On October 2, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered a speech in Rome at the Holy See’s Symposium on Working with Faith-Based Organizations. He also met with Pope Francis and with two Vatican officials.
After mentioning some of the main points of last week’s session on religious freedom at the U.N. that was organized by the U.S., the Secretary recalled, “Then-Pope – now Saint – John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan combined the moral authority of the Holy See with the prosperity and example of the United States, the freest nation on earth, to fight the evil empire [the Soviet Union]. Through patience and unity of purpose, they prevailed. Their words and deeds helped save – helped leave the Soviet leviathan on that ash heap of history.”
“More than 80 percent of mankind [now] lives in places where religious freedom is threatened or entirely denied. Approximately 71 million people around the world are displaced as refugees. Roughly 25 million people are caught in human trafficking situations.”
“And it’s no coincidence that it has happened as unfree societies have proliferated. Because when the state rules absolutely, God becomes an absolute threat to authority. That’s why Cuba cancelled National Catholic Youth Day back in August.”(Emphasis added.) He also had negative words about violations of religious freedom in China, Syria, Iran and Burma.
“We must recognize the roots of religious repression. Authoritarian regimes and autocrats will never accept a power higher than their own. And that causes all sorts of assaults on human dignity.
On “the issues most fundamental, on the issues of human dignity and religious freedom, these issues that transcend everyday politics, on the enduring struggle of the individual’s right to believe and worship, we [the Holy See and the U.S.] must – and I know we will – march together.”
The Secretary then discussed the Second U.S. Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S.-led gathering on religious freedom at the U.N. last week and the U.S.-initiated Religious Freedom Alliance.
The State Department’s initial statement merely said that Secretary Pompeo had “a private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis.” A subsequent statement adced this summary: “The Pope and the Secretary “reaffirmed the United States and Holy See commitment to advancing religious freedom around the world, and in particular, protecting Christian communities in the Middle East. The Secretary and Pope Francis also discussed the continued efforts of the United States and the Holy See to promote democracy and human rights globally.”
The Vatican, on the other hand, merely confirmed the meeting’s having taken place, but offered no details. The Associated Press added, “There was no indication that Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, sought any type of spiritual solace from Pope Francis during their meeting.”
Pompeo along with the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich (wife of Newt Gingrich, former Republican Congressman), also met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher. According to the State Department, “Secretary Pompeo thanked Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher for the Vatican’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and end the suffering of the Venezuelan people. They also discussed the importance of preventing trafficking in persons and advancing international religious freedom. On the Middle East, the Secretary noted U.S. efforts to support Christian minorities, and emphasized the importance of continued calls from the United States and the Vatican to end the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.”
Once again, the Secretary had lofty words about religious freedom, an honorable cause. But it mainly was a political promotion for things that the current administration is doing. without any mention of working with faith-based organizations, which was the apparent theme of the Holy See’s Symposium. There was no humbly walking with God as Micah 6:8 reminds us: “What does the Lord require of youbut to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 (NRSV)(emphasis added).)
And the Secretary could not let this speech occur without an unnecessary and misleading negative word about Cuba. Yes, the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party did not allow most public celebrations this year of National Catholic Youth Day, except they were permitted in the city of Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island and such celebrations also took place in the premises of the church’s eleven dioceses. Moreover, the cancelation of the other celebrations could have been prompted by Cuba’s current energy shortages, a substanal cause of which is the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s shipping oil to the island. 
The Seventh Summit of the Americas will take place in Panama City, Panama on April 10 and 11. Such Summits are institutionalized gatherings of heads of state and government of the member states of the Western Hemisphere where leaders discuss common policy issues, affirm shared values and commit to concerted actions at the national and regional level to address continuing and new challenges faced by countries in the Americas. 
In the meantime, preliminary Summit events are underway while planning for the meetings of heads of state and government are nearly complete.
This post will review the plans for this Summit by the organizers and then discuss Summit developments involving the U.S., Cuba and Venezuela. 
The Summit Organizers’ Plan
The Summit’s central theme is “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas” with several sub-themes, including education, health, energy, environment, migration, security, citizen participation and democratic governance. These issues will be discussed by 35 heads of state and government. In addition to these officials, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will attend.
The priority of the organizers in Panama is to work on a comprehensive document titled “Mandates for Action”, which will contain agreements from all countries involved on topics related to health, education, security, migration, environment, energy, democratic governance and citizen participation.
The Summit’s main events will take place in the ATLAPA Convention Center in central Panama City as shown in the photograph below.
