My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, vocation “implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, . . . vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time and what was a vocation for one period of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

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[1] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

[10] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

Washington Post Criticizes New Cuban Constitution

On March 1, a Washington Post editorial criticized the new Cuban constitution.[1]

First, the editorial expressed surprise over the “share of eligible voters who cast “no” ballots or stayed home.”   Indeed, the total number of registered voters who voted “No” or stayed home or who submitted spoiled ballots was 1,853,545 or 21.4% of the electorate while 78.6% voted “YES.” [2]

In contrast, the Post continued,  the last constitutional vote in 1976, when Castro had established a totalitarian state, 99.02 percent voted yes.” This change, argued the Post, constituted ‘unmistakable signs that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their fear of the authorities and lost their patience with a decaying economic and political system.”

Second, the new constitution “is the handiwork of the authoritarian clique that stumbles on after Castro’s death. The key decisions were made by a commission appointed by former president Raúl Castro, who still leads the Communist Party, and has amendments by the rubber-stamp parliament.”

Third, the “new constitution does not allow any oxygen into the closed political system, saying the [Communist Party]  is the “superior driving force of the society and the State.” Indeed, Article 5 states, “The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” 

Fourth, “[g]enuine political competition — the essence of democracy — was absent. The state-run news media ignored those who would advocate a “no” vote, and in the final day, nervous about the outcome, the authorities blacked out the digital newspaper 14ymedio, run by the dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, who had openly called for a “no” vote on social media. José Daniel Ferrer García, a tough-minded activist and regime opponent, was detained after sitting in a park in Santiago de Cuba with a hand-lettered sign that proclaimed, ‘No.’” [3]

Fifth, “The new constitution is hardly earth-shattering. It recognizes private property for a “complementary role in the economy,” but continues to enshrine a “socialist economic system based on ownership by all people of the fundamental means of production as the primary form of property as well as the planned direction of the economy.” For most Cubans, this reality is a dystopia reminiscent of the Soviet Union, with shortages of eggs, butter and other basics.”

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[1] Editorial, Cubans are losing their patience—and their fear, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2019).

[2] See Cuban Citizens Approve New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 26, 2019)/  This total of 21.4% may be overstated as some qualified voters may not have voted even though they supported the constitution or spoiled their ballots for innocent reasons.

[3] See Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 14, 2019); posts listed in “Cuban Bloggers” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical; CUBA

U.S. and Cuba Exchange Insults Over Cuba’s Constitutional Referendum

As reported in a prior post, on February 24, Cuba held a referendum with 6.8 million “YES” votes (78.6% of eligible registered voters) approving a new constitution for the island.

Pompeo’s Statement

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement entitled “Cuba’s So-Called Referendum.” [1] It said the following:

  • “On February 24, the Cuban communist regime held what it called a “national referendum” on revisions to its constitution. No one should be fooled by this exercise, which achieves little beyond perpetuating the pretext for the regime’s one-party dictatorship. The entire process has been marked by carefully managed political theater and repression of public debate.”
  • “The new constitution primarily affirms the Communist Party’s role as the only legal political party and decrees the socialist system “irrevocable,” blocking the possibility of desperately needed economic reform. This document also fails to guarantee the Cuban people their fundamental freedoms.”
  • “While the regime claims Sunday’s vote was democratic, Cuban authorities harassed and detained dozens of observers and peaceful protestors, confiscating phones and devices. Earlier this month more than 120 activists initiated a hunger strike to send a message to the regime that the Cuban people reject these oppressive tactics. We strongly condemn these attempts to silence peaceful protests, which show that Cuba’s leaders fear the Cuban people.”
  • “The United States continues to stand with Cubans who have suffered for 60 years the revolution’s failed political system and economic mismanagement. We believe that history is on the side of the brave Cuban people, and that this hemisphere is a region where democracy, freedom, and human dignity reign supreme. We urge the democracies of the world to join us in standing with the people of Cuba and their peaceful calls for democratic reform.”

Cuba’s Response

Cuba strongly rejected  Pompeo’s “disrespectful statement,” which, Cuba said, is “an expression of the imperialist ideas which are deeply rooted in the foreign policy of the current US administration . . . [and] a reflection of the already announced desire to impose once again, in the western hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine, accompanied now by some McCarthyist intolerance.” Moreover, the Cuban statement also said the Cuban people expressed “their will in a massive way, despite the pernicious campaign launched by the United States which was intended to influence their vote.  It’s been long since we Cubans decided to frustrate every US attempt to govern our country’s destiny.”

