U.S. broadcaster calls Cuban cardinal a Castro ‘lackey’

Criticism of the leader of the Catholic Church in Cuba, who has been negotiating with the communist government to expand religious and political freedom, intensified last week when the head of Radio and TV Marti called the archbishop of Havana a lackey who is colluding with an oppressive regime.

The stinging editorial against Cardinal Jaime Ortega — signed by Radio and TV Marti’s director, Carlos Garcia-Perez — is significant because Marti is a U.S. government agency, with its board of directors appointed by the White House and its policies coordinated with the State Department to direct messages to Cubans.

Some analysts said the editorial could undermine Ortega’s position in Cuba and they wondered whether it signaled a lack of support for the Church’s delicate position on the communist-run island.

Marti broadcasts, according to spokeswoman Lynne Weil, “are editorially independent, although supported by U.S. taxpayer dollars. Their editorials, unless otherwise stated, represent the views of the broadcasters only and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.”

Weil said she did not know when the State Department saw the editorial or whether there was any discussion of its content.

“I would suggest that this is equivalent to a U.S. government statement and that people may conclude, rightly or wrongly, that this is a U.S. government position,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute.

The cardinal has been hailed by some for his role in the freeing of political prisoners and for creating a small but relatively safe space for citizens to complain about the Cuban government, including its tight immigration and economic policies. Cuba’s Catholic magazines contain some of the most lively, as well as pointed, criticism of the government.

But Ortega has been hammered in the Cuban exile community and by members of the South Florida congressional delegation, who say he is an appeaser who enables the Castro brothers and prolongs their rule.

Many activists voiced disappointment that Ortega did not publicly push for human rights or defend dissidents during the recent visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI.

Ortega also came under fire for statements he made at an April 24 Harvard University panel, where he described the 13 dissidents who sought to occupy a Havana church a few days before the pope arrived as “criminals” and “people of low culture.”

The dissidents, who included a mentally ill person, had said they hoped to push the church to engage the pope on human rights issues. Ortega had state security officers remove them.

Guillermo I. Martinez, a columnist with the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, recently called Ortega a bootlicker. The popular Cuban American blog Babalu called Ortega “a truly despicable man.”

Ortega has said that he gets attacked from all sides.

“Perhaps this takes time and is a sort of martyrdom all Christians, including myself as pastor, must undergo,” the cardinal said at Harvard. “That is what it means to give your life for the sheep.”

In his editorial, aired on Radio and TV Marti and published on the broadcaster’s Web site, Garcia-Perez, a Cuban-American lawyer from Puerto Rico, accused Ortega of speaking with “scorn and arrogance” of the 13 dissidents.

“This attitude of Ortega just goes to show his political collusion with the government and his willingness to follow the official line,” he wrote. “This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God.”

El Nuevo Herald in Miami contacted several of the 13 dissidents, who denied they had criminal records.

“I can only say that the 13 are a perfect reflection of Cuban society, in which there is everything,” Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez told the newspaper.

Jorge Dominguez, the Harvard professor who invited the archbishop to speak, said: “Cardinal Ortega is a good man. Calling him a lackey is beyond belief.”

Dominguez added, “It is amazing that this comes from a U.S. government broadcaster.”

The professor noted that as a young priest, Ortega was sent to a reeducation camp and forced to do manual labor, as the church struggled in a state that had declared itself officially atheist.

“Who freed the political prisoners in Cuba? Not the European Union. Not the U.S. government. And not Radio and TV Marti. It was Ortega who convinced Raul Castro to let them out,” Dominguez said.

He added, however, that Ortega’s condemnation of the dissidents was unfair. “A lot of people have criminal records in Cuba, but you have no way of knowing if they have records simply because the state has targeted them for their political activities,” he said.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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