Cuban Catholics angry over treatment of cleric

Catholic Faithful Celebrate Virgin Of Regla In Cuba
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega delivers Mass celebrating the Virgin of Regla in the Havana suburb of Regla in September 2003.Jorge Rey / Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

Cuban Catholics are reacting strongly to reports that U.S. authorities mistreated the archbishop of Havana when he arrived in Miami last Friday aboard a charter flight from the Cuban capital.

The story, first carried by the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald and picked up by Cuba’s state-owned media, reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents removed Cardinal Jaime Ortega from the general processing area in the Miami International Airport and escorted him to a private interrogation room, where he was held for three hours and questioned about issues unrelated to his travel, including his political views on the Cuban government and the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo.

The newspaper also claimed that authorities threatened to deport the churchman when he refused to allow agents to inspect his luggage on the grounds that he carried a diplomatic passport issued by the Vatican.

A U.S. government spokesman has disputed the press accounts of the incident but told the Miami Herald that the prelate was “detained briefly” and “treated in the utmost courteous manner.”

Miami radio reports that the Vatican plans to issue a formal diplomatic protest over Ortega’s treatment.

While the cardinal has refrained from commenting on the incident, returning home to Havana Monday afternoon, his followers expressed outrage at his treatment.

‘Slap in the face’
“It was insulting, a slap in our face,” said Walfredo Piñera, a film critic who writes for Catholic publications. “It shows the authorities were malintentioned, ignorant or misinformed.”

Enrique Lopez Oliva, coordinator of a local religious think tank, the Commission to Study the Church in Latin America, reports other Cuban priests have been subjected to similar grilling by Miami agents. “This is hypersensitivity due to the fact that Cuba is included on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list, whether or not that’s rational.”

The incident, for Catholic activist Gabriel Coderch, is symptomatic of the strained relations across the Florida Straits. “The ultra-right in Miami is powerful and has no desire for dialogue, an idea that the archbishop of Havana has always defended.”

Others find the episode ironic. “For years our government barely tolerated us. Now that we’ve finally become accepted in our own country, they reject us over there,” said an elderly Catholic grandmother who asked not to be identified because of a daughter living in Miami.

According to the Catholic diocese in Havana, this was the second time Ortega experienced problems with Homeland Security. A prior incident occurred a few months ago at a Texas airport.