Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom

On July 30, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its latest report on the status of religious freedom around the world; this report was discussed in a prior post. Now we analyze that report’s evaluation of religious freedom in Cuba. The previous U.S. State Department report on this subject was discussed in a prior post.

Versalles Church, Matanzas, Cuba

This analysis is based upon my personal involvement in helping to establish and manage a partnership between my church (Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church) and Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Versalles (Versalles Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba); my going on three church mission trips over the last 10 years to visit that congregation; my visits to the ecumenical seminary–Seminario Evangelico de Teologia (SET)–in Matanzas and other churches and religious organizations on these mission trips;  my hearing reports about other trips to our Cuban partner from fellow members of my church; my conversations with Cuban Christians at their church and when they have visited my church in Minneapolis; and my extensive reading about Cuba and specifically religious freedom on the island.

Cuban Religious Makeup

First, however, we review the religious makeup of the Cuban population of roughly 11,000,000. According to the report, an estimated 60 to 70 percent (or 6,600,000 to 7,700,000) is believed to be Roman Catholic although only 4 to 5 percent regularly attend mass. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population (or 550,000):  Baptists and Pentecostals are probably the largest Protestant denominations; Jehovah’s Witnesses, 94,000; Seventh-day Adventists, 30,000; Methodists, 30,000; Anglicans, 22,000; Presbyterians, 15,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 50. The Jewish community is estimated at 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. There are approximately 6,000 to 8,000 Muslims, although only an estimated 1,000 are Cubans. Other religious groups include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Buddhists and Baha’is.

In addition, many Cubans consult with practitioners of religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River basin, known as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some even require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately the total membership of these syncretistic groups. (I have visited the Slave Route Museum in the city of Matanzas, Cuba that has a room devoted to Santeria and Havana’s Callejon de Hamel, an alley with  Santeria murals and other things.)

Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report had many good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba.

The Cuban “constitution protects religious freedom.” After the 1989 collapse of the U.S.S.R, the Cuban constitution was amended to eliminate “[scientific materialism or] atheism as the state creed” and to declare “the country to be a secular state” with “separation of church and state. The government does not officially favor any particular religion or church.” Moreover, says the U.S., “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

The Cuban “government’s respect for religious freedom improved” in 2011, declares the report.

“Religious organizations reported significant ability [in 2011] to attract new members without government interference. Many churches reported increased participation in religious instruction for children because government schools no longer scheduled competing activities on Saturdays or Sundays. The majority of religious groups reported little interference from the government in conducting their services and saw improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events. Some religious groups found it easier to bring in foreign religious workers. . . .”

“Religious organizations reported increased ability to conduct educational programs over the year. The Catholic Church and the Jewish Community Center offered courses on lay subjects such as computers and foreign languages. In September the Catholic Church opened a cultural center in Havana as a space for art exhibits, debates, and small classes, including a business training program. The Church’s business program was offered with the cooperation of the San Antonio University of Murcia, Spain for a master’s degree in business.”

Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs and weekend retreats for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. The Catholic Church held twice yearly teaching workshops for public school teachers. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.”

“Religious groups reported they were able to continue to provide community service programs with little interference from the government. These programs included providing assistance to the elderly, after school tutoring for children, clean water, and health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations, such as Caritas and the Salvation Army, had local offices in Havana.”

Indeed, not mentioned in the report is the de facto pharmacy for the neighborhood that is operated by our partner church in Matanzas with over-the-counter medicines donated by visitors from Westminster and by the Matanzas church’s plan to provide one free meal per week to neighborhood residents, many of whom are not members of the church.

SET Chapel, Matanzas
Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Havana

In addition, the nearby seminary in Matanzas (SET) now has a clean-water system that was installed by Westminster members and that now provides clean water to SET and to people in the surrounding neighborhood, and SET also provides vegetables from its beautiful gardens to people in the neighborhood. Another clean-water system was installed by Westminster members in Havana’s Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Luyano (Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church), which shares the clean water with people in its neighborhood.