Finally, the Cuban Foreign Ministry stated, the U.S. “should put an end to the practice of interfering in the internal affairs of other States and the electoral or voting processes of other nations.  This is a weird habit that is contrary to International Law, with which the US government defies the norms that govern relations among sovereign States.”

Conclusion

There are legitimate grounds for the U.S. asserting that the new constitution makes the Cuban Communist Party the only legal political party and the socialist system  “irreversible.” In addition, there is evidence that the Cuban government harassed and detained critics of the new constitution.[3] But it is hardly diplomatic for the U.S. to say that this was a “so-called referendum.”

Cuba, on the other hand, had legitimate grounds for its criticism of the Pompeo statement. But, in this blogger’s opinion, Cuba went overboard in calling that statement an Interference in Cuba’s internal affairs that was contrary to international law.

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[1] State Dep’t, Cuba’s So-Called Referendum (Feb. 26, 2019).

[2] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration by the Foreign Ministry of Cuba (Feb. 26, 2019). 

[3] See Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 14, 2019); Cuban Citizens Approve New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 26, 2019). 

 

Cuban Citizens Approve New Constitution

On February 24, in a national  referendum Cuban citizens approved a new constitution for the country. Here are the preliminary results of that referendum:

 

Category

     

Number

  

Percent

YES

6,816,169

78.6%

NO

706,400

8.1%

Blank & Spoiled Ballots

325,774

3.8%

Total Vote

7,848,343

90.5%

Not Voting

821,371

9.5%

Total Eligible Voters

8,669,714

100.0%

The total turnout of 90.5% and approval by 78.6% are extraordinarily high by U.S. standards. But given the Cuban government’s control of the media on the island and the overwhelming message calling for the YES vote, it is amazing that the total negative vote was 21.4% (NO + Blank & Spoiled Ballots+Not Voting).

Indeed, it should be remembered that on February 11, Cuban military and security forces arrested activists of a leading opponent of the constitution, The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPAC). According to UNPACU, the proposed new constitution “denies elementary rights, restricts basic freedoms {and Cubans] will continue oppressed and in the deepest misery.” The central reason for this conclusion, it says, is Article 5, which states as follows:

  • The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” (Emphasis by UNPACU.)

The new constitution recognizes private and cooperative businesses, creates the posts of prime minister and provincial governor and introduces presumption of innocence and habeas corpus into the justice system.

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Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 14, 2019); Cuba Says YES to new Constitution, Granma (Feb. 25, 2019);Special Coverage: The Cuban people vote in Constitutional Referendum, Granma (Feb. 24, 2019); Whitefield, Cuba approves new constitution amid unprecedented opposition, Miami Herald Feb. 25, 2019). 

Professor LeoGrande’s Argument Against U.S. Litigation Over Cuban Expropriated Property

Senator Patrick Leahy in his lengthy February 15 speech on the Senate floor, which was repeated in a prior post, had appended to his remarks an article about Cuba by a noted U.S. expert on the country, Professor William L. LeoGrande of American University. Here is the text of that article, “President Trump Risks Alienating Allies Over Cuban American Property Claims” from OnCubaNews (2/13/19).

“The Trump administration is seriously considering whether to allow Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Helms-Burton) to go into effect in March, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton. On January 16, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was suspending Title III for just 45 days instead of the usual six months while the administration reviews whether its implementation would promote democracy in Cuba. He warned foreign companies doing business on the island that they had better ‘reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship.’”

“Title III allows U.S. nationals to file suit in U.S. courts against anyone ‘trafficking’ in their confiscated property in Cuba—that is, anyone profiting from it. If President Trump allows Title III to go fully into effect, he will open the door to as many as 200,000 law suits by U.S. nationals, most of them Cuban Americans, whose property was taken by the Cuban government after 1959. U.S. courts would be swamped, the ability of U.S. companies to do business on the island would be crippled, and allies abroad might retaliate for U.S. suits brought against their companies in Cuba. Once the suits have been filed, there will be no way to undo the resulting legal chaos and the tangle of resulting litigation could take years to unwind.”

