Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who oversaw a warming of relations with Cuba’s Communist government and played a role in the secret negotiations that led to U.S.-Cuba detente, has stepped down, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
He is being replaced as archbishop of Havana by Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez, the archbishop of the eastern city of Camaguey.
Ortega was named Archbishop of Havana in 1981 and oversaw three papal trips to Communist Cuba. He ferried a letter from the Vatican to President Barack Obama during 18 months of secret negotiations that led to the Dec. 17, 2014 declaration that the U.S. and Cuba were restarting diplomatic relations and moving toward normalization.
Under his leadership, the Roman Catholic Church has quietly established itself as practically the only independent institution with any widespread influence on the island. Expanding into areas once dominated by the state, the church is providing tens of thousands of people with food, education, business training and even libraries stocked with foreign best-sellers.
Under economic reforms launched by Castro, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have launched small businesses or gone to work for them, and the church is increasingly playing a key role in supporting them.
However, the Church has made little headway in its hope for more access to state-controlled airwaves and permission to run religious schools.
The Church said Pope Francis had accepted Ortega’s resignation, which was presented in 2011 under a rule requiring archbishops to offer their resignation when they are 75. His being kept on four more years was seen, particularly in retrospect, as a reflection of the importance of his leading the Havana archdiocese at a critical time for Cuba.
Garcia, 67, was born in Camaguey, the son of a railway worker and a homemaker. He attended seminary in Havana, as part of the first group of Cuban priests who received their entire training inside the country, and was ordained in 1972. He became archbishop of Camaguey in 2002 and was elected president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops 2006, a post formerly held by Ortega.
The church described Garcia as “a man who’s been characterized by his simple life, apostolic devotion, prayer and virtuous living.” It described him as particularly devoted to caring for priests with “as much with gestures of great understanding, service and help as discreet and firm authority.”
Per Vatican custom, church statements made no mention of Garcia also being appointed cardinal. Important archdioceses traditionally have cardinals at the helm, but sometimes many months can pass before an archbishop is made a cardinal, often in a special decree naming several at a time.
Francis has also show a preference for bypassing the traditional centers of Church power in naming new cardinals, often preferring to lift up prelates from smaller and often neglected dioceses.
Garcia was known within the church for his work on drawing more young people into the churches of highly traditional Camaguey. Cuba already has one of Latin America’s lowest rates of church attendance, a phenomenon exacerbated by the mass emigration of tens of thousands of young people in recent years.
A month after President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba was seen by many as closing the first chapter in the normalization of ties between the U.S. and Cuba, the naming of Garcia shows a church focus on renewing religious observance on the island, said Enrique Lopez Oliva, a retired professor of religion at the University of Havana.
“The Church is starting a process of renovation in order to adapt itself to the new, historic moment that the country is living,” Lopez Oliva said.
The son of a sugar worker, Ortega was born Oct. 18, 1936, in the sugar mill town of Jaguey Grande, in the central province of Matanzas, and moved to the provincial capital as a child. He was ordained on Aug. 2, 1964 — just as the new Communist government was further weakening an already feeble Cuban church.
The Church, long identified with Cuba’s wealthier citizens, took a vehemently anti-communist line shortly before Castro declared Cuba to be socialist in 1961. The government later accused prominent Catholics of trying to topple Castro.
Public religious events were banned after processions were transformed into political protests, sometimes turning violent. Hundreds of foreign priests, mostly from Spain, were expelled. The more than 150 Catholic schools that once operated across the island were nationalized.
Ortega was among many Cuban priests sent to military-run agricultural work camps, spending a year beginning in 1966. After his release, Ortega worked as a parish priest in his hometown.
Ortega was named bishop for western Pinar del Rio province in 1978 and became archbishop of Havana in November 1981. At the time, the Cuban government was officially atheist. Believers of all faiths were banned from the Communist Party, the military and some other professions.
But Ortega quietly helped rebuild the church infrastructure around Havana, establishing new parishes and renovating more than 40 churches. He also set up Caritas of Havana, the first office of the Catholic relief charity in Cuba. That planted the seed for Caritas of Cuba, now among the country’s most successful non-governmental organizations.
In November 1994, Pope John Paul II named Ortega the first cardinal in Cuba in more than three decades — and the second in the island’s history. In 1992, the government dropped its constitutional references to atheism, and a gradual thaw in church-state relations began, culminating with the papal visit on Jan. 21-25, 1998, and government acceptance of some outdoor religious events.
While Ortega refrained from publicly confronting the Cuban government, on some trips abroad he expressed disappointment that the opening had been modest.
After Benedict XVI visited in 2012, Cuba made Good Friday an official holiday. Pope Francis visited in Sept. 2015, flying straight to Washington from Cuba in a gesture aimed at showing his support for the normalization of relations.