HAVANA – HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal says the country is in one of its worst crises in recent times, with its people demanding political and economic changes sooner rather than later.
Jaime Ortega, the top Catholic cleric on the island, also called on Cuba and the United States to restart a meaningful dialogue to normalize relations, in an interview that appeared Monday in the church's official monthly magazine.
Ortega said Cubans are openly talking about the deficiencies of their socialist system, what he called a Stalinist-style bureaucracy and a grinding lack of worker productivity.
"Our country finds itself in a very difficult situation," Ortega said in the interview with Palabra Nueva — New Word. "Certainly the most difficult times that we have lived in the 21st century."
He said that many differ over how to solve the nation's woes, but that all agree on one thing: "that the necessary changes are made in Cuba quickly."
"I think this feeling has become a form of national consensus, and its delay is producing impatience and unease among the people," Ortega said.
Cuba is mired in what many consider its worst economic rut since the severe shortages of the so-called "special period" in the early 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The island is dealing with the fallout from three devastating 2008 hurricanes, a downturn in world tourism and the global liquidity crisis.
President Raul Castro and other top Cuban officials have urged people to work harder and warned that many state subsidies will have to be scaled back. Cubans make tiny salaries of about $20 a month, but in return the state provides free or near-free health care, education, housing and services.
In the interview, Ortega noted he joined other Roman Catholic clergymen in calling on the government to do whatever necessary to protect the lives of dissidents and political prisoners after a Cuban dissident died in February following a long hunger strike.
The 73-year-old clergyman called on another dissident who has refused food and water for weeks to abandon the protest.
"With respect to political prisoners, the church has historically done everything possible to have them freed, not just those that are sick, but others, too," he said.
The cardinal also criticized President Barack Obama for failing to restart a genuine dialogue with Cuba. Ortega said that the U.S. leader has fallen into the same pattern as his predecessors by demanding democratic reforms and an improvement in human rights as a prerequisite to end Washington's 48-year embargo, when those things should instead be the final goal of any talks.
"Once again, the old (American) policy prevails: to begin at the end," Ortega said. "I am convinced that the first thing should be to meet, talk and advance a dialogue. ... That is the civilized way to confront any conflict."
Cuba never outlawed religion but expelled priests and closed church schools following the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in January 1959.
Tensions eased in the early 1990s, when the government removed references to atheism from the constitution and let believers of all faiths join the Communist Party. They warmed even more as a result of Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.