“The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified 5,913 claims of U.S. nationals whose property was seized. These are the claims that Cuba recognizes and that the United States and Cuba had begun to discuss during the Obama administration. But Title III takes the unusual position of allowing naturalized Cuban Americans who lost property to also file suit against alleged traffickers. Normally, international law recognizes the sovereign right of governments to dispose of the property of their own citizens. According to the Department of State, by including Cuban Americans who were not U.S. citizens when their property was taken, Title III creates the potential for an estimated 75,000-200,000 claims worth ‘tens of billions of dollars.’”

“Back in 1996, when the law was being debated in Congress, angry opposition from U.S. allies Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, whose companies doing business in Cuba would be the targets of Title III law suits, led President Bill Clinton to insist on a presidential waiver provision in Title III. As a result, the president has the authority to suspend for six months the right to file Title III law suits, and he can renew that suspension indefinitely. Every six months since the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act was passed, successive presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have continued the suspension of Title III.”

“U.S. allies have denounced Title III’s extraterritorial reach. Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union all passed laws prohibiting compliance with it. The European Union also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, which it did not pursue after President Clinton suspended Title III. In fact, the principal justification both President Clinton and President George W. Bush offered for continuing the suspension was the need to maintain cooperation with European allies.”

“If President Trump does not renew the suspension, all these old wounds with allies will be reopened as U.S. claimants try to haul foreign companies into U.S. courts for doing business in Cuba. We already have enough tough issues on our agenda with Mexico, Canada, and Europe without adding another one. At this very moment, Washington is trying to muster their support in dealing with the Venezuelan crisis, support that could be endangered if the administration picks a fight with them over Title III.”

“U.S. businesses would not be exempt from potential liability. A Cuban American family in Miami claims to have owned the land on which José Martí International Airport was built, so any U.S. carrier using the air field could conceivably be sued under Title III. Another family that owned the Port of Santiago could file suit against U.S. cruise ships docking there.”

“Moreover, it would be almost impossible for a U.S. or foreign company to know in advance whether a proposed business opportunity in Cuba might become the subject of Title III litigation. “This will effectively end for decades any attempt to restore trade between the U.S. and Cuba,” attorney Robert Muse told the Tampa Bay Times.”

“When President Trump announced new sanctions on Cuba back in June 2017, senior administration officials said they were designed “to not disrupt existing business” that U.S. companies were doing in Cuba. If the president fails to continue the suspension of Title III, business relations will be disrupted far more severely and irreparably than they would be by any regulatory change.”

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

Leahy, Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export To Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019); LeoGrande, Trump and Cuban-American property claims, OnCubaNews (Feb. 11, 2019). See also President Trump Considering Another Hostile Action Against Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 18, 2019); Update on Trump Administration’s Threat To Allow U.S. Litigation Over Cuba’s Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 30, 2019).

Senator Leahy’s Senate Floor Speech To End Embargo of Cuba

As mentioned in a prior post, on February 7, Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) introduced the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (S.428) with cosponsors Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY)./

On February 15, Senator Leahy delivered a lengthy and persuasive speech on the Senate floor supporting this bill and ending the embargo. Here is the text of that speech.

After commending Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) for introducing this bill and urging other Senators to support the bill,, Senator Leahy said, “This bill is about ending the anachronistic prohibitions in U.S. law that for decades have limited U.S. engagement with Cuba, including preventing American companies from exporting their products to Cuba.  The fact that legislation to do so is even necessary is illustrative of the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Companies from Europe, Russia, China, Mexico, and every other country can sell their products to Cuba, which is just 90 miles from our coast, but American manufacturers and retailers are largely shut out of the Cuban market. . . . This bill would enable American companies to compete, which every believer in a free market should support.”

“It is also important for Senators to know that punitive actions by the Trump Administration last year to further restrict the right of Americans to travel to Cuba have had devastating consequences for Cuba’s fledgling private sector – the very people the White House and supporters of the restrictions profess to want to help.  The fact that they have said nothing about the harm they are causing Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs demonstrates that they care more about continuing their failed policy of sanctions, regardless of who they hurt, than about helping the Cuban people or about protecting the right of Americans to travel freely.” 

