Cuba and U.S. Debate Cuba’s Treatment of José Daniel Ferrer

On March 11, the U.S. State Department released its latest annual report on human rights around the world. A previous post discussed some of the details of that criticism while another post looked at the limited positive comments in that report. Now we examine the report’s criticism of Cuba’s treatment of José Daniel Ferrer after a review of what previous posts have set forth on that subject followed by a review of more recent events.

Previous Posts’ Discussion of Ferrer[1]

As the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), which has criticized the Cuban government for a long time, Ferrer has had many conflicts with the Cuban government. The most recent started on October 1, 2019, with his arrest and detention for allegedly kidnapping and beating a fellow Cuban (Sergio Garcia) and with an October 17th rejection of Ferrer’s plea for a writ of habeas corpus.

On October 18, 2019, the State Department publicly condemned this arrest and detention as part of an escalating “wave of repression against freedoms of speech, expression, and religion” and demanded his immediate release from detention.

On November 20, 2019, an editorial in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, alleged that Ferrer was in detention because he was “a salaried agent of the United States, with a long history of provocative actions, disruption of public order, and violations of the law” and that the U.S. Embassy in Havana and Chargé d’ Affaires Mara Tekach had been “the fundamental . . . [instrument  for the] orientation, and financing of . . . Ferrer’s conduct, clearly interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs, openly inciting violence, promoting the disruption of order and contempt for the law by this citizen. . . .”[2]

That same day, UNPACU said this editorial was “a complete manipulation of the judicial process against” Ferrer by asserting “two fundamental lies, first, it locates the process of searching for freedom and universal rights of the Cuban people under the authorship of the United States Government, and, second, it states that . . .Ferrer is a salaried agent of the service of United States, with a violent trajectory.” [3]Instead, UNPACU stated the following:

  • The “demonstrations of popular discontent against the Cuban regime, which we can see daily thanks to the internet’s social networks, are a direct consequence of 60 years of communist government of the single party that deprives them of fundamental rights and freedoms to Cuban citizens. What translates into a permanent state of material and spiritual crisis, which from time to time reaches critical levels like the current one. It is worth asking the Cuban regime if the two 2.5 million citizens that they recognized who did not agree with the new constitution [and voted against it in the referendum], were also cared for, guided and financed by the United States Embassy in Cuba. The Chargé d’Affaires of the United States Embassy, ​​Mara Teckach.”
  • “Our organization receives help without imposition from various foreign institutions that promote values ​​such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law and the division between the powers of the State, without which it is impossible for a Government to guarantee and respect human rights. With the help we receive, we do not buy weapons, bombs, or terrorism. With that help we buy printers and sheets to print thousands of copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and distribute them among the population.”
  • “With regard to the slander against José Daniel Ferrer, we can say that in his case and in that of the Patriotic Union of Cuba there is no record of activism during these years of activism against any member of the repressive bodies of the Cuban State.”
  • “During this time [60 days of unjust imprisonment of Ferrer and three of his colleagues] we have published several testimonies of people who demonstrate the pressure exerted by members of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) against activists and neighbors of the community of Mármol, where the main headquarters of UNPACU is located, to raise false charges against him. We have even alerted the use by the State Security of agents that we have expelled from our ranks for being at their service, to make false accusations.”
  • “Other evidence of the political police maneuvers in the case is that the wife of the alleged accuser declared through a phone call that we made public, that her husband suffered a traffic accident and that the police were pressing him very insistently to who said that the injuries contracted in the accident had been caused by . . . [Ferrer].. Also, the sister of Roilán Zárraga Ferrer, one of the activists detained with José Daniel, publicly stated that his brother communicated to him on a recent visit to the Center for Criminal Instruction in Santiago de Cuba, where he is being held, that they are pressuring him to sign a false statement against José Daniel.”
  • “Among the serious violations that occurred in this case, the conditions of confinement of the detainees are of great concern, as well as the torture, cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment to which . . .Ferrer is being subjected, as confirmed by his wife on a recent visit to the Aguadores prison in Santiago de Cuba, after 34 days of being kept missing.”