During the year the report says “the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own Web sites with little or no censorship. The Catholic Church’s periodicals sometimes included criticism of official social and economic policies. As in previous years, the Catholic Church also received permission to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run radio stations and, in 2011, a televised mass on September 8, the feast day of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s patron saint. The [Cuban] Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host monthly two hour-long radio broadcasts. ”

The report’s referencing the Cuban Council of Churches, however, did not mention that the it was founded in 1941 (long before the Cuban Revolution), and its members now include 22 churches, 12 ecumenical movements, and seven associate organizations. The Council, whose offices I have visited, promotes unity among the Christian Churches of Cuba and helps link these churches with other churches around the world. The Council also encourages dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for Cuban churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. Finally the Council promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.

The U.S. government’s report continued, “Religious groups . . . reported it was easier to obtain government permission to maintain and repair existing places of worship and other buildings.” Moreover, the government “frequently granted permission to repair or restore existing temples, allowing significant expansion of some structures and in some cases allowing essentially new buildings to be constructed on the foundations of the old. Numerous houses of worship were expanded or repaired.” (In a prior year our partner church in Matanzas obtained such permission to expand its facilities for children’s Sunday School programming, and Westminster members helped build  that expansion.)

Even though some religious organizations and “house churches” have not been officially recognized by the government, as required by Cuban law, in practice, most unregistered organizations and “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government.

Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported improved access to prisoners during the year, with services offered in prisons and detention centers in most, if not all, provinces. (According to the report, however, some prison authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious assistance, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits to a maximum of two or three times per year.)

The government worked with the Catholic Church to facilitate the public procession of an icon honoring the Virgin of Charity to mark the 400th anniversary of her appearance in Cuba. The procession concluded in December with a public open-air mass in Havana attended by over 3,000 citizens as well as by government officials. It was the first country-wide religious procession permitted since the Cuban revolution.

Although there is no official law of policy for conscientious objection to military service, since 2007 the government has unofficially allowed a period of civilian public service to substitute for military service for men who object on religious grounds. The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that their members usually were permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service.

The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that mistreatment and job discrimination, which had been particularly harsh in the past, were now rare and that their members were usually exempted from political activities at school. Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated that their members employed by the state usually were excused from working on Saturdays.

Pope Benedict XVI @ Plaza de Revolucion

Not included in the report for 2011 was the late March 2012 visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI. During a mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion before a crowd of thousands, the Pope called for “authentic freedom.”

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report also commented on what it saw as negative aspects of religious freedom in Cuba.

The report notes that obtaining government permission for construction of new religious buildings remained difficult. This may well be true, but, in my opinion, this difficulty springs from the government’s attempts to regulate the allocation of scarce resources in a relatively poor country and to allocate more resources to other purposes it deems more important.

By law religious groups “are required to apply to the Ministry of Justice for official recognition. The application procedure requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities and their source of funding, and requires the ministry to certify that the group is not ‘duplicating’ the activities of another recognized organization in which case, recognition is denied. A number of religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, have been waiting for years for a decision from the Ministry of Justice on their pending applications for official recognition.” (However, the report said that unrecognized religious groups reported they were able to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, and send representatives abroad. In addition, I believe that the government’s official requirement that such applications indicate it is not “duplicating” another organization’s activities is due to the previously mentioned desire to conserve scarce resources.)

Once the Ministry of Justice grants official recognition, religious organizations have to request permission from the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, to hold meetings in approved locations, to receive foreign visitors, and to travel abroad. Religious groups indicated that while many applications were approved within two to three years from the date of the application, other applications received no response or were denied. Some religious groups were only able to register a small percentage of their “house churches.”

The report states that religious groups may not establish schools. This is true because the Cuban Revolution nationalized all private schools–religious and nonreligious– and instead emphasized public education for all children.

The report also says, “Except for two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers throughout the island, religious schools were not permitted.”