“The latest ill-conceived attempt by the White House to punish Cuba would permit Title III of the Helms-Burton Act to go into effect.  This would allow, among others, individuals who were Cuban citizens when their property in Cuba was expropriated half a century ago to sue in U.S. courts any Cuban, foreign, and even American company whose business in Cuba today uses that property.  That could be an airport, port, warehouse, hotel, restaurant, you name it.  Virtually every American and foreign company investing in Cuba would suddenly be liable for treble damages.”

“The purpose, as the law’s authors made clear when it was enacted 23 years ago, is to harm Cuba’s economy by making it completely inhospitable for foreign investment.”

“As my friend in the House, Representative Jim McGovern (Dem., MA), has pointed out –

  • ‘It’s no mystery why Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump blocked Title III from going into effect every six months for the past 23 years.’
  • ‘It is hypocritical – it penalizes companies for doing what American companies do all over the world.’
  • It is contrary to international law, which recognizes the right of expropriation and requires compensation.’
  • ‘It is an extraterritorial sanction that guarantees a response from our trading partners, like Canada, Spain and the EU, including complaints at the World Trade Organization.’
  • ‘And if you care about agriculture, be warned: It will open a new front in the trade war, with all the repercussions that can bring.’
  • ‘It will allow Cuba to claim victim status and rally international support.’
  • ‘It will clog our courts with lawsuits.’
  • ‘It will make it impossible to negotiate compensation for U.S. claims in Cuba, and, in the end, hurt the very Americans who seek compensation for the property they lost.’
  • ‘It will divide us from friends and allies who are now working for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.’
  • ‘And it will guarantee that new investment in Cuba will come from the Russians, Chinese and others who are hostile to the United States, and whose state-owned companies can’t be sued in U.S. courts.’

“I agree with my friend in the other body [Rep. McGovern].  What the White House is considering would trigger an avalanche of unintended consequences that would bring U.S. commerce with Cuba to a halt, harm relations with our allies in this hemisphere and beyond, and make resolving property claims more difficult.  I ask unanimous consent that a piece by William LeoGrande on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act published in the February 13, 2019 issue of OnCubaNews be printed in the Record following my remarks.” [This article will be published in a separate post to this blog.]

Like “many issues, Members of Congress have strong feelings pro and con about U.S. relations with Cuba.  It is no secret that, after more than half a century of a policy of isolation that has achieved none of its objectives and primarily hurt the Cuban people, I, like Senators Klobuchar and Enzi and many others in this body, favor closer relations.”

“Conversely, there are those in Congress and the Trump Administration who believe strongly that we should ratchet up the pressure on the Cuban government in an attempt to achieve those elusive goals.”

“I have often spoken publicly about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in Cuba.  But I also think it is important to try to be objective:  to criticize when called for and to acknowledge positive changes when they occur.”

“I recognize that those who favor maintaining the failed economic embargo have a longstanding, visceral antagonism and resentment toward the Cuban government.  While they rarely, if ever, mention the corrupt and brutal Batista regime that enjoyed unqualified U.S. support until it was overthrown in 1959, they have legitimate reasons to criticize the mistreatment of the Cuban people by the current government and its support for the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime in Venezuela.”

“But they too should acknowledge that threatening and bullying Cuba has not worked.  In fact it has made the situation worse, and provided an excuse for the Cuban government to blame its own failures on us.  They should also acknowledge positive changes in Cuba, but they never do.  Not ever.  It is almost as if they are psychologically, ideologically, or emotionally incapable of saying one positive thing about the Cuban government, no matter what positive things it does.”   

“Perhaps they are afraid that if they did, they would alienate their donors in the Cuban-American community.  Of course, we know that Cuban-Americans are divided about the U.S. embargo.  Some are hardcore believers in the embargo, and they always will be.  But at least as many – and increasing numbers – oppose the embargo, especially those who were born after the Cuban revolution.” 

“I wonder what the pro-embargo isolationists would say if the Cuban government were to stop harassing and abusing dissidents who favor a more democratic system.  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?” 

“What if the Cuban government decided to embrace a free market economy and let private businesses flourish?  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?”

“I doubt it.  I doubt it because no matter what positive reforms occur in Cuba, they will continue to defend the embargo until Cuba is a full-fledged democracy and those who currently hold power either die or are voted out of office.” 

“We all want Cuba to become a democracy, where civil and political rights are respected, and the sooner the better.  But those same defenders of the embargo support billions of dollars in U.S. aid – and weapons sales – to countries that are led by authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt dictatorships and monarchies, some of which have held power for decades or generations.”    

