Cuban Government Meets with Church on Prisoners

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega says that something "new and different" is happening in relations between the Castro government and the Cuban Catholic Church with the latter emerging as the official mediator between the government and dissidents, including political prisoners.

He highlighted his more than four-hour meeting last night with President Raul Castro as a "magnificent beginning" and "an ongoing process," that implicitly "recognized the Church as having a role to play" in resolving social issues.

Ortega told a crowded press conference that the high level meeting had nothing to do with the upcoming visit in June by the Vatican's Foreign Minister Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, nor did that visit have anything to do with the recent activity on the part of the Cuban Church to defuse tension between authorities and the opposition group Damas en Blanco - Ladies in White - relatives of jailed dissidents. He dismissed speculation that Mamberti was coming to discuss a prisoner release.

Those are issues between the Cuban Catholic Church and the government, he said. "Alleviating the situation" of all prisoners and "not just those who are in poor health," including those referred to as "political prisoners, or prisoners of conscience or counter-revolutionaries as they are called by the Government," Ortega said, was on the table last night. The issue of freeing some of these prisoners was addressed. "We spoke clearly," he noted.

The meeting between Cardinal Ortega; the head of the Cuban Conference of Bishops, Santiago de Cuba Bishop Dionisio Garcia and President Raul Castro and the head of the Communist Party Central Committee Department of Religious Affairs, Caridad Diego received wide coverage in the local State-run media today.

The brief news article front-paged in the official daily Granma said only that they analyzed "the favorable development" of Church - State relations and the "current national and international situation." However, the prominent coverage given the meeting surprised Cuba observers because Ortega has traditionally kept his distance--at least in public - from the government and because the talks came on the heels of Cardinal Ortega's outspoken criticism of the government's handling of the economy and human rights.

Back in April, in an interview with a Cuban Church publication, Cardinal Ortega warned that delaying needed changes to "improve the situation," which he described as "the most difficult we have experienced in the 21st century" went against the "national consensus."

He urged the Government to move more quickly because stalling "creates impatience and ill will among people."

While acknowledging the international economic crisis, the U.S. trade embargo and the effects of three hurricanes in 2008, Ortega insisted on "Cuba's perennial economic difficulties, which stem from the constraints of the type of socialism practiced here and result in an often gloomy outlook."

The Wednesday night meeting the Cardinal told the press "was a dialogue on Cuba...not problems of the Church, the need for more space, no, we talked about Cuba, this moment, the future."

He admitted that "nothing concrete" came out of their talks but expressed optimism in that it showed that the Church could play the role of mediator and overcome old conflicts between it and the Cuban Government.

Nevertheless, the Cardinal stressed the Church's independence, saying he was not talking about a relationship based on a "strategic alliance" but rather the Church being able to play a "spiritual role, a charitable role with total independence." His talks with President Castro broadly covered the Church's being able to assume "its function in society."

Whether or not the conversation begun last night leads to a prompt prisoner release, Ortega has already achieved two victories.

Earlier this month he negotiated with the "highest level" of the government to stop the increasing harassment of the Ladies in White. For the past seven years these women, wives, mothers and daughters of imprisoned dissidents, had marched undisturbed every Sunday following mass in a mostly silent demand for the release of political prisoners. However in March, State Security agents started using force to halt their protests and international condemnation of the island's human rights policy spiraled. The deal hammered out by Ortega has allowed the women to continue their demonstration without police obstruction for the last three weeks and presumably into the future.

And secondly he has managed--with last night's talks - to obtain government recognition legitimizing the right of the Church to participate in resolving social problems, a space long denied the Cuban Catholic Church.

Although the government has expressed no reason for the shift in it policy, Cardinal Ortega says the conversation with President Castro was part of an on-going process and that further talks could take place "at any moment, at that level or at another level."

On the rumors of an upcoming Papal visit, Ortega said it would not happen due to the Pope's advanced age.