This is an erroneous or misleading statement about religious education in Cuba as shown by the report’s own acknowledgement that in 2011 religious organizations had increased ability to conduct their own educational programs and by the following facts not mentioned in the report:

  • Since 1946 there has been an ecumenical Protestant Christian seminary in the city of Matanzas — Seminario Evangelico de Teologia (SET)–that was founded by the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches. It has a full curriculum for various degrees as well as other non-degree programs, some of which are offered in other cities on the island.
  • The Methodists recently withdrew from SET to start their own seminary in Havana.
  • SET and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana are developing a program for education of prospective owners and operators of private businesses on the island under the government’s announcement allowing such activities. The MLK Center, by the way, was founded in 1987 to provide training and education in King’s philosophy of nonviolence for Cuban religious and community leadership.
  •  In the last several summers young people from Westminster have conducted a vacation Bible school at our partner church in Matanzas.
MLK Center, Havana

“A license from the Office of Religious Affairs is necessary to import religious literature and other religious materials.” (Yet, as previously mentioned, the report itself states there were fewer restrictions on such importation.)

Printing press, Versalles Church, Matanzas
Church bulletins for distribution, Versalles Church, Matanzas

The report also states that “the government owns nearly all printing equipment and supplies and tightly regulates printed materials, including religious literature.” This, in my opinion, is an overstatement. Our partner church in Matanzas owns old-fashioned printing presses and at least one specialized computer printer and that the church prints and distributes religious bulletins and journals for most, if not all, of the Protestant churches on the island. A photo of the covers of some of the religious publications that are printed here appears in my 12/30/11 post, “The Cuban Revolution and Religion.”

The report states that “most religious leaders reported they exercised self-censorship in what they preached and discussed during services. Many feared that direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals, such as denials of permits from the Office of Religious Affairs or other measures that could stymie the growth of their organizations.”

The government took “measures to limit support to outspoken religious figures that it considered a challenge to its authority.”I have no basis to challenge that statement or the following specifics cited by the report on this point:

  • On June 26, police arrested 23 people and detained them for five hours to prevent them from attending a Sunday prayer session in support of a Methodist minister who was removed from his post by his superiors, partly because of his outspoken criticism of the government.
  • On October 19, police stopped Baptist pastor Mario Felix Lleonart, a vocal critic of the authorities in the province of Santa Clara, and detained him for 10 hours.
  • In February Pastor Omar Perez Ruiz (aka Omar Gude Perez), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches, was released after serving almost three years of a six-year prison sentence for illicit economic activities and falsification of documents. Perez maintained his innocence and claimed his incarceration was due to his religious activities. Perez’s release was conditioned on his refraining from preaching and from leaving the city of Camaguey. Although Perez and his family were granted refugee status in the United States, they were unable to leave because the government did not grant them an exit permit.
  • As part of its campaign of repression of human rights activists, the government prevented many Catholics from attending religious services. Members of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) group were routinely prevented from attending church, a practice that was particularly pronounced in the eastern provinces of Holguin and Santiago. The government prevented Adisnidia Cruz, mother of political prisoners Marcos and Antonio Lima-Cruz, from leaving her house in Holguin on Sundays to attend mass on dozens of occasions. In other instances the government harassed human rights activists immediately after religious services. On September 8, for example, members of the Damas de Blanco were arrested after attending mass in Santiago to celebrate the day of Cuba’s patron saint.

Conclusion

Is the glass half empty or half full? This is the question for all human activities since none of us is perfect, and it is the legitimate question about religious freedom in Cuba.

In the opinion of a respected Cuban Protestant leader, the glass of such freedom in Cuba is more than half full, and there is no basis whatsoever  for the U.S. government or her citizens to castigate Cuban religious institutions or leaders or members. I concur. As Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees when they asked him if they should stone a woman who had committed adultery, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” All of the questioners then silently departed without throwing any stones. (John 8: 3-11.)

I, therefore,  am glad that this U.S. government report does not designate Cuba as a “Country of Particular Concern,i.e., a country which has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” or the ” systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.” There is no basis for any such designation, in my opinion.

Nor do I think there is any basis for the quasi-independent  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to have put Cuba on its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the [Commission’s] . . .  threshold [for designation as a Country of Particular Concern], but require close monitoring.” The Commission should cease making such a designation in its next report.