The U.S. State Department on November 22 vehemently denied the Cuban government’s charges and said “these baseless accusations . . . [were] an attempt to distract the international community from its abysmal treatment of the Cuban people, especially the ongoing arbitrary detention of  . . Ferrer.”

Cuba, however, on November 26, returned to this attack on the U.S. and Ferrer in an open letter from Cuba’s Ambassador to the EU to the latter’s Parliament asserting that the U.S. and its diplomatic mission in Cuba have been “guiding, instigating and financing the violent and destabilizing behavior of Ferrer” while intending “to fabricate the image of [him as] a persecuted and mistreated” political dissident. The Cuban Ambassador also denied allegations of subsequent Cuban jail mistreatment of Ferrer as “lies . . . deliberately conceived and guided by the United States Government and its Embassy in Havana.”

The next day (November 27) on Cuban national television the Cuban government alleged that Ferrer that year had received $50,000 form the U.S. Government via the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation and showed a video of him banging his head against a metal table.

These Cuban allegations, however, did not persuade the EU Parliament, which on November 28 adopted a resolution condemning Ferrer’s arbitrary detention and torture and demanding his immediate release.

On January 30, 2020, Ferrer’s wife and children were permitted to visit him in prison, when he appeared to be very thin and told his wife that he had not been receiving any medical attention. In addition, the prison did not allow him to eat food and take medicines brought by his wife.

On February 24, Secretary Pompeo sent an open letter to Cuba Foreign Minister Bruno Edwardo Rodriguez Parrilla demanding the immediate release of Ferrer. This letter stated the following:

  • “Cuban human rights defender Jose Daniel Ferrer has endured more than 100 days of unjust imprisonment and repeatedly has been dragged, chained, beaten, and burned at the hands of the regime, which you represent.  The United States government joins a chorus of international voices demanding Ferrer’s immediate release.  The European Parliament, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International, and journalists and human rights organizations from countries across the globe have condemned your regime’s treatment of Ferrer and other human rights defenders like him.”
  • “This is not the first time your regime has targeted Ferrer.  He was imprisoned from 2003 until 2011 for advocating for democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba.”
  • “The current spurious charges against Ferrer follow a familiar pattern of harassment, violence, and arbitrary arrests against Cubans who seek only to advocate for democracy and the political and economic freedoms that would enable the Cuban people to create prosperity in Cuba.  It cannot be a crime to criticize policies that have set Cuba’s development tumbling backwards for the past 61 years.”
  • “The United States will never forget the brave Cubans who put their lives on the line for the sake of a free Cuba.  Until there is democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba and all political prisoners are freed, the United States will continue to hold the regime accountable for its abuses.  For the sake of the Cuban people and for the betterment of your nation, we urge you to free Jose Daniel Ferrer immediately.”
  • On February 26, 2020, Ferrer was put on trial in Santiago de Cuba for the alleged crimes of injury, deprivation of liberty to third parties and attack. According to the Cuban Prisoners Defenders (CPD), the court did not permit any of the witnesses at this 12-hour trial to utter the words “opponents, dissidents, political police, State Security, headquarters, UNPACU, regime, dictatorship, dictators and illegal.”

Secretary Pompeo’s Comments About the New U.S. Human Rights Report                 and Ferrer[4]

The Secretary’s comments upon the release of the report included the following:  “The name Jose Daniel Ferrer appears 17 times in this report.  He’s one of thousands of political prisoners who, over the years, have been dragged, chained, and beaten at the hands of the [Cuban] regime. Tomorrow (March 12) he will be sentenced by a Cuban court.” (Emphasis added.)

