by The Miami Herald

A Vatican expert on Cuba told U.S. diplomats in 2007 that Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega has pushed to shutter a highly regarded Catholic magazine that often criticized the communist system, according to a State Department cable made available by Wikileaks.

Cuba’s government wanted to close the Vitral magazine for years but feared a backlash and so “must be happy because the Church did its dirty work for it,” the expert noted. The publication was not closed, but its editor resigned and its content was toned down.

Ortega’s spokesman denied in an email that the church had bowed to government pressures and said that although the Cuban government had complained about Vitral and other church publications, “the complaints never turned into requests for closures.”

“It’s not important if the fact is real or not, it’s simply repeated even though there’s no first-hand source that confirms it in public,” spokesman Orlando Márquez wrote. “It is good to ask who benefits from this.”

The cable sent to the State Department by the U.S. embassy to the Vatican also mentioned previously unconfirmed reports that Vatican officials at times had felt Ortega, who also serves as archbishop of Havana, was too friendly with Cuban ruler Raúl Castro.

“Vatican officials have hinted in the past that Ortega has become too cozy with Castro,” noted the cable, dated May 14, 2007, and classified as “secret.” It was one of more than 250,000 State Department documents that Wikileaks provided to McClatchy, which owns El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald.

Ortega recently has won wide praise for his unprecedented talks with Castro, which helped win the release of about 115 political prisoners over the past year. But some critics have claimed for years that he had failed to take a strong stance against human rights abuses. All but a dozen of the jailed dissidents were taken directly from prison to airplanes that flew them to Spain in what critics have called a forced exile.

Vitral, founded in 1994 by the Diocese of Pinar del Río in westernmost Cuba, was considered to be the best church publication on the island. Its name, meaning “a stained-glass window,’’ referred to the many-colored opinions it published.

But in April of 2007 the magazine reported that “because of a lack of resources, the editorial board … will no longer be able to guarantee publication.” Director Dagoberto Valdés and most of his staff resigned and the magazine all but halted its criticisms of the government and started publishing every three months instead of every two months.

The announcement sparked speculation at the time that after Pinar del Río Msgr. José Siro González, who backed Valdés, had retired in late 2006, his successor, Msgr. Jorge Enrique Serpa Pérez, had bowed to pressures to shut down the publication.

One month later Kirsten Madison, then-deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric Affairs, went to the Vatican and met with two monsignors who dealt with Cuba issues to ask their help with Vitral and discuss the island’s human rights situation, according to the cable.

One official who was new to his post said that Vitral was closed for financial reasons, but the other was more experienced and “offered a goldmine of information on the church in Cuba.” McClatchy is not publishing the names because the cable asked that they be “protected.”

The more experienced official “said that the government had been trying to close Vitral for years, but was afraid of the potential backlash. When the local bishop [Siro] retired, Cardinal Ortega pressured new Bishop Serpa to shut it down, apparently motivated by some animosity towards the leadership of the magazine,’’ the dispatch added.

The cable did not detail how the official had obtained that information.

Valdés, who lives in Pinar del Río, chuckled when El Nuevo Herald read him the dispatch but declined comment. He now runs an independent online magazine titled Convivencia — Fellowship.

“What I do know is that it [Vitral] did bother the government,” he said. An agricultural engineer, he was demoted to a menial job in a state tobacco enterprise in 1996 when he refused to stop working for the magazine.

In the statement he emailed to El Nuevo Herald, Márquez, the communications director for the Havana archbishopric, said Cuban bishops have long received complaints about several church publications.

“Some of these publications dedicate more attention to the social environment in which we live,” Márquez wrote, adding that he knew of complaints against Vitral both before and after 2007 as well as the magazine that he edits, Palabra Nueva – New Word.

“Despite all the occasional complaints, which are not new, the bishops have always defended the church publications before the authorities,” he added.

Márquez noted that although the church respects the authority of each bishop within his diocese, there was “only one occasion some years ago in which Cardinal Ortega spoke directly with Dagoberto Valdés about Vitral.”

Complaints about Vitral reached the Vatican’s embassy in Havana, he noted, “and from that very [office] they asked Cardinal Ortega to visit Dagoberto and talk to him about the complaints, but there was never any talk of closing the publication.”

The State Department cable went on to note that the Vatican official who was new to his job was surprised to hear the U.S. diplomat’s description of human rights violations in Cuba “but did not dispute it, simply seeking details.”

The more experienced official “was not as surprised,” according to the cable, and recounted “three recent incidents of harassment of Catholic clergy at the airport.” The dispatch provided no details on the incidents.

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