HAVANA — For months, Cuban Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been under fire called a lackey and political ally of President Raul Castro’s communist government, asked to resign over his treatment of protesters, and ridiculed in Miami as a snobby elitist.
Church officials on the island have launched a full-throated defense of their leader, and Catholic publications have harshly denounced his critics.
Analysts say the increasingly virulent back-and-forth is extremely unusual on an island where the church traditionally has preferred to exercise influence quietly, behind the scenes.
And it comes at a time when the cardinal could have reasonably expected to be taking a victory lap: He organized a high-profile visit by Pope Benedict XVI and is likely nearing the end of his tenure.
As is customary, Cardinal Ortega handed his resignation to the pope when he turned 75 last year, but Benedict has not yet accepted it.
“What surprises me this time is not that there are attacks, because there have always been attacks,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American businessman and one-time hard-line anti-Castro militant who has become a voice for reconciliation between Miami and Havana. “It’s the voracity of the attacks, their forcefulness.”
Cardinal Ortega’s troubles began shortly before Benedict’s March 26-28 visit, and many think they are a direct result of concessions the cardinal made to ensure its success.
Some say he held back criticism of the government in the months preceding the trip, and looked the other way as some dissidents were rounded up.
Then, days before Benedict arrived, Cardinal Ortega had police called in to break up a sit-in at a Havana church by a group of protesters who were demanding a papal audience and political change on the island.
In a speech at Harvard University in April, Cardinal Ortega defended the eviction and described the protesters as “former delinquents” with “no culture.”
He also insisted that he had acted properly in helping negotiate the release of dozens of political prisoners in 2009 and 2010.
Most of the freed prisoners accepted exile in Spain, and some have since criticized Cardinal Ortega for not doing enough to fight for their right to remain in their homeland.
Cardinal Ortega told the audience at Harvard’s Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies that the prisoners’ own families had requested exile, a version the family members deny.