“How do the pro-embargo diehards reconcile that?  They don’t and they can’t.”

“The fact is, Cuba is changing.  Not nearly as fast as we and the Cuban people would like, but it is changing in ways that few would have predicted not very long ago.”

“Last year, Raul Castro’s hand-picked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became President and he promised a government more accessible and responsive to the people’s needs.  How he delivers on that promise remains to be seen.”   

“Since 2010, after the Cuban government recognized that the Internet is essential if Cuba wants to be part of the modern world, Internet access has exploded.  The government has opened hundreds of public Wi-Fi hot spots and cyber cafes in the past five years, and home Internet access became legal and available in 2017.  Today, almost half of the Cuban people have personal cell phones that were illegal just a decade ago.”

“As others have pointed out, these changes have encouraged new forms of communication, networking and organizing via social media.”

“But change does not come easily in Cuba, as it does not in many countries.  Last July, the government announced onerous new regulations on the private sector, covering a wide range of issues:  food safety, labor contracts, procurement, taxation, limits on the size of private businesses.  The new rules were an attempt by hardliners to crack down on the private sector, which was criticized for black marketeering.”

“But private entrepreneurs resisted, and they challenged the regulations as contradictory to the government’s own plans that recognizes the private sector as important to economic growth and employment. They appealed to government officials and spoke publicly about the harm the new rules would have on their businesses.”

“When the final regulations were issued, several that had caused the most resentment were dropped.  According to the Minister of Labor and Social Security, the decision to revise the rules was due to ‘the opinion and experiences of those directly involved.’”

“The government also retreated on a new law – Decree 349 – requiring artists, musicians and performers to register with the state and pay a large commission on their earnings from private engagements, and it banned work with objectionable content and empowered inspectors to shut down any offensive exhibition or performance.  Clearly, an attempt to further limit free expression.”

“Since the 1980s, Cuban artists have had more freedom to be critical of the government than other social sectors, and so it was not surprising that Decree 349 ignited widespread protests.  After social media was used to mobilize opposition within the Cuban arts community and among artists abroad, the government agreed not to enforce the law until implementing regulations are drafted in consultation with the arts community.”

“According to one observer, ‘during [the latter half of last year], nearly 8.9 million Cubans debated the draft of a new constitution in their workplaces, neighborhoods and schools.  Communist Party members were told not to argue with even the most radical proposals for amendments, and the ensuing debates were freewheeling, often lasting past their scheduled time.  Among the main topics: whether the president and state governors should be directly elected by voters; whether the concentration of wealth and property should be allowed; whether term limits and age limits for leaders were a good idea; and whether the Communist Party should be subordinated to the constitution and hence the law.”  Not long ago it would have been unthinkable to openly debate these issues, especially as part of a constitutional reform process.”

“One article that attracted intense debate recognized same-sex marriage, and was promoted by Raul Castro’s daughter, a long-time activist for LGBTQ rights. The proposal sparked strong opposition from evangelical churches supported by the Catholic Church.  Gay rights advocates countered with campaigns of their own.  The chance of a significant ‘no’ vote on the entire constitutional reform led the government to drop the provision from the final draft of the constitution with a pledge to consider it later.”

“This surge in mobilization by well-organized constituencies utilizing social media to resist government policy, from burdensome private sector regulations to gay marriage, is unprecedented in Cuba.  The government’s willingness to not only tolerate these organized challenges but to change policies in response to them, is significant. “   

“As has been noted, none of these issues dealt with the rigid structure of the Cuban system.  Cuba remains a one party state, in which those who challenge the system are treated as criminals.  But the precedent of organized interest groups mounting successful campaigns to challenge and change government policy is now established, which is positive.” 

“None of the longstanding critics of the Cuban government in the U.S. Congress or the Cuban-American community [has] acknowledged any of this, nor are they likely too.  For them, anything less than a wholesale change of government in Cuba is unworthy of mention, even though they apply a very different standard – a double standard – to other authoritarian governments.  In fact, they would ridicule anyone who regards such changes as positive or worthy of recognition.”

“As we know from our own experience, political reform is difficult.  Our own Electoral College, an anachronism designed to protect a slave-holding minority, remains in effect more than two centuries later.  Five times, in the world’s oldest democracy, it has prevented the winner of the most popular votes from being elected president.”  

