Bleak Economic Prospects for Cuba

 Although Cuba has reported a 1.1% increase of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first six months of 2017, the prospects for the rest of the year are bleak.[1] Here are the problems:

  • Possible deepening of Venezuelan crisis and further reduction of its oil exports to Cuba.
  • Possible increased cost of oil from Russia, Angola, Algeria and other suppliers in the Caribbean.
  • Possible reduction of American travel to the island.
  • During the first half of this year Cuba paid $ 2.306 billion on its external debt and still has to catch up on current payments to foreign suppliers.
  • Decreased Cuban nickel production and drops in international prices for this commodity.
  • Reduced sugar production.
  • Elusive foreign investment on the island, and complicated, lengthy Cuban process for approval of same.
  • Recent Cuban government measures to control and stifle the country’s private sector.

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[1] Economists: The picture could complicate Cuba even further this second semester, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 19, 2017).

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

U.S. State Department Unjustly Continues To Allege That Cuba’s Foreign Medical Missions Engage in Forced Labor 

As noted in a prior post, the U.S. State Department on June 27, 2017, issued its annual report on human trafficking, and Its discussion of Cuba (pp. 143-45) included the allegation that Cuba had engaged in illegal forced labor with its foreign medical mission program.

This allegation has been present in previous annual reports, some of which have been discussed in other posts.[1]

Report Regarding Cuba’s Alleged Forced Labor in Its Foreign Medical Missions

The latest report observes, presumably correctly, that the Cuban penal code does not criminalize forced labor. Therefore, the report, also presumably correctly, states that Cuba “did not make efforts to identify or protect victims of forced labor” and  “did not report having procedures to identify victims of forced labor.”

In addition, the report says, presumably correctly, “The government is the primary employer in the Cuban economy, including in foreign medical missions that employ more than 84,000 workers in more than 67 countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. These medical missions constitute a signficant source of Cuban government income.”

Implicitly conceding that there was conflicting evidence, this report said, “Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other [unnamed] sources allege that Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; the [Cuban] government has stated the postings are voluntary, and some participants also have stated the postings are voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” (Emphases added.)

This report continued, “The Cuban government acknowledges that it withholds passports of overseas medical personnel in Venezuela due to security concerns; the government provided ID cards to such personnel in place of passports. There are also claims about substandard working and living conditions in some countries. In the past, there have been claims that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program, including by allegedly withholding their passports, restricting their movement, using “minders” to monitor participants outside of work, or threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In 2015, Cuba reinstituted restrictions on travel for specialized doctors and some medical personnel, requiring them to obtain an exit permit from their superiors before leaving the country. On September 9, 2015, the government agreed to reinstate medical personnel who had left their positions while abroad. As of April 1, 2016, the Cuban authorities claimed that 274 medical professionals who returned to Cuba and were rehired at the same salary and level of responsibility they had before leaving. More recent data was not available.”

This report, consistent with prior reports, alleges or assumes that Cuba is engaged in illegal forced labor of Cuban medical personnel in foreign medical missions and that Cuba does not recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad.

Analysis of the Allegation

This U.S. allegation is flawed for at least the following seven reasons.

First, while previous reports admitted that “information on the scope of . . . forced labor in Cuba is limited,” the latest report admits there is conflicting evidence about whether medical personnel’s participation in the foreign mission program is coerced and that the Cuban government denies such illegal coercion.

Second, most of this report’s recitation of alleged facts about the foreign mission program do not relate to, or substantiate, the forced labor allegation.

Third, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” At least four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions have recorded how they treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.[2]

Fourth, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a detailed study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman.  He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.[3]

Fifth, relevant to this issue, but not mentioned in the Report, is the fact that medical education in Cuba (at the Latin American School of Medicine) is free. As a result requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation. The recent $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.[4]

Sixth, this Report and its predecessors do not cite to the relevant international legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim or set forth any legal analysis purportedly supporting the allegation. This is not surprising as international law does not support this allegation.