The Summit also will host the four following forums:
Civil Society Forum will seek to promote governments’ consultation and coordination, dialogue and exchange with civil society. It also will offer input and recommendations for the consideration of the participating States.
The Youth Forum will provide young entrepreneurs an opportunity to offer their recommendations to the participating States.
The Business Forum will explore the trade and investment opportunities and public-private sector cooperation.
The University Presidents’ Forum will focus on academic mobility, the role of innovation and technology in enhancing research skills and college education for the region; and the importance of scholarly research on entrepreneurship and sustainable economic development.
U.S. Plans for the Summit
A prior post reviewed some of the U.S preparations for the Summit. In addition, the U.S. Department of State asserts that this Summit “is an historic opportunity to deepen partnerships, collaborate on shared challenges, and make tangible commitments to securing a brighter future for all of the people of the Americas. . . . The [U.S.] is working closely with partners throughout the Americas to ensure the 2015 Summit upholds our common commitment to inclusive economic development, democracy, and human rights, while providing robust engagement among government leaders, civil society groups, and regional business communities.”
The U.S. especially has been calling for the participation of Cuban civil society in the Summit. Indeed, in his December 17th announcement of the rapprochement with Cuba, President Obama said, “we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit. . . . But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future.”
Interestingly I have not seen any news or information about the U.S. inviting U.S. civil society, youth, business or university presidents to participate in the Summit.
The U.S. was hoping that by the time of the Summit, the U.S. and Cuba would have re-established normal diplomatic relations and that this would be an occasion for the two countries to enjoy receiving congratulations from the other countries in the Americas.
The resumption of normal relations, however, has not yet happened, and now there are many countries demonstrably upset over President Obama’s executive order of March 9th imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelans. This week at Venezuela’s invitation, a senior Department of State official went to Venezuela to meet with the country’s foreign minister.
The Washington Post this week published an editorial criticizing the U.S. opening to Cuba. It said there have been no benefits to the U.S. to date while Cuba has gained. President Castro will attend the Summit. Soon the U.S. probably will rescind its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in disregard of Cuba’s alleged “continued support for Colombia’s terrorist groups, its illegal arms trading with North Korea and the sanctuary it provides American criminal JoAnne Chesimard.” In addition, says the editorial, Cuba is joining Venezuela in unjustifiably attacking the U.S. over President Obama’s executive order imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelans.
Cuba’s Plans for the Summit
According to the Cuban press, the country has been preparing for full participation in the Summit. The Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, emphasized that over 100 representatives of Cuban civil society, including youth, academics, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and coop leaders would be going to the Summit. They will show the possibilities that Cuba provides for the development of international economic relations from the adoption of Law 118 Foreign Investment and Development Special Zone Mariel (ZEDM).
On Tuesday pro-government representatives of Cuban civil society in Panama issued a statement denouncing the presence at the Summit of other Cubans who allegedly were “mercenaries paid by the historic enemies of our nation,” i.e., the U.S. Such Cubans, the pro-government representatives said, “make up a tiny ‘opposition’ manufactured from abroad, lacking any legitimacy or decorum. Several of its members are publicly linked to recognized terrorists who have caused infinite pain to the Cuban people.”
The statement asserted, “It is offensive that such people, who have made betraying the homeland a well-paid profession and shamefully usurp the name of the country that they slander and offend day after day, are participating in these forums. For the dignified and sovereign Cuba that has withstood more than five decades of blockade and harassment, for the overwhelming majority of Cubans, for us, we who have come to Panama with modesty and a spirit of cooperation to share experiences of our social development, it is unacceptable that there are people of such low moral character here.”
The next day, Wednesday, during one of the forums, about 100 supporters of Cuba’s government heckled Cuban dissidents by calling them “imperialist” and “mercenaries” Organizers appealed for calm during the hour-long frenzied scene. The pro-government groups joined by pro-government groups from Venezuela angrily marched out, saying they wouldn’t attend the proceedings in the presence of individuals they accuse of trying to destabilize Cuba’s government.
From Havana, Cuban Vice-President (and reputed future president) Miguel Diaz-Canel, stated, “Nobody could think that in a process of re-establishing relations, which we’re trying to move forward on with the [U.S.], Cuban support for Venezuela could be made conditional. If they attack Venezuela, they’re attacking Cuba. And Cuba will always be on Venezuela’s side above all things.”
A Cuban online newspaper, CubaDebate, has a journalist in Panama to provide minute-by-minute tweets about the Summit.