The New Report’s Discussion of Ferrer[5]

The Executive Summary of the report on Cuba stated the following:

  • “On February 24, the country adopted a new constitution in a coerced referendum marred by violent government repression against those that opposed the proposed constitution. On February 12, for example, 200 police and security agents raided the homes of leaders of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) [which is headed by José Daniel Ferrer] for openly campaigning against the draft constitution, detaining and reportedly beating UNPACU members. Other opponents reported that the government had blocked their email and texts to keep them from disseminating opposition campaign materials. Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the CCP, disallowing for additional political expression outside of that structure. Although the new constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not respect them, nor did the courts enforce them.” (Emphases added.)

In addition, the report had the following references to the persecution of José Daniel Ferrer:

  • Authorities “detained UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer several times during the year. He was often held for several days at a time incommunicado or without being charged in court. Although uniformed security officials were present for his arrest, authorities denied having him in their custody (see also sections 1.d. and 2.d.). On October 1, police detained him for almost six weeks before allowing his family to see him and did not announce charges against him until November 15, 45 days after his disappearance. In the interim, authorities rejected writs of habeas corpus filed by his wife. As of December, Jose Daniel Ferrer remained in custody.” (Section 1.B) (Emphases added.)
  • “When authorities did allow Nelva Ismarays Ortega Tamayo, the wife of Jose Daniel Ferrer . . ., to visit him in prison, she found him emaciated with signs of repeated physical torture. He was reportedly unable to lift his arms and recounted daily psychological trauma inflicted at the instruction of his jailers.” (Section 1.C) (Emphasis added.)
  • “On August 27, authorities detained UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer in connection with a fabricated murder case from 2018. He was previously detained in August 2018 in Santiago de Cuba for 12 days and charged with attempted murder following a car accident in which he hit and injured an official in Palmarito del Cauto. There were reports the official intentionally jumped in front of the vehicle Ferrer was driving, resulting in minor injuries to the official. Despite reported coercion of witnesses, police could not obtain corroborating evidence against Ferrer, and the prosecution was forced eventually to release him. Police, however, continued to use the case as justification for detaining him.” (Emphases added.) Prison officials refused to consider pleas from Ferrer’s wife to consider his failing health or accept medicine she brought to the prison for him, and they banned her from further visits to the facility. On November 15, the government provided her a copy of the charges filed against Ferrer on October 7. As of December 3, Ferrer still had not received access to a lawyer, and a trial date had not been set. (Section 1.D) (Emphases added.)
  • “In connection with a planned march on September 8, several UNPACU activists were arbitrarily detained on September 7. On September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, Ferrer and other supporters were arrested (see section 2.b. for more information). On October 1, he was arrested again, this time on different charges that he was involved in a physical assault of an UNPACU member. The charges were likely fabricated, due to testimony from multiple individuals that the alleged victim left UNPACU headquarters unharmed and testimony from the alleged victim’s wife that the injuries were sustained in a motorcycle accident. A separate activist said she was threatened with prison if she did not sign a false statement implicating Ferrer in the alleged crime. (Section 1.D) (Emphases added.)
  • Ferrer was held incommunicado for 72 hours before authorities acknowledged he was in custody, and they denied his wife access to him. Several days later, she was finally allowed access to him and received permission to send him a change of clothes, but not medication to tend to his chronic medical condition. On October 18, after not seeing him for more than two weeks, she filed a writ of habeas corpus stating Ferrer’s family did not know his whereabouts or if he was still alive, and that they had not been informed of charges filed against him or been given the opportunity to provide a lawyer to represent him. The court ruled against the petition, claiming that charges were brought on October 3 and formally filed October 7, without stating his location or the charges against him.” (Section 1.D) (Emphases added.)
  • “On October 25, still without access to her husband for herself or her lawyers, and still without knowing the public charges, Ferrer’s wife and his three minor children demonstrated against her husband’s mistreatment in a public park in Santiago de Cuba; security officials arrested all individuals. On November 7, she was allowed a five-minute supervised visit with him–the first proof she had received in more than one month that Ferrer was still alive. He described extremely punishing treatment he received at the hands of his jailers, who chained him hand and feet, offered him only spoiled food and foul water, and held him with a known violent criminal who said he was offered privileges in exchange for beating Ferrer (which he did regularly).” (Section 1.D) (Emphases added.)
  • “Prison officials refused to consider pleas from Ferrer’s wife to consider his failing health or accept medicine she brought to the prison for him, and they banned her from further visits to the facility. On November 15, the government provided her a copy of the charges filed against Ferrer on October 7. As of December 3, Ferrer still had not received access to a lawyer, and a trial date had not been set.” (Section 1.D.) (Emphases added.)
  • On “September 6-7, the internet access of several UNPACU members was suspended ahead of a planned march, and on October 3, the government suspended the internet access of UNPACU national committee member Katherine Mojena Hernandez after she repeatedly tweeted about a government crackdown on the group. (Section 2.D) (Emphases added.)