Most pertinent is the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which Cuba and 177 other state members of the International Labour Organization have ratified (as of 2016). The U.S., however, has not so ratified, yet another reason why the U.S. charge is inapt.

This treaty’s  Article 2(1) preliminarily defines  “forced or compulsory labour” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” But there are five exceptions to this definition set forth in the treaty’s Article 2(2). One such exception, in subsection (b), states  ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphases added.)[5]

Cuba clearly is a “fully self-governing country” and the participants in the foreign medical missions are Cuban “citizens,” and as previously stated, such participation is regarded as “part of the normal civic obligations” of such citizens with the appropriate medical qualifications. Thus, under the most relevant statement of international law, Cuba has not engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to the foreign medical missions.

Seventh, there has not been any fair adjudicative process that has determined that such illegal coercion exists.

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[1] Relevant posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug, 7, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Human Trafficking Report (July 2, 2016); U.S. Senate Hearing on on 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 20, 2016).

[2]  Ledn, Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] Erisman, Brain Drain Politics: the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, Int’l J. Cuban Studies  269, 286-87 (2012).

[4] Raul Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016).

[5] This and other parts of the definition of “forced or compulsory labour” were reaffirmed in Article 1(3) of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.

Cuba’s Unchanged Status in U.S. State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking        

The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, among other things, establishes a definition of “human trafficking” and requires the Department of State to issue annual reports on such conduct in every country of the world.

The latest such report was issued on June 27, 2017.[1] Upon its issuance Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that the preamble to the Act states, “The purpose of this act is to combat trafficking in persons, a contemporary manifestation of slavery, whose victims are predominantly women and children, to ensure just and effective punishment of traffickers, and to protect the victims. As the 21st century begins, the degrading institution of slavery continues throughout the world.” Other remarks were provided by Ivanka Trump, Advisor to the President; and Susan Coppedge, Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.[2]

Background

“The Department places each country in this Report onto one of four tiers, as mandated by the TVPA. This placement is based not on the size of the country’s problem but on the extent of governments’ efforts to meet the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.”

The top tier (Tier 1) consists of “governments [according to the Department’s judgment that] fully meet the [Act’s] . . . minimum standards.” However, that ranking “does not mean that a country has no human trafficking problem or that it is doing enough to address the problem. Rather, a Tier 1 ranking indicates that a government has acknowledged the existence of human trafficking, has made efforts to address the problem, and meets the TVPA’s minimum standards. Each year, governments need to demonstrate appreciable progress in combating trafficking to maintain a Tier 1 ranking. Indeed, Tier 1 represents a responsibility rather than a reprieve. A country is never finished with the job of fighting trafficking.” The latest report has 36 countries, including the U.S., in Tier 1.

Tier 2 consists of those countries “whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to meet those standards.” For the latest report 80 countries were placed in Tier 2.

Tier 2 Watch List this year has 68 countries, including Cuba, “whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND: (a) the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; (b) there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or (c) the determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was focused on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”

Tier 3 this year has 23 “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. There also are 3 countries that are not ranked and instead labeled as Special Cases.

In 2015 there was criticism by some senators about that year’s upgrading of Cuba and Malaysia. Subsequently that same year the previously mentioned State Department Office agreed to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prior to releasing future reports in an effort to prevent any inappropriate influence over the country rankings recommended by the TIP office. As a result on June 21, 2017, Ambassador Coppedge did just that.[3]

Report Regarding Cuba

“The Government of Cuba does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period by prosecuting and convicting sex traffickers; providing services to sex trafficking victims; releasing a written report on its antitrafficking efforts; and coordinating anti-trafficking efforts across government ministries. In addition, the government investigated indicators of trafficking exhibited by foreign labor brokers recruiting Cuban citizens. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking. The government did not prohibit forced labor, report efforts to prevent forced labor domestically, or recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Cuba was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore, Cuba is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.”

The Report then goes on to provide the State Department’s recommendations for Cuba; assessments of the island’s prosecution, protection and prevention of trafficking; and its Trafficking Profile.

