Church warns Cuban leaders to heed call for change

Church warns Cuban leaders to heed call for change
By the CNN Wire Staff
April 20, 2010 — Updated 1001 GMT (1801 HKT)

* Cardinal Jaime Ortega: Cuba reeling from effects of 2008 hurricanes, economic downturn * He warned Cuba’s president that citizens are clamoring for change * Urged Raul Castro to work toward normalization of relations with United States * Cuba a predominantly Catholic nation, though church’s power remains curtailed

(CNN) — The head of Cuba’s Catholic Church urged Havana to reconcile differences with its nemesis Washington as one step in averting the worst crisis that has befallen the communist island in recent times.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, 73, said Cuba is reeling from the effects of three devastating hurricanes in 2008 and the global economic downturn, which has meant smaller profits from tourism.

Cubans are suffering, Ortega said, and while they may differ on which direction to take the nation, one thing should be crystal clear to President Raul Castro: the citizens are clamoring for change.

Ortega’s harsh criticism of the Cuban government was published Monday in Palabra Nueva (New Word), the church’s monthly magazine.

He said Cubans have reached a national consensus, and postponing reforms is sure to produce “impatience and uneasiness” among people suffering a great deal of hardship.

One way to address the problems, Ortega said, would be to work toward the normalization of relations with the United States.

“I think a Cuba-United States dialogue is the first step needed to break the critical cycle in which we find ourselves,” Ortega said.
“I think a Cuba-United States dialogue is the first step needed to break the critical cycle.
–Cardinal Ortega

* Cuba
* Raul Castro

The archbishop of Havana was also critical of Barack Obama, saying that the American president raised expectations with campaign pledges of direct talks with Cuba but has failed to keep them.

“After coming to power, the new American president has repeated the old pattern of previous governments,” Ortega said.

Ortega also called for the protection of rights for political dissidents, a prickly issue with the government in the wake of the death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Zapata died in February after a prolonged hunger strike. Guillermo Farinas, another government opponent, launched a hunger strike from his home shortly afterwards to demand the release of political prisoners.

Faced with international criticism, Raul Castro accused the United States and Europe of launching “the most ferocious” media campaign against the island nation in decades.

Ortega called Zapata’s death “tragic” and said the resulting verbal war with the United States has only exacerbated Cuba’s crisis.

“This is no time to stir passions,” Ortega said.

Cuba is a predominantly Catholic nation but after the revolution, Castro shut down religious institutions and designated Cuba an atheist state.

In the early 1990s, the constitution was amended to change Cuba’s characterization from atheist to secular, but the church’s power remains curtailed.

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