Cuban cardinal says country in crisis

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In an unusually blunt interview, the leader of the Catholic Church in Cuba has claimed that the country is in a "very difficult situation" and "impatient" for change.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega told a church publication, Palabra Nueva (New Word), there was a national consensus that the government should "make the necessary changes quickly" to end "economic and social difficulties".

"Delay produces impatience and unease in the people. Our country is in a very difficult situation, certainly the most difficult we have lived in this 21st century," said Cardinal Ortega, whose public statements are generally cautious.

Cuba is still suffering the effects of three hurricanes that struck in 2008 and of the global financial crisis, which so depleted the island's cash reserves that the government stopped paying bills to many foreign suppliers. President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing older brother, Fidel Castro, in February 2008, has been criticised for not doing enough to modernise Cuba's state-dominated economy.

The president has said that changes must be made carefully to ensure the survival of Cuban socialism.

Cardinal Ortega, 73, said that the long-standing US trade embargo damages the island, as do "the limitations of the type of socialism practiced here". He said that the church believes that Cuba should release its estimated 200 political prisoners.