He was born in Jagey Grande, Province of Matanzas, on October 18, 1936. His father was first a worker at the sugar plant next door to his hometown and then a small merchant, and his mother attended the house and collaborated in the family trade. At the age of five his family moved to the city of Matanzas, capital of the province and episcopal seat. There he did his primary school studies at Arturo Echemendía College. His high school studies were done at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza de Matanzas. Student Center for Public Education.
He graduated with a Bachelor of Science and Letters degree in 1955 and, after a year of university studies, entered the Diocesan Seminary San Alberto Magno, governed by the Parents of the Foreign Missions of Quebec, in 1956. After the first four years of humanities and philosophy studies, he was sent by his bishop to the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Montreal, Canada, where he studied Theology. He returned to Cuba and was ordained a priest on August 2, 1964 at the Cathedral of Matanzas. Vicar cooperator in Cardenas until 1966. In 1967 he was appointed parish priest of Jagey Grande, his hometown. Like all parish priests in Cuba, during this stage of priest shortages, Fr. Jaime Ortega attended several parishes and churches simultaneously.
In 1969 he was appointed parish priest in the Cathedral of Matanzas, attending both the parish of Pueblo Nuevo, in the city, and two more churches in the countryside. He was at the same time president of the Diocesan Commission of Catechesis and performed an active apostolate with the youth of the diocese. In those years, even more difficult for the pastoral action of the Church, a youth movement began in the diocese that included other forms of apostolate, summer camps for young people and evangelizing work through plays, represented by the young people themselves.
For several years, together with his pastoral activity in the city of Matanzas, he was a professor at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana, where he traveled every week to teach courses in Moral Theology.
On 7 December 1978 he was appointed Bishop of Pinar del Río by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. He was consecrated on 14 January 1979, in the Cathedral of Matanzas and on 21 January took possession of the diocese. Three years of pastoral work in a diocese of great Catholic religiosity, with a very committed and participatory laity, left an indelible mark on the soul of the bishop who was promoted in 1981 to the Archdiocese of Havana as archbishop, on December 27 he took possession of his new seat. Pope John Paul II was created cardinal by His Holiness at the Consistory on 26 November 1994. He was received as cardinal in the S.M.I. Cathedral of Havana on December 11, 1994.
His work as Archbishop of Havana is due to the creation of several parishes, the constitution of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Diocesan Council of Laity, which brings together the different movements of the archdiocese, the reconstruction of more than fifty churches and parish houses, the establishment of a Priests House that welcomes the priests of the diocese and from all over Cuba for meetings , retreats or simply on your days of rest, the creation of a Lay Meeting Center, with library, chapel and guest rooms, the construction of two meeting and meeting centers especially for young people. These works are some of the main actions undertaken by the Archbishop, who has always had a special concern for the lay person and, within it, for young people. It is due to the establishment in 1991 of Cáritas Habana, and began to exist in this way Caritas Cuba; in 2011 he created the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center, a centre for the formation of the laity.
The archbishop’s main concern has been vocations to the priesthood. It is due to the construction in Havana of the new Seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio, which provides its services to all the dioceses of Cuba, and which constitutes the largest construction carried out by the Catholic Church in Cuba since 1959. He has ordained more than forty priests, a modest but significant number for a diocese, particularly given that since the 1960s in Cuba the Church has had a very restricted pastoral action, a situation that has been alleviated in recent years.
For his homilies, for his interventions and messages he is known to the people of his archdiocese, who are interested in his views and attend to his orientations, even though the Church does not have regular access to social media. In the archdiocese the magazine Palabra Nueva began to be published in 1992, which has a monthly circulation of 12,000 copies and won the grand prize of the International Union of Catholic Journalists that was awarded to it in Paris, at UNESCO headquarters; as well as other publications such as the magazine Espacio Laical, of the Council of Laity; Love and Life, christian family movement, etc.
Cardinal Ortega has been Vice-President of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba in several periods, etc. For several years he has been an advisor to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, and belongs to the Congregations for the Clergy and for the Pastoral Health. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from the Universities of St. Thomas and Berry in Miami, Florida, Providence, Rhode Island, University of San Francisco, with the annual prize of the Bonino Pulejo Foundation of Messina, the Gaudium et Spes, of the Knights of Columbus, among other international recognitions such as the Honorary Doctorate of the University of Creonight , in the United States and the Medal of the Catholic University of Eichst-tt, in Germany.
Given Cuba’s uniqueness in the global context, it has had to hold meetings with dignitaries from various countries, including presidents, representatives of various royal houses, ministers, representatives of the Diplomatic Corps accredited in Cuba, etc., who turn to it interested in the Cuban issue. For several years he has been in a process of dialogue with the highest Cuban authorities, to facilitate the solution of various problems, one of the fruits of this dialogue has been the process of release of prisoners for political reasons. He was one of the biggest protagonists of the so-called “thaw” in relations between the United States and Cuba, announced on December 17, 2014, after fifty-four years of diplomatic hostility between the two countries. In March 2016, Barack Obama became the first president of the United States to visit Cuba since 1928.
On April 26, 2016, the Pope accepted his resignation from the pastoral government of the Archdiocese of Havana because of his advanced age, appointing As his successor Msgr. Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez. The transfer was formalized in solemn ceremony at the SMI Cathedral of Havana on Sunday, May 22 of that year. Although retired, the cardinal remained always active in Cuban ecclesiastical life. On the afternoon of June 12, he received the Distinction Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes instituted by the Committee on Culture of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (COCC) to recognize Catholic personalities and institutions who, inspired by the Christian faith, deploy a notorious work of evangelization of culture, it was given to him in a simple private ceremony at the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center with the presence of bishops from all over Cuba.
His Eminence received the last sacraments on the afternoon of last Thursday, June 20, the solemnity of Corpus Christi, and died on July 26, 2019. May he rest in peace.