Reactions[4]

On July 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the 2017 report with testimony from Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, whose opening statement did not mention Cuba, and from Ambassador Coppedge. [5]

The statement on the new report from Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American, merely referenced a bill he had introduced to reform the State Department’s process for publishing its annual TIP reports, and re-published his statement about the 2015 report that criticized its granting a waiver to downgrading Cuba.

Surprisingly Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), another Cuban-American and a fierce critic of the “promotion” of Cuba to Tier 2 Watch List in 2015, issued a statement about the latest trafficking report that said nothing about Cuba’s continued placement in that category.

Earlier in 2017 Senator Menendez along with cosponsors Senators Rubio, Tim Kaine (Dem., VA), Cory Gardner (Rep., CO), Rob Portman (Rep., OH) and Christopher Coons (Dem., DE) introduced the Trafficking in Persons Report Integrity Act  (S.377), which would reform the State Department’s annual trafficking reports. The press release by Rubio said the bill was prompted in part by “The past two TIP reports . . . [containing] unwarranted, politically-driven upgrades of countries with deplorable human trafficking records, like Cuba and Malaysia.”[6] However, as of August 15, 2017, no actions had been taken on the bill.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Trafficking in Persons 2017 (June 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks at the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report Launch Ceremony (June 27, 2017).

[3] Sen. Corker, Press Release: Corker Takes Part in State Department Launch of 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 27, 2017).

[4] Menendez, Sen. Menendez Reacts to the 2017 TIP Report (June 27, 2017); Rubio, Rubio Statement on State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (June 27, 2017).

[5] Senate For. Relations Comm., Hearing to review the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 13, 2017);  Sen. Corker, Press Release: Corker Opening Statement at Hearing on 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons Report (July 13, 2017); Deputy Sec. State Sullivan, Opening Statement Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, July 13, 2017.

[6] Press Release, Rubio, Menendez Reintroduce Legislation to Reform State Department Human Trafficking Report (Feb. 14, 2017).

Subversive Revolutionaries 

This was the title of the July 30th sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor, Rev. Sarah Brouwer.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Sarah Brouwer

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service—Listening for the Word—featured the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The main Scripture for the day was Ephesians 6: 10-20 (Common English Bible):[2]

  • “Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. So, stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
  • Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

“I am as far removed from Roman-controlled late first century Asia minor as I am from the war-torn places of our world– and even the violent parts of our city. But, I do read about war and violence in the news, and it disturbs me. And, the worry most on my mind nowadays is that there seems to be more and more license to threaten individual lives and bodies, especially those who fall outside norms, and land in the margins. So, to equate the Christian life with putting on armor not only falls outside of my comfort zone, it seems counterintuitive, even dangerous.”

“But, I also have to wonder if… maybe that’s the point. “

“The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.”

“In the letter to the Ephesians there is no explicit mention of violence outside of the notion of putting on armor, but, the author does talk about standing firm, even as we struggle with cosmic forces of evil. And evil is really the root of violence- not quite the same thing, but certainly related. What’s important, though, is that the writer of this letter actually takes images that are familiar to these early Christians- people who would have seen powerful, intimidatingly dressed, sometimes violent Roman soldiers, walking the streets every day — and then subverts them, takes them out of context and changes the metaphor. The image of armor ends up undermining itself, revealing its emptiness.”

“[The]author of Ephesians seeks to build community by coming alongside it, knowing it, and reframing what appears to be true. . .. For the Christians in Ephesus, it meant they had to shake off the illusions of the powers of the world and put on the armor of God. They had to learn that the body of Christ is a ‘heavenly’ reality, full of righteousness and truth, and it is in no way determined by violent ways or the abusive habits of those who claim power.”

“Although I can certainly appreciate what the author of Ephesians is doing here, it still makes me uncomfortable. Things have not gone well when Christians have put on armor. This text has been misread many times and used in defense of violence, even though I am abundantly sure that was not the intent. As a friend of mine writes, ‘spiritual growth usually feels more like laying down defenses, shedding layers, allowing more of my unprotected self to see the light of day.’ Even putting on the armor of God, which is a subversive, totally different way of garnering strength, just doesn’t sit well.”