Gratitude Revisited


Michael Lewis @
Princeton University

Michael Lewis, a member of Princeton University’s Class of 1982 and author of such successful books as Moneyball and Boomerang, gave the 2012 Baccalaureate speech at his alma mater.

He said, “Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”  The text of the speech is available, as is a YouTube video.

I made a similar point in my post, Gratitude III, where I said, “Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers emphasizes the importance of an individual’s family and place and date of birth as determinants of success. Warren Buffett, the great investor from Omaha, frequently says how fortunate he is to have won the ovarian lottery by having been born in the U.S. in the 1920′s. They remind me to be grateful for having been born in the U.S.A. It is indeed a great country and provided me with opportunity after opportunity.”

Every one of us owes so much to so many people who helped us along the way. Our successes are not ours alone. Be grateful. Help others as you have been helped.

Gratitude III

In “Gratitude I” I expressed gratitude for my educational and professional mentors. In “Gratitude II” the subject was gratitude for my wife, children and grandchildren, my spiritual journey and my financial ability to retire at age 62. Here are some other things to add to my list for thankfulness.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers emphasizes the importance of an individual’s family and place and date of birth as determinants of success. Warren Buffett, the great investor from Omaha, frequently says how fortunate he is to have won the ovarian lottery by having been born born in the U.S. in the 1920’s. They remind me to be grateful for having been born in the U.S.A. It is indeed a great country and provided me with opportunity after opportunity.

I am also grateful that I was born at the end of the Great Depression-era and as a result am a member of a relatively small age-cohort. This has meant that I faced less competition for many of the opportunities I have had. This also meant that I entered the labor force, after all of my university-level education, in 1966 when there was strong demand in the U.S. for new law graduates with good records. Today I read the many stories in the press about the difficulties of contemporary law graduates in finding good jobs, and this is confirmed by the law students I know at the University of Minnesota Law School. I am grateful I was not in that predicament when I was starting out.

Contemporary law graduates and other young people today often finish their student days with large student debts, further exasperating their situation in this difficult job market. Because of the full-tuition scholarships I had over nine years at Grinnell College and the Universities of Oxford and Chicago, I did not have any student debt and did not face this problem. For this I am also grateful.

This last point also uncovers another reason for gratitude. The three scholarships I had were the result of businessmen (George F. Baker and Cecil Rhodes) and lawyers who were financially successful in capitalist systems and who had philanthropic motivations to give back and encourage others.

Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School Professor and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, is absolutely correct when she says:

  • “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that   marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”
  • “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk   of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

The same thought is expressed many times and many ways in the Bible. Here is what the letter to the Hebrews says. “[S]ince we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2.) “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13: 1-3.)

For all of these blessings, I give thanks to God and to those named and unnamed individuals who helped me along the way.

Gratitude II

A prior post expressed my gratitude for teachers, professors and professional colleagues who have helped me. But that hardly exhausts my reasons for gratitude.

I was blessed for having met and married Mary Alyce. An intelligent, attractive woman, she gave birth to our two sons, Alan and Brian, and bore the major responsibility for raising them to adulthood. All of us have been healthy without major accidents, another blessing. There have been problems along the way, of course, but we have managed to confront and surmount them. I am grateful.

For 24 years, 1957 through early 1981, I had no religious or spiritual life. I clearly suffered from the sin of pride. Yet I give thanks for those years. They gave me a strong sense of what it is like to be without a spiritual grounding as well as an understanding and appreciation for intellect, logic and reason. I am grateful.

In May 1981 I had a major turning when I could admit to myself and others that I did not have all the answers to life and when I joined Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I am now in my 31st year of active membership at this church, and it has been and continues to be a major blessing in my life. I lament the way that Christianity is often presented to the rest of the world today, especially in my home state of Iowa over their recent Republican caucuses. I, therefore, strive to present in my own way an intelligent person’s understanding of the faith. I am grateful.

I now have four grandchildren. They are wonderful, intelligent, curious, polite and healthy human beings. I am now concerned to do what I can to help them go to college and achieve all that they can be. I am grateful.