“The Cuban people want to live better and they want a lot less government control over their lives.  Armed with cell phones and the Internet they are going to make increasing demands of their government.  This is happening at a time when Venezuela’s economy is collapsing and the survival of the Maduro regime, Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere, is in question.  Not surprisingly, the Cuban government is trying to limit the pace of change and to secure other benefactors.  It is turning increasingly to Russia, Algeria, Iran and other countries that welcome the chance to challenge U.S. influence in this hemisphere.” 

“This is a time for the United States to be actively and visibly engaged in Cuba, for Americans to be traveling to Cuba, for expanding educational, cultural, and professional exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, and for American companies to be competing in Cuba.  It is not a time to return to a failed policy of threats and ultimatums, driven by domestic politics rather than by what is in our national interests.”

“That is why I am cosponsoring the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act.  And it is why I intend to support other bipartisan legislation to replace our failed Cuba policy with one that serves America’s interests, not the interests of a shrinking minority, and not the interests of Russia and other countries that are reaping the economic benefits of our self-defeating policy of isolation.”

Reaction

I concur in the rationale and conclusion of this speech: end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

While I believe there is valid documentation of the Senator’s assertion that Cuba has limits on free speech and assembly, he views this in isolation from Cuba’s situation. Cuba is a small country facing the vastly larger and more powerful  U.S., which for many years has had various hostile policies and actions against Cuba, including secret and undercover so-called “democracy promotion” programs on the island. In that context, it should be easy to understand why Cuba is concerned about dissidents and free speech and assembly.  Accordingly reliable U.S. assertions about the abolition of so called “democracy promotion” programs on the island should be a precondition to improving Cuban freedoms of speech and assembly.

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Senator Leahy,  Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019). 

Cuba Arrests Opponents of Proposed New Constitution

On February 11, Cuban authorities arrested 20 activists of thePatriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for their promotion of voting “No” in the upcoming  referendum on February 24 on the country’s proposed new constitution.

These arrests of Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) members for their promotion of voting “No” in the upcoming  referendum on February 24 occurred at UNPACU’s headquarters in eight houses in Santiago de Cuba in connection with an early morning assault by over 200 Cuban soldiers and police, who seized computers, printers, telephones and other equipment and records. 

UNPACU’s national coordinator, José Daniel Ferrer Garcia, blasted these arrests: “They attack us, they beat us, they rob us, they torture us and they even want to stave us.”  On February 11 he also started a hunger strike until at least February 24 (the day of the national referendum seeking approval of the new constitution). Three days later at least 25 of the organization’s activists had joined the hunger strike.

There also are reports that José Daniel Ferrer Castillo (the 16-year-old son of UNPACU’s national coordinator) arbitrarily had been detained and beaten. In addition, on February 13, the Cuban police again appeared at UNPACU’s headquarters to harass members of the organization.

UNPACU, which was founded on August 24, 2011, defines itself as a civil organization that advocates the peaceful but firm struggle against any repression of civil liberties in Cuba. According to Amnesty International, it “is an organization that brings together dissident organizations based mainly in Santiago de Cuba, but also in neighboring provinces in the east of the country. Its goal is to achieve democratic change in Cuba by non-violent means. Since its inception . . . its members have suffered harassment and intimidation . . ., including arrests by the authorities.”

According to UNPACU, the proposed new constitution “denies elementary rights, restricts basic freedoms {and Cubans] will continue oppressed and in the deepest misery.” The central reason for this conclusion, it says, is Article 5, which states as follows:

  • The Communist Party of Cuba, unique, Marxist, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist, organized vanguard of the Cuban nation, based on its democratic character and the permanent bonding with the people, is the superior political force leader of the society and of the State.” (Emphasis by UNPACU.)

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José Daniel Ferrer: “Either they respect or they kill us,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 12, 2019); Marco Rubio on the violent opposition against the UNPACU: ‘More sanctions come to the response,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 13, 2019); UNPACU: 25 opponents on hunger strike ‘at least until 24 February,’ Diario de Cuba (Feb. 14, 2019); UNPACU; UNPACU Release, UNPACU calls to vote NO on the new Cuban Constitution; José Daniel Ferrer, Wikipedia.