“But . . . Ephesians doesn’t mess around with the idea that there is evil. Conflict is implied, but not necessarily conflict with others.”

“Evil is real, but we like to talk about it as though it is part of these systems of injustice, so we can easily remove ourselves from the equation. A friend of mine says it this way, ‘We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).”

“Jesus knew that evil didn’t just exist among the Roman authorities. If he did, he would have spent all his time with them. Instead, he taught the disciples, he healed the sick, he gave to the poor, he spent time with sinners. Jesus knew that violence, even the violence that killed him, was just a symptom of inner conflict.”

“And who among us can’t understand this? Even if we don’t have urges toward violence, we all have deep-seated pain, discomfort, grief, loss, loneliness, anxiety, shame and self-doubt that we are battling internally on a daily basis. And maybe we don’t put on physical armor to cover it up, but we certainly manage to bury evil that eats away at us, covering it up with illusions of personal success and power, or whatever other things we do that don’t really protect us from the world or our own hurt. You might have noticed, but Ephesians never mentions battling enemies, because there are none. Our so-called enemies are always just as imprisoned as we are.”

“[According to] Rev. Matt Fitzgerald . . . in the Christian Century . . . , ‘The breastplate of ministerial self-righteousness will not protect me. I have learned over the years that a helmet made of bourbon and a sword forged from cynicism are also insufficient, as are prosperity, religious zeal, fitness and even family. None of these are strong enough to hold back ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). None can thwart the forces of chaos and disorder that upend even the most righteous of lives. Yet we are tempted to try to master the tragedy of existence by ‘living well.’ Perhaps this is why the writer of Ephesians makes a distinction between ‘the whole armor of God’ and our efforts to become godly. The shield is God’s, not ours.’”[3]

“When I think of someone who has explored the cosmic forces of evil within and sought to overcome them, the person who comes to mind is Jean Vanier. [He] is the founder of the well-known L’arche Movement, which consists of 135 communities around the world where people of 5 varying physical and mental abilities live together as equals. Vanier once wrote, ‘We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favored ones of God… But I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.’”[4]

“If we put on armor, let it be subversive armor. Let us wrap truth around our waist like a belt, and let it be the kind of truth that Jean Vanier talks about. We might wonder uncomfortably, ‘And what good will truth do in the end?’ You might consider asking someone who has revealed the truth about their sexuality, told the truth about who they truly are, deep down, exposed their true identity to a shaming and dangerous world, but whose life was saved as a result. You could ask someone who has admitted they were powerless to addiction, who finally said, ‘I need help. This is unmanageable.’ That kind of truth is strong, it has a story, and it not only has the power to nourish others and change lives, ‘it is strong enough to bring forth life from the grave (Wiles).’”

“The writer of Ephesians says, ‘stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’”

“The Gospel is the world of opposites, where engaging real evil and conflict actually means putting your defenses down. It seems very vulnerable, to march into combat armed only in the Spirit; even precarious and costly, to hold faith as your shield. It feels like you might lose everything on that path to battle. As my friend Sarah writes, ‘Frankly, it all resembles foolishness. It’s as foolish as God Almighty showing up as a baby. Babies literally can’t do anything. They’re just really needy, and they call forth love and compassion. That’s all. But this is the shape of our God. This is our confession about power. This is the nature of our strength—a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit. This is the only armor there is. And it’s no kind of armor at all.’ Except, if we remember the promise. That if we put on this subversive armor, God’s armor, evil and violence will not win in the end, and self-destruction and self-righteousness do not have to be our last resort. If we are willing to put on this strange promise, to wear it, to stand firm in it, and to be advocates for it, it will save us, and others.”

“So, while I still don’t like the idea of armor, I believe in it. I have to. And I pray you will join me, as we ‘dare to lay down all our other weapons, and put on, piece by piece, only this, the armor of God.’”