My practice of law provided an excellent income, and my wife and I were able to save for our retirement, making it possible for me to retire at age 62. As I read the many stories in the press about so many people today unexpectedly not being able to retire for financial reasons, I know that I am privileged. I am grateful.

I am also glad that I decided to retire from lawyering early at age 62 in order to have time, energy and good health to do things I wanted to do. Similarly I am glad I retired at the end of 2010 from my part-time job of law school teaching and from volunteering as an arbitrator for the Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority in order to create time for writing and doing things I wanted to do. I am grateful.

For all these blessings, I give thanks to God and to those named and unnamed individuals who helped me along the way.

Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom

Dr. Reinerio Arce
Seminary Chapel, Matanzas, Cuba

 

Dr. Reinerio Arce, a Presbyterian pastor and President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, recently commented on various issues in Cuba, including religious freedom.

He advised this blogger that the recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accurately described improvements in Cuban church-state relations in 2011, when it stated:

  • Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2011. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba‘s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Additionally, there were fewer reports of illegal house churches being fined, confiscated, or evicted.”
  • “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continue to improve, although the government maintains strict oversight of, and restrictions on, church activities. Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been instrumental in negotiating the release of political prisoners and intervening to stop officials from preventing the Ladies in White from attending mass in Havana. March 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba‘s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba starting on March 26 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he will be received by Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue, La Mambisa, has toured the island, drawing large crowds.”

Arce emphasized the rapprochement between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church that was marked by the recent visit to the island by Pope Benedict XVI. Work was suspended so Cuban people could attend the papal Mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion, and the government granted the Pope’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday. Before this visit, Arce noted, there was nearly a month-long pilgrimage of the statue of the Virgin of Cobre, the patron saint of charity and of Cuba, all over the island and in hospitals, prisons and other public places.

According to Arce, however, the Commission engaged in manipulating half truths and bringing together things that are not related when it talked about some Cuban religious leaders and followers having been arrested and held for short periods of time and reports by some church leaders about increased government surveillance and interference with church activities.

Even more astounding to Arce and to this blogger is the failure and refusal of the Commission to appreciate that the positive developments in Cuba outweighed any negatives and to remove Cuba from its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] threshold, but require close monitoring.” (Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.)

Cuba is going through significant economic changes with more opportunities for Cuban private business ventures. Simultaneously, Arce pointed out,”the government has withdrawn from many of the subsidized [industries] to make room for the private businesses. Now, many people are [becoming] unemployed because [government jobs] are going to this private sector. It has been a great challenge in Cuban society–especially for the churches because many [Cubans] do not know how to rearrange their work [to be in the private sector]. Many of them are coming to the church to ask for help, which is a big challenge for all of the churches in Cuba.”

In response to this challenge, the Matanzas seminary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center (in Havana) are planning a joint course focusing on business administration and related subjects. The seminary and the MLK Center have agreed this program will not promote small, private businesses, but instead cooperatives. Arce said, “We think it is more within the Christian understanding of economy.”

Arce gave thanks for recent changes in U.S. policies regarding travel to Cuba. Now it is easier for U.S. church groups to obtain U.S. Treasury Department licenses to go to Cuba to be with their Christian brothers and sisters. These are important “bridges between our people; [after] all these years of confrontation between our countries, the churches have maintained a strong relationship between the people.”

Another recent change in U.S. policies was commended by Arce. Many Cuban churches–Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist–were once parts of their corresponding U.S. churches, and the Cuban pastors earned U.S. pension benefits. Until recently, however, the U.S. government prevented the U.S. churches from paying the Cubans their earned pensions. Earlier this year the U.S. government ended the freeze, and the pensions will soon be paid. The Cuban pastors have been in a very difficult financial situation caused by the freeze. This blogger has personal experience with this issue because the Cuban pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s partner church in Matanzas, Cuba was one of those who could not receive his pension benefits from the U.S. church. I join Arce in shouting a big “Hallelujah”

Many U.S. and Cuban church members have been involved in people-to-people exchanges in recent years. In the process they have experienced the joy of love and solidarity. The Promised Land of more general friendship and respect and solidarity between our peoples is our goal. Praise the Lord!

