Cuban cleric confirms Miami shakedown

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 Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, released a statement on Thursday confirming weekend press reports that he encountered a problem with Homeland Security in the Miami International Airport last Friday when he arrived on a charter flight from Havana.

Ortega confirms that he was removed from the general processing area and brought to a room where he was asked a series of questions he refused to answer.

News reports said that Ortega was questioned about issues unrelated to his travel, including his views on the Castro government and the U.S. trade embargo on the island.

Ortega said that the agent indicated that he was opening a file on Ortega reserved for "dangerous persons" and that in order to enter the U.S., the Cardinal had to answer his questions. Ortega then told the agent that he preferred to return to Cuba. While the first agent began processing his request, a second Homeland Security agent came into the room and gave the Cardinal a visa for 30 days.

The statement released by the press office of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops A reads,"During the exchanges with the Immigration officials, Cardinal Ortega was treated rudely and curtly."

The statement points out that the Cardinal carries a diplomatic passport issued by the Vatican and has a multiple entry visa issued by the U.S. State Department.

Dispute over the report
Earlier in the week, reports of the cardinal’s treatment by U.S. custom officials were carried by the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald and picked up by Cuba’s state-owned media, but initially, the cardinal refrained from commenting on the incident when he returned to Havana on Monday.

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

Despite the divergent reports, Cuban Catholics reacted strongly to the reports that their cleric had been mistreated by U.S.

‘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.