Preparing for the Word

The first part of the service—Preparing for the Word—helped to prepare the congregation to listen for the Word. Keys for this part were the congregational singing the Processional Hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” and saying the unison Prayer of Confession.

Processional Hymn: “God of Grace and God of Glory”[5]

God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy power
;
crown thine ancient church’s story;
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour
.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Cure thy children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goa
l.

Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.

Let the gift of thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

Prayer of Confession

 Before the reading of the Scripture and the sermon the congregation in unison said the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Spirit of God, we confess that we put on airs more often than we put on the armor of God. We are guilty of girding ourselves with lies instead of the truth. We try to protect ourselves with arrogance and self-reliance instead of righteousness, faith, and your gift of salvation. Our footsteps do not follow your path of peace. We are quick to use your Word to attack one another, instead of striking out against the sin of the world. Forgive us, Holy God. Gift us with wisdom and strength to change our ways, so that we may live as your faithful people.”

Conclusion

The passage from Ephesians was not familiar to me and like Rev. Brouwer I had difficulty in seeing how it related to my life.

I was aided in this effort by some of the words of the Processional Hymn (in slightly different order): “God of grace and God of glory. Lo! the hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways! Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. On thy people pour thy power. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

The pouring of God’s power on us can be seen as embracing us in God’s armor: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and a sword of the Spirit.

The hymn’s plea to “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore” recognizes the difficulty we all experience in seeing so many injustices in the world and feeling incapable of doing anything to combat them and, therefore, falling into “weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

As Rev. Brouwer said in her sermon, ‘We tend to make evil bureaucratic, so we can engage in problem solving and policy-making. And while those ways of dealing with injustice are productive in some ways, they fail to adequately grapple with the reality of evil, and the way that it works within and among us, spreading like a virus (Wiles).”

We, therefore, need God’s wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour. For me, this means discerning our gifts, identifying ways to use these gifts to help others and then digging in doing it while recognizing that nothing we do is complete or perfect and that we are prophets of a future not our own.[6]

=========================================

[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are on the church’s website.

[2] The Old Testament reading for the day was Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18.

[3] Fitzgerald, The armor of God: Ephesians 6: 10-20, Christian Century (Aug. 11, 2009).

[4] The noted theologian Henri Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life at a L’arche center in Canada.

[5] The hymn’s lyrics were written by Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1876-1969) for the 1930 opening of New York City’s interdenominational Riverside Church, which was conceived by John D. Rockefeller and which Fosdick served as senior pastor (1930-1946). Earlier he had been a Baptist pastor in Montclair, New Jersey (1903-1917), a chaplain in World War I (1917), and pastor, in New York City, at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan‘s West Village (1918-1924) followed by Park Avenue Baptist Church (1924-1930). Fosdick became a central figure in the “Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy” within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal prominent ministers of the early 20th century. This led to an investigation of his views by the Presbyterian Church in the USA where he was defended by John Foster Dulles, an elder at First Presbyterian and later Secretary of State.

[6] Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2017).

Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute 

At an August 10 State Department press briefing, the Spokesperson Heather Nauert discussed the ongoing U.S.-Cuba diplomatic dispute about U.S. diplomats in Cuba who have had medical problems.[1]  

Emphasizing that there was an ongoing U.S. investigation of this matter, she said that the U.S. was still trying to determine the cause of the ailments, that it was too soon to blame any government or other person for the problems, that she has no knowledge of a country other than Cuba being the potential cause of the problems and that she was not aware of the U.S. having experienced the same problem in other countries.

She also said that the two Cuban diplomats in the U.S. had been expelled in May because Cuba had breached its obligation under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, whose Article 29 states: “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State [here, Cuba] shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” (Emphasis  added.)

There have been reports that at least one Canadian diplomat has been treated in hospital in Cuba afar suffering headaches and hearing loss and that the Canadian and Cuban governments are investigating the problem. Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Brianne Maxwell said Thursday that agency officials “are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and US diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working — including with US and Cuban authorities – to ascertain the cause.”[2] U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert could neither confirm nor deny such reports.

