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The blowback to Carndial Ortega’s speech was immediate, and sharper than any other the cardinal has faced during a long career atop the island’s Catholic hierarchy.

Ortega’s attitude only demonstrates his political complicity with the government,” Carlos Garcia-Perez, the director of U.S.-funded Radio and TV Marti, wrote in an editorial in April. “This is a lackey’s attitude.”

Exile blogs in South Florida began calling for Cardinal Ortega’s resignation.

One political cartoon that appeared in Miami’s El Nuevo Herald showed the cardinal and a military-clad Mr. Castro singing a love song together.

Another depicted a snobby priest telling a worshipper that Cardinal Ortega required proof of his cultural worthiness before he would be allowed to attend Mass.

Countering the criticism

In response, church publications have put out a series of articles and editorials lauding Cardinal Ortega as a brave advocate for Cuba’s dissidents, and one of the few people on the island with the courage to speak his mind directly to Mr. Castro.

Supporters say Cardinal Ortega has prodded Mr. Castro in face-to-face meetings to open the country to more private enterprise, and has allowed Catholic magazines to publish essays on the need for more reform that would never have been allowed in the state-run press.

In a letter emailed to foreign journalists June 11, a council of Catholic community groups in Havana called Cardinal Ortega a patriot who is motivated by love for Cuba and the church to bring about dialogue.

Cuban bishops issued an earlier statement saying they saw in the recent criticism a plan to destroy Cardinal Ortega’s reputation and harm the church.

By far the strongest defense has come from Orlando Marquez, a top church spokesman who published a battle cry against his boss’s critics last month.

“Those who repudiate dialogue will never cease to open fire because that is their mission,”Mr. Marquez wrote in Palabra Nueva, the Catholic magazine he puts out. “They want to blow up any effort at understanding.”

Those sentiments - if not the belligerent phrasing - have been echoed by many of Cardinal Ortega’s allies, including Mr. Saladrigas and Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who has long pushed his flock toward greater dialogue with their homeland.

“To suggest that somehow he is a lackey of the regime is ludicrous,” Archbishop Wenski told the Associated Press. “Some of the cardinal’s harshest critics here are looking for a scenario that is easy to advocate outside of Cuba. They are thinking that there is some way to bring down the Cuban regime overnight.”

‘No political alternatives’

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