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Intimations of Mortality

I am in excellent health. Like most people I try to take each day as it comes. Each day requires a “To Do” list and running around doing this and that. More of the same, day after day.

Recently, however, there have been reminders of human mortality, including my own.

Over the last several years four of my former law partners at Faegre & Benson (n/k/a Faegre Baker Daniels) have died as have four adult children from this larger group of colleagues. A good friend of mine from our church died last October, and my remarks at his memorial service were recently posted.

Last June was my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion. As mentioned in an earlier post, I was the de facto obituary writer-in-chief for our reunion booklet. Of the 359 in our class, 53 were deceased. Since then three other classmates have died, one of whom was a friend. I have written their obituaries for our class letter.

For the asset side of  my December 31st family financial statements, I calculate the present values of certain future income streams like Social Security benefits and a law firm pension. The first step in that calculation is looking at the Internal Revenue Service’s Life Expectancy Tables. For 12/31/11, these Tables said my life expectancy was 15.5 years or 186 months. (Statistically this is the median of the anticipated survival time of the entire cohort of people of a certain age or the time when 50% of the cohort will have died.)

All of this reminds me of Frank Sinatra singing September Song, “The days dwindle down to a precious few. One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.”

Memorial services for our departed friends and acquaintances should be times for us to pause and reflect on where we are in our own lives and what should be important for our remaining days or years. Be kind and loving to your family and friends and those people who will come into your life around the next bend in the road. It is not work harder or make more money, important as they may be.

The memorial service for one of my fellow retired law partners at Minneapolis’ Plymouth Congregational Church was especially touching and moving. In early adulthood he and his wife had three children. In mid-life he and his wife divorced after he recognized that he was gay. At the service the minister read a loving remembrance from his male life partner. The deceased’s younger brother made an emotional speech about how much his brother had meant to him. A fellow law firm partner talked about his excellence as a lawyer and leader of the firm as well as his personal concern for the welfare of his colleagues. Three of his grandchildren read the Scriptures. All aspects of his life were acknowledged and celebrated. As the newspaper obituary stated, he was “a devoted partner, loving husband, beloved father and grandfather, caring brother, delightful uncle, and cherished friend.”  Sitting in the pew at the service, I gave thanks to God for the life of this amazing man and for this Christian church’s witness to the unbounded love of God for all human beings.

Former Salvadoran Military Officer Is Determined to Have Assisted in Torture and Murder

Vides Casanova

This week a U.S. immigration judge in Orlando, Florida after trial found that former Salvadoran General and Minister of Defense Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova had assisted in acts of torture and murder committed by soldiers under his command. Now he is subject to further proceedings potentially leading to his deportation from the U.S. where he has lived for many years as a legal resident.

One of the cases which Vides Casanova was determined to have assisted was the December 1980 rape, torture and murder of four American churchwomen by five Salvadoran National Guardsmen. At the time Vides Casanova was the Commander of the Guard. (We already have examined the mission work of the churchwomen, the early investigations of this horrendous crime, the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of the Guardsmen and the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s investigation of the crime.)

The immigration judge also concluded that Vides Casanova had assisted in the torture of two Salvadorans, Juan Romagoza and Daniel Alvarado, who testified against him in hearings last spring in the immigration court in Orlando.

In 2005 Vides Casanova and his fellow former Salvadoran General and Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo Garcia were held liable in U.S. federal court for $54.6 million under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA). This civil case was brought by Romagoza and Alvarado and another Salvadoran refugee for their torture by Salvadoran military personnel during the period 1979 to 1983.

Earlier Vides Casanova and Garcia had defeated similar civil claims in U.S. federal court over the torture, rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen.

Earlier posts have reviewed the enactment of the TVPA and the history of the Alien Tort Statute for the periods 1789-1979, 1980, 1980-2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2004 and 2004-present.

The current deportation case was brought by the Human Rights Violators & War Crimes Center, which is a unit of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement created in 2003 to focus on preventing rights violators from entering this country and deporting those already here.