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Havana Archbishop, Who Played Key Role in US-Cuba Detente, Retires

  • Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega during his historic visit to Havana, Cuba, Aug.14, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega during his historic visit to Havana, Cuba, Aug.14, 2015.

The Cuban Catholic Church leader who became an influential figure within a country where he was once despised and played a key role in the Communist-run island's detente with the United States, is retiring.

Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Jaime Ortega's resignation as Archbishop of Havana, first submitted four years ago when he turned 75, the Vatican wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

The pope named Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez, the archbishop of the city of Camaguey in central Cuba, as the new archbishop of the capital.

A labor camp inmate in the 1960s, at a time when Fidel Castro's revolutionary government was rounding up perceived enemies, Ortega rose to become one of Cuba's leading political figures.

As Archbishop of Havana for 35 years, he leveraged a non-confrontational style into a rare position of influence for someone outside the Communist Party.

At a critical moment in the secret talks between Cuba and the United States that led to detente in December 2014, Ortega delivered a message from Pope Francis to Castro and then to President Barack Obama at the White House.

"It's fair to say that the church's role [n the rapprochement] was pivotal, and Cardinal Ortega was at the center of it," said Philip Peters, who heads up the Virginia-based Cuba Research Center and has worked for two decades to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.

"He interceded quietly with both presidents, with Pope Francis, with U.S. senators, and others, to press both governments to re-establish of relations."

FILE - Cuba's President Raul Casto (R) and Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, leader of Cuba's Catholic Church look at Pope Francis' plane at Jose Marti airport in Havana, Feb. 12, 2016.

FILE - Cuba's President Raul Casto (R) and Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega, leader of Cuba's Catholic Church look at Pope Francis' plane at Jose Marti airport in Havana, Feb. 12, 2016.

Ortega hosted three popes in Cuba, negotiated the release of numerous political prisoners and in the process forged a working relationship with the government.

Over the last decade the Catholic Church has gained more visibility in Cuba, winning the right to hold religious processions in the streets and receiving more coverage in state-run media.

Ortega met Obama on the first day of the U.S. president's visit to Havana in March.

Ortega studied theology in Quebec and became parish priest in the mid-1960s in his birthplace of Jagüey Grande in Matanzas province, also taking care of neighboring parishes due to the shortage of priests.

He was named Bishop of Pinar del Rio by John Paul II in 1978 and Archbishop of Havana three years later. The pope appointed him cardinal in 1994.

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