Venezuela’s Plans for the Summit
Venezuela plans to make a major effort to obtain the Summit’s condemnation of President Obama’s executive order imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelans. For example, President Maduro will bring a petition against the executive order that has been signed by over nine million of his people. A Caracas pollster said, “Maduro is taking advantage of Obama’s order. It’s an extreme campaign that distracts from the internal problems of the country. You just want your people in the street, proselytizing and campaigning.”
In addition, Maduro’s political allies are sending 825 activists to the Summit to protest Obama and support Maduro.”There will be marches, caravans and anti-imperialist stands,” said Rafael Uzcategui, secretary general of the ruling Fatherland for All, who said that Nicaragua, a close ally of Chavez, will send a delegation with a similar purpose.
Others plan to focus on Venezuela’s alleged human rights violations. In recent weeks many countries and human rights organizations have criticized Venezuela’s imprisonment of political dissidents. This includes the U.N., the European Parliament, the governments of the U.S., Spain, Canada and Colombia and the Socialist International, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others.
Now 21 Latin American presidents have issued a statement to denounce the “democratic alteration” of Venezuela and to advocate for the release of prisoners and the restoration of political autonomy. Their proposed Declaration of Panama asks the Summit of the Americas to seek a solution to the Venezuelan crisis “that respects the constitutional principles and international standards.” The signers of this statement include Colombians Andres Pastrana, Alvaro Uribe and Belisario Betancur; Costa Ricans Laura Chinchilla, Rafael Calderon, Miguel Angel Rodriguez and Luis Alberto Monge; Chilean Sebastián Piñera ; and Spain’s José María Aznar.
In addition, this week 28 human rights organizations across the continent (including: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Transparency International and the International Commission of Jurists) issued a statement requiring cessation of “harassment against human rights defenders of human rights ” and called on the governments participating in the Summit of the Americas” to demand the government of Nicolas Maduro to ensure that the defenders and human rights defenders can carry out their work without fear of reprisal.”
A group of Venezuelan human rights organizations will be going to Panama to present their complaints about human rights in their country. President Maduro’s response is to call them “CIA stooges.”
New York Timeseditorial has urged U.S. and Cuban government officials at the Summit to “not ignore” the Cuban civil society representatives, “but rather work to amplify their voices. They have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression.” The Times also notes that some Cubans “who cannot afford a trip to Panama or are restricted from traveling have pledged to hold a parallel meeting in Cuba. . . . Increasingly, the [Cuban] government will have to reckon with the fact that many of the dissidents’ aspirations are shared by most Cubans.”
Now we will have to see what actually happens at the rest of the Summit.
 Prior Summits were held in Miami, Florida, USA (I, 1994); Santiago, Chile (II, 1998); Quebec City, Canada (III, 2001); Mar del Plata, Argentina (IV, 2005); Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (V, 2009); and Cartagena, Colombia (VI 2012). This process also held a Summit on Sustainable Development in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in 1996 and a Special Summit in Monterey, Mexico in 2004.
God acting through people of Christian faith has been leading the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation and promises to be with the people of both countries as they confront the many issues and challenges in achieving full reconciliation.
Roman Catholic Church
Principal agents for God have been and are the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis.The Vatican’s role predated Pope Francis. Two of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in 1998 and 2012 respectively, and the church remains hugely influential among Cubans. The Obama administration first sought to enlist the Vatican’s support when Pope Benedict XVI was in office. It worked even more actively with the Vatican after Pope Francis came to the Vatican in 2013. The pope’s new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, an Italian, had served as papal nuncio in Venezuela and was well versed in Latin America politics. Mr. Kerry was also in contact with the Cardinal, meeting him at the Vatican in June of this year and again a week ago.
Most significantly, as has been widely reported, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church acted as a mediator to help the parties.
This was verified in the Vatican’s Secretary of State’s December 17thstatement, in which the Pope “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The statement also provided the following details:
“In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”
“The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”
“The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”
President Obama in his December 17th televised speech announcing this important initiative acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”
Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his televised remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”
Subsequent reports and research reveals some of the details of the Pope Francis’ involvement.
On March 27, 2014, the Vatican reported that President Obama “was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which Obama met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” Presumably this was U.S.-Cuba relations.
Immediately after the Audience, at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama made comments that in retrospect might have alluded to conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”
More recently a U.S. administration official said that at the Audience, President Obama spoke about Cuba with Pope Francis, who was “aware” that Obama was considering a change in the policy against Cuba and reached out to the President. Indeed, according to this official, Cuba was the at the center of the discussion.
Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement. In June the Pope sent another letter to the two men calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship. . . . The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented.
The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations in October when the parties were able to review the commitments that they to make on December 17th.” The Pope, U.S. officials said, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal reached in secret.
According to a New York Timesarticle, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, also happened to be in Rome on October 3 and met with Francis, according to Vatican records, raising the possibility that he, too, attended the secret October meeting that is credited with sealing the diplomatic deal.’Ortega has always pushed for a gradual reform of the regime, for opening up, but at the same time he has been a trustworthy partner for the government — and with the full support of John Paul II, Benedict and Francis,’ said Marco Politi, an author and veteran Vatican analyst.”
An article by Juan Arias in El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, said Pope Francis “is only and always in favor of dialogue and peace, promote respect for all. Rescue the true dignity of the human being who is the subject of respect, travel partner, defender of life, rather than exploited, a commodity at the mercy of all who pay for it. In the world, managing the common good and the fight against injustice will inevitably present policy questions.” .
In the same vein, a Vatican spokesman said, in a December 18th interview with a Fox News interview, the Vatican has a culture of encounter the says it is better to be talking, rather than not talking, with another individual or country in the Vatican tradition of confidential diplomacy. Such a practice does not solve everything, but it opens up relations.
Another overall evaluation of Pope Francis’s diplomacy from the New York Times starts with hiscomments on December 18th to a new corps of diplomats to the Vatican, ” The work of an ambassador lies in small steps, small things, but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among people. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.” On the other hand, Francis has a “vision of diplomatic boldness, a willingness to take risks and insert the Vatican into diplomatic disputes, especially where it can act as an independent broker.”
Francis Campbell, a former British ambassador to the Holy See, adds that Francis had embraced the bully pulpit provided by the papacy. “The papacy is one of the world’s great opinion formers. Whether people agree with it or disagree with it, it has a huge voice.”
Another change under Francis is “appointing diplomats to key posts elsewhere, most notably his second-in-command, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, an Italian cardinal who has led delicate Vatican negotiations with Vietnam and served as apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, in Venezuela.” Moreover, Francis and Cardinal Parolin are seen as working in tandem — the charismatic pope and the methodical diplomat. . . . Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, added that Francis had quickly built a rapport with world leaders. ‘He establishes relationships very easily.”
Additional insight into Pope Francis’ mediation of this situation is prompted by the Associated Press’ rediscovery of his 1998 booklet, “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” written while the Pope was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Soon to be named archbishop of Buenos Aires, he attended Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba.“In the booklet, Bergoglio harshly criticized socialism — and by extension Castro’s atheist revolution — for denying individuals their ‘transcendent dignity’ and putting them solely at the service of the state. At the same time, he denounced the U.S. embargo and economic isolation of Cuba that impoverished the island. ‘The Cuban people must overcome this isolation’. . . . [T]he first chapter titled ‘The value of dialogue’ . . . [says] that dialogue was the only way to end Cuba’s isolation and its hostility to the Catholic Church while promoting democracy.
This booklet was referenced by Austen Ivereigh in his new biography of Francis “The Great Reformer.” Ivereigh said Bergoglio “demonstrated an ‘incredibly evenhanded’ approach to the Cuban problem while outlining a future for the island that may well be more realistic now that the thaw has begun.” Pope Francis “sees Cuba’s future as being a democratic government rooted in the Christian, humanist values of the Cuban pueblo. It’s a kind of nationalist Catholic understanding of politics, neither left nor right, neither communism nor unadulterated market capitalism.”
Everyone in the world should be grateful that we have Pope Francis as a servant of God.
As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I join in the declaration by my brothers and sisters of LA IGLESIA PRESBITERIANA-REFORMADA EN CUBA (the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba) regarding the historic launching of this path of reconciliation that was signed by Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentin, the Moderator and my personal friend; Rev. Daniel Izquierdo Hernández, Secretary-General; Rev. Francisco Marrero Gutiérrez, Council President; and Rev. Antonio (Tony) Aja, D. Min. They said:
“Today we witnessed the televised speeches by the Presidents of Cuba and the United States in which both rulers recognized the need to put an end to the hostility of more than half a century and to re-establish Diplomatic relations between our two countries, which hopefully will lead to the normalization of relations. It was also gratifying to hear the news of the release of Mr. Alan Gross and others imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the release of the three Cuban prisoners in the U.S. American, which allows family reunification.”