Ms. Nauert also asserted that the U.S. Embassy in Havana is fully staffed and operational.

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[1] A prior post discussed the issue of medical problems of some U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

[2] Canadian diplomat in Cuba treated for hearing loss, CBCnews (Aug. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Canadian Diplomat in Cuba Treated for Hearing Loss, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017).

U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute  

On August 9, it became publicly known that the U.S. and Cuba had been and still are engaged in a diplomatic dispute. Is it a spat or something more serious? Here are details about what started becoming publicly known only yesterday.[1]

  • In the fall of 2016, several U.S. diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, and some of the diplomats’ symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the U.S.
  • On February 17, 2017, the U.S. informed Cuba about these medical problems.
  • Apparently sometime in or about May 2017, the U.S. investigation of these medical problems concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to a device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose.
  • On May 23, the U.S. asked two Cuban diplomats at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. to leave the U.S., and they did so.
  • On August 9, the U.S. State Department reported that the U.S. had expelled two Cuban diplomats at its Embassy in Washington, D.C. for unspecified “incidents” in Havana.
  • At a press briefing the same day (August 9), the S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the exact nature of the incidents was unclear, but Americans serving in Cuba had returned to the U.S. for non life-threatening “medical reasons.” Moreover, she said, “We don’t have any definitive answers about the source or the cause of what we consider to be incidents. It’s caused a variety of physical symptoms in these American citizens who work for the U.S. government. We take those incidents very seriously, and there is an investigation currently under way. What this requires is providing medical examinations to these people. Initially, when they’d started reporting what I will just call symptoms, it took time to figure out what it was, and this is still ongoing. So we’re monitoring it.”
  • In response later the same day, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that the expulsion of the Cuban diplomats was “unjustified and unsubstantiated” and that : “Cuba has never, nor would ever, allow the Cuban territory to be used for any kind of action against accredited diplomats or their families.” In addition, it said, “It reiterates its willingness to cooperate in the clarification of this situation” and had started a “comprehensive, high-priority and urgent investigation” into the alleged incidents after it had been informed of them by the embassy in February. The statement also reported that Cuba had reinforced security around the U.S. embassy and U.S. diplomatic residences.
  • Apparently also on August 9, a U.S. government official said several colleagues at the U.S. embassy in Havana had been evacuated back to the U.S. for hearing problems and other symptoms over the past six months (February-July?). Some subsequently got hearing aids, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials also told the Associated Press that about five diplomats, several with spouses, had been affected and that no children had been involved and that the FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating. The officials also stated that investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.

Conclusion

Everyone needs to stay tuned for further developments and hope that this does not lead to a further deterioration of relations between the two countries.

The apparent medical problems experienced by spouses of U.S. diplomats suggests that if the problems were caused by some kind of electronic device, the devices were located at the diplomats’ homes, not the Embassy. Especially with the current legitimate concern over the U.S. avoiding provocative statements about North Korea, both the U.S. and Cuba need to exercise restraint, to work together to solve these problems and to avoid jumping to conclusions before the results of investigations are known.

Senator Marco Rubio has not exercised such restraint with his August 9 press release: “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades. This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement. Personal harm to U.S. officials shows the extent the Castro regime will go and clearly violates international norms.”[2] Calm down, Marco.

=================================

[1]  Reuters, Cuba Denies Involvement in Incidents Concerning U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Says Investigating ‘Incidents’ Concerning U.S. Diplomats in Havana, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Hearing Loss of US Diplomats in Cuba Blamed on Covert Device, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Aug. 9, 2017); Gearan, U.S. expelled two Cuban diplomats after embassy employees in Cuba developed unexplained ailments, Wash. Post (Aug. 9, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Statement (Aug. 9, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues statement addressing allegations by the U.S., Granma (Aug. 10, 2017).

[2] Rubio Statement on Castro Regime Harming U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Aug. 9, 2017).