Today, Cardinal Jaime L. Ortega, the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, will speak privately with a group of undergraduates and publicly in the JFK Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics. The Cardinal, only the second in Cuba’s history, was criticized recently in a blistering editorial in The Washington Post for being “a de facto partner of Raul Castro,” but based on the advertisements for today’s event, you wouldn’t know why. Cardinal Ortega, in the publicity materials sent out by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Association, was described in a rosy biography as “instrumental in opening a dialogue with the Cuban government [and] negotiating the release of political prisoners.” The description failed to mention that the Cardinal did not object to the prisoners’ forced exile to Spain, nor did it mention his other failures to protect political dissidents in Cuba. The full story ought to be told.
Las Damas de Blanco, or The Ladies in White, is a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners who take to the streets in Cuba to spread their message and call for freedom. Their message is honorable, but their courage must be strong. In a communist nation known for systematic abuses of civil liberties and human rights, they are often met with violence by the government, and many end up in prison with their sons and husbands. The Cuban government imprisoned The Ladies in White the week before the papal visit. They had publicly asked for a few minutes to speak with Pope Benedict XVI during his three-day trip to Cuba in late March. The Catholic Church in Cuba led by Cardinal Ortega refused to schedule a meeting with them or any dissidents, saying that the Pope didn’t have enough time. However, Cardinal Ortega was able to find time for Pope Benedict to meet with Raúl Castro twice and Fidel Castro once. The day following the arrest of the Ladies in White, a handful of other peaceful political dissidents sought sanctuary in a Cuban Church. Breaking with Church precedent, Cardinal Ortega called the government to arrest the political dissidents, arguing that “Nobody has the right to spoil the celebratory spirit of Cuban Church-goers.”
The Cuban government imprisoned the Cardinal during the 1960s, and he has called for limited reforms as he works with Raúl Castro. However, Castro has made clear that true political reforms and the recognition of human rights are not part of his plans. As one political dissident put it, “The rumors fly but the locks never open.” To continue trading human rights in exchange for the false hope of limited reforms is to abandon the people of Cuba. Per Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in late March, many saw it as an opportunity to continue potentially the most important and lasting cause of his predecessor: advancing the cause of human freedom. When Pope John Paul II visited his native Poland in 1979, millions came to see him, and with his words they found their voice. In the words of Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement instrumental in bringing down the Soviet government, “The Holy Father, through his meetings, demonstrated how numerous we were. He told us not to be afraid.” During the reign of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, the Catholic Church saved hundreds who sought sanctuary in their churches. Throughout their struggles, those with the courage to take a stand knew that the Church had their back. Today, at least in Cuba, they see a Church without a spine.
Harvard provides us with amazing opportunities to engage with world leaders and learn first-hand about changes occurring around the globe, but we waste these opportunities if we are not willing to engage with the truth. Avoiding the full truth at today’s event teaches us nothing; engaging in an honest and respectful dialogue makes everyone wiser. We, as individual students, are not in positions to potentially bring real change to Cuba, but Cardinal Ortega and the Catholic Church are. So, ask the Cardinal the tough questions, because those are the ones worth answering.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.