Our church “gives thanks to God and celebrates with joy these agreements. For decades we have been encouraged with the exchange of visits between Cuban and American churches. We are in deep gratitude to the evangelical ideal to seek peace and justice, and we raised Our Voice against the severe measures, both economic and commercial, that have been imposed by American policy on our peoples.“
“In the same way we have received such support from our sister church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and from resolutions and talks official with leaders of the U.S. Congress and representatives of the U.S. government.”
“We acknowledge the efforts of the Vatican, in the person of Pope Francis, as well as the government of Canada in the achievement of these agreements. We hope that we are closer to an era of peace between our nations, it is precisely on the eve of the celebration of the Christmas which reminds us of the divine purpose of peace and Goodwill in our land.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:14. NRSV).
The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA], Gradye Parsons, made a similar statement. He said, “we welcome the historic steps taken by President Obama on normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.” The PCUSA ‘has been working for more than 30 years to help ease the hardships caused by the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba and to end the embargo itself.” We also have “emphasized [with the U.S. government] the humanitarian reasons for the release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners.” This set of decisions “also takes us closer to a day when our two peoples will have no impediments to full and flourishing relations. We rejoice along with the Cuban Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church of Cuba for the good news that will further the cause of peace and human rights around the world.”
Another statement was issued by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness. He said, “The release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners is an example of how nations can find common ground. When there is a will to live as true neighbors as Jesus Christ has taught us, we find a way towards justice and reconciliation.” The statement also noted that this Office “has organized religious delegations from Cuba, led a coalition of denominations and faith-based organizations calling for a change in policy towards Cuba, and organized meetings with members of congress and the administration urging an opening of relations between the two countries.”
I also believe that Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church has played a small role in these historic decisions. Our connections with Cuba, our members’ visits to the island, our Cuban brothers and sisters visiting us, our prayer partnerships with members of the Matanzas church, our installing four potable water systems in Cuban churches and our learning more about Cuba and its relations with our country have inspired many of us to urge our Government to change its policies toward the island.
Our potable water projects are part of the “Living Waters for the World” ministry of the PCUSA’s Synod of Living Waters for the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. To date they have trained people from churches, primarily Presbyterian, all over the U.S. who have installed over 660 such systems in 25 other countries. Cuba has received 21 of the systems, four by my church.
The importance of such systems for the Cuban people and churches was noticed by a New York Times reporter on a visit to the 137,000-population city of Cardenas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. He says, “Many of the churches in Cardenas have become a moral and economic counterweight [to communism] . . . to help people survive, with food, water, and exercise classes, and by guiding their souls away from a focus on material things.” (Cave, Crucible of Cuban Zeal Redefines Revolutionary, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)
As an example, he cites El Fuerte Presbyterian Church which occupies a “religious campus” that used to house Escuela La Progressiva, a famous pre-revolutionary school. This church has become a “hub of activity for the community largely because of a sophisticated water filtration system carried into Cuba and installed in 2012 by members of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.”
Other Religious Organizations
I know that other churches and synagogues in Minnesota and all around the U.S. have connections with Cuba and am confident that they too have had similar transformative experiences with our Cuban brothers and sisters. Others without overt religious motivation also have been God’s agents for these changes; here I think specifically of the support groups for the Cuban Five and for ending the U.S. embargo.
As the Bible says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinth. 12:4-7)(NRSV)
We lift all of them up in our prayers of gratitude.
 An August 2012 post included my public letter to President Obama suggesting, among other things,“Perhaps such negotiations would be assisted by having the two countries agree to the appointment of a respected international mediator/conciliator to supervise the negotiations.”
 The President’s Audience and press conference about this and other topics were discussed in a prior post.
On March 27th U.S. President Barack Obama had an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican followed by the President’s meeting with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, its Secretary for Relations with States.
Afterwards the Vatican issued a press release that said, “During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”
The press release continued, “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”
Also afterwards at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion. I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues [sic] of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.”
“[T]hose of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue. And he’s discussed in the past . . . the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.”
The President continued, “[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians. And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world. But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.”
“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”
“In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on — other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him — was immigration reform. And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families. I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.”
The President added that the Pope “did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act. In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law. And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”
The President said, “I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”
In addition, the President said we “actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness. In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation. I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with. And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”
“I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about. I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people — who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.”
Moreover, according to the President, for the Pope “to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs . . . reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are. It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy. Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.”
The President concluded his press conference comments on the audience by saying the Pope is “hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively. And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.”
The President also separately stated the following after the audience:
“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief in politics and in life, the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk liked you or share your philosophy—that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”