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Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Cuba in March was, by most accounts, a successful pastoral visit -- a show of support for the Cuban Catholic Church as the Vatican wanted. But it did little to assuage the White House's discomfort with the church's approach to change on the island.
The next month, in Colombia, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of his hope for improved human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Cuba. "I assure you that I and the American people will welcome the time when the Cuban people have the freedom to live their lives, choose their leaders, and fully participate in this global economy and international institutions," he declared.
If that's Obama's goal, he doesn't appear to have a lot of faith in the Catholic Church in Cuba helping to achieve it. In fact, the administration has supported repeated attacks on the church and its leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega -- the man who has done more to promote human rights and democracy in Cuba than anyone, anywhere. The cardinal has created political space for millions of Cubans to live their faith, personally negotiated the release of more than 100 political prisoners in the past two years, and directly carried to Cuban President Raúl Castro the appeals -- subsequently granted -- of human rights groups, including the female relatives of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White.
Nevertheless, administration-supported harangues against the church and cardinal have become routine. The most recent was an editorial by Radio/TV Martí, the U.S. government's radio and television service to Cuba. The station's director, Carlos García-Pérez, personally penned a commentary accusing the cardinal of "political collusion" with the Castro regime and having a "lackey attitude" toward it. This senior Obama political appointee offered patronizing advice: "Cardinal Ortega, please be faithful to the Gospel you preach."
At issue was the cardinal's criticism of a group of dissidents with no established record of political activity who took over a Havana church in March, demanding that Pope Benedict meet with them when he visited Cuba several days later. The Obama administration provides $20 million a year to groups that profess to promote democracy in Cuba -- including many small, unknown groups like the one that occupied the church -- through USAID and the State Department. Although neither agency is authorized to run covert operations, these are conducted with such extraordinary secrecy that the U.S. Congress and the American people will never know how much taxpayer money is spent on activities like this and through which groups.
When the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) investigated the Martí broadcast services in 2009-2010, a pattern of news items and commentaries challenging the cardinal and church emerged. The station has chronically dismal ratings in Cuba and therefore little direct impact, but the broadcasts are significant in that they are indicators of U.S. policy or, at the very least, the U.S. government's willingness to hand its megaphone over to the Miami conservatives who have long dominated Martí. Rather than flagging this antagonism toward the church in the report, however, committee staff privately asked for reassurances that the attacks would stop, and García-Pérez, then the station's new director, promised they would.
Martí isn't the only U.S. government program undermining the church and cardinal. When the SFRC discovered that USAID and State Department contractors and government-sponsored NGOs were running operations, including websites, against church leaders in 2010-2011, USAID said that the groups were merely "exercising their First Amendment rights." Like Martí, these organizations accused the cardinal of being a regime collaborator. The attacks never stopped.