HAVANA – When Raul Castro agreed to release 52 political prisoners, thought to be about a third of all the dissidents in Cuban jails, the news made headlines throughout the world.
Here in Cuba – even with the official press blackout – the news spread as quickly, but took quite a different spin.
Instead of making Raul Castro's decision to free the dissidents the center of the story, Cubans are talking much more about the man who brokered the deal – Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Photo by EPA/Alejandro Ernesto
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega answers questions from the media about the prisoner release deal on Wednesday.
"It's as if the cardinal performed his own type of miracle," said Nuirka Morales, an agronomy professor at Havana's veterinary college. "Ortega accomplished in three short months what everyone else failed to do in seven long years."
After Cuba imprisoned 75 dissidents in March 2003, accusing them of working with Washington to topple the regime, condemnation rolled in from every corner of the globe. From presidents and prime ministers to international bodies like the European Union, both friends and enemies of the Castro government petitioned for their release, but Havana refused to budge.
Castro's decision to release the remaining prisoners – some had already been freed on health grounds – was announced Wednesday, following a meeting he held with Ortega and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos. But the real negotiations were launched months ago when the cardinal interceded on behalf of the Ladies in White, a group made up of the mothers and wives of the jailed activists.
Anger over aggressive muzzling
For seven years the Ladies protested every Sunday in a silent march after attending mass. The government largely tolerated the protest and rarely interfered.
But in March, on the seventh anniversary of the jailing, the Ladies changed their tactics and took their protest into different Havana neighborhoods. The government acted quickly: To silence one march, state security agents surrounded the dozen or so women and wrestled them to the ground before forcibly removing them.
All of this was captured by international television cameras and sparked cries of indignation from Cuban exile communities in places such as Miami and Madrid.
Over the next month, the Ladies tried to return to their regular Sunday marches, but tensions with state security continued to escalate.
The third Sunday in April was particularly ugly. As six members of the group left Mass, they were stopped from marching, shoved across the street and cornered into a park adjacent to the church. For more than seven hours, the women were made to stand under a scorching sun as a pro-government mob shouted insults and obscenities.
The cardinal stepped in after that, meeting with officials from the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee and getting an agreement that the intimidation would stop. Once again, the official Cuban press never reported most of this, but many learned the details through the Internet and word of mouth.
I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I first heard news of the prisoner release on my Blackberry while getting a manicure. I read the news release from the cardinal's press office to the other customers in the nail salon and before I had even finished, some women were already on the phone spreading the news.
Before the day ended, I must have been asked by at least 50 more people if the news was true. They included a man who sells fruit in my neighborhood, an acquaintance who runs a private day care center in her home, two college kids watching Spain beat Germany in the World Cup, a dentist buying pastries, and even a traffic cop and a customs agent at Havana's International Airport.
People also wondered how the Obama government would receive the news and if Washington would consider the prisoner release as a solid step forward.
When asked, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the prisoner release as a "positive sign" but tempered her enthusiasm by saying the action was "overdue."
The latter part of Clinton's statement is what worries Nelson and Luis Molina. Like many Cubans, these twin brothers are hoping that the White House might reciprocate; they hope that more steps will be taken by both governments to improve relations between the two countries.
Nelson, an evangelical preacher from Kentucky who travels every month to Cuba to help his brother supply his own ministry in the working class Havana neighborhood of Lawton, argued that, "Obama needs to give credit where credit is due."
He thinks it's a fairly safe bet that "no one in the Cuban government came to this decision with ease."
Nodding his head, his brother suggests that Ortega may be the "true path" to bring other changes to the island. "We need changes that will open the economy and bring in jobs," said Luis Molina.
The role of negotiator may not seem like a good fit for the 73-year-old cardinal who has publicly opposed the Cuban system since he was first ordained as a priest in 1964. (He became the Archbishop of Havana in 1981 and was elevated to cardinal in 1994).
But who better, the Molina brothers ask, than someone with Ortega's background? As a young priest he opted against exile even though soon after returning to Cuba from his religious training in Canada, Ortega was imprisoned for more than a year in a work camp.