired in 2016.—CNS