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In early 2010, Cuba's bishops started the unprecedented mediation, along with Spain, between Raúl and dissident groups, leading to the prisoner release. The church had a special stake in the matter, since most of the prisoners belonged to the Christian Liberation Movement started by the prominent dissident Oswaldo Payá; they'd been arrested in 2003 as part of one of Fidel's most severe crackdowns. Nonetheless, says the University of Miami's Gomez, "the church saw an opportunity to get these people out of their miserable condition and by doing so, it feels it succeeded in gaining new prestige that can help it influence democratic and market reform in Cuba that much more." Still, Gomez and others worry that the departure of so many of those prisoners from Cuba by choice or under pressure leaves the impression that the church, far from leveraging its clout with Raúl, has instead been co-opted by him.
But hopes that the church can do to the Castros what it did to East European communist regimes are vastly overblown. In Poland the clergy could galvanize democracy groups like Solidarity because the church enjoyed popular support. Even before the Castros' 1959 revolution (which was backed by many priests who opposed the abuses of the Batista dictatorship), the Cuban church couldn't count on that kind of mass devotion. The island's Spanish colonial era bred a skeptical, anticlerical current, and the church competes with other spiritual outlets, including Protestant Evangelicals and the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion Santería not to mention the cult of Fidel, revered by many Cubans as a secular savior.
That reality, along with the tight grip Raúl's military and state security still have on the country, has forced the church to maneuver more carefully. When the bullying of dissidents like the Damas de Blanco became too frequent to ignore in recent months, Ortega, 74, had his office issue a statement insisting that "violence of any kind against defenseless people has no justification." But it took pains to note that the government "has communicated to the church that no national decision center has given the order to attack these people."
As repressed as Cubans may feel politically, their bigger concerns are economic most earn a meager $20 per month and that's where the Cuban church may be making its most dramatic mark on reform. Among its most popular diocesan programs are clases de liderazgo, or leadership classes, which often teach Cubans the kind of free-enterprise skills, from bookkeeping to marketing, they'll need under Raúl's economic reforms. (He's planning soon to cut a million state workers loose.) Ortega's Havana archdiocese, apparently with Raúl's blessing, has partnered with a Spanish university to offer an M.B.A. program.
Caritas hopes to launch a micro-loan project to help Cubans grow beyond timbiriches tiny informal businesses, like vendors of homemade sweets, that the Castros have allowed since the 1990s to enterprises that can absorb the almost 20% of the state workforce facing layoffs. If Havana and Washington permit it, nonprofit groups in the U.S. and Europe tell TIME they're set to channel tens of millions of dollars to Caritas for a micro-loan fund. "My last hope is the church," says Roque, a thin, middle-aged former Cuban soldier who was among the throng welcoming Our Lady of Charity to Havana in September. "They help with extra food and are sending me to computer lessons."
Many of the thousands of Cubans who've attended the church workshops say they also learn how to do business legitimately after decades of often illicit hustling in a desperate black-market milieu. "The economic reforms need an ethical posture as well," says Ortega. One participant from eastern Cuba, who asked not to be identified, agrees: "I'm not really religious, but the church, as you'd expect, brings a moral framework that is sometimes missing as we struggle to get by."
The church, though still not allowed to run schools, at least has a backdoor entry to education, and Raúl gets Cubans the kind of entrepreneur training that state-run schools and universities often aren't equipped to offer. It may smell like collaboration to Castro foes, but Ortega argues that this arrangement allows the church to preach a social, economic and even political pluralism that could do more for democracy than the U.S.'s 49-year-long trade embargo ever did. Accomplishing more at this point may require the intervention of Our Lady of Charity.