Subsequent Developments[6]

Although, as Secretary Pompeo stated, Ferrer’s sentencing was scheduled for March 12, it did not happen, but was postponed to March 14. This delay prompted UNPACU to release the following statement on social media:

  • “The sentence against José Daniel Ferrer will not be issued by an impartial Court, but by the Cuban regime, which probably already has his sentence from the moment of his unjust arrest more than five months ago.”
  • “If there were in Cuba a system with guarantees for its citizens, both José Daniel Ferrer and the other three activists would have been acquitted on the day of the manipulated trial of which they were victims, because with evidence it was shown that all the accusations were part of an orchestrated theater by the political police. “
  • “The UNPACU dismisses the sentence that will be delivered, because it is the product of a perverse dictatorship that for fear and hatred represses and imprisons those who courageously oppose them peacefully, such as José Daniel Ferrer García.”

On March 14, there was still no sentencing. Thus, on March 17,  Ferrer’s teenage son went to the court to demand an explanation for the delay in the sentencing, but was told that the court would not receive anyone. Now it is March 19, and there still is no announcement of the sentencing, which, whenever it comes, will be the subject of a future post.

Conclusion

Given the hostile rhetoric and actions of the Trump Administration against Cuba, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the two parties could peaceably negotiate an end to this dispute over the charges against Ferrer. If there were some country or person who had the trust of both sides, perhaps that country or person could act as a mediator to try to resolve the conflict. Or the two countries could arbitrate this (along with many other) disputes before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.[7] Otherwise, this dispute just adds to the stack of such disputes.

An independent U.S. source (Cuba Money Project) quotes the previously mentioned UNPACU acknowledgement of receiving support from “various foreign institutions that promote values such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law and the separation of powers of state, without which it is impossible for a government to guarantee and respect human rights.” The Project then states that the Cuban American National Foundation on a 2016 U.S. federal tax form reported that it gave $99,431 to UNPACU.

In addition, this Project recently reported the following two other U.S.-financed efforts to promote democracy in Cuba:

  • First, the U.S. government-financed National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 2019 managed Cuba projects worth $5,411,535.50 for organizations other than UNPACU and another $565,964.50 going to undisclosed organizations.[8]
  • Second, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has announced plans to award grants to Cuban NGOs, institutions and individuals to strengthen Cuba’s independent civil society’s “professional ties” with the U.S. Although there was no announcement of the total amount of such grants or the number of such grants, it did say that they would be at least $10,000 each.[9]

These U.S. programs that were uncovered by the Cuba Money Project provide support for the previously mentioned allegations of Granma’s November 2019 editorial. While the purpose of these U.S. programs sounds good to the ears of U.S. citizens, it is easy to understand why that is not so for the Cuban government.

Ideally the two governments should discuss, negotiate and agree on the details of any such programs. We were headed in that direction during the last 25 months of the Obama Administration.

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[1] Among the many posts about Ferrer, see these posts in dwkcommentaries.com: Secretary Pompeo Demands Release of Cuban Dissident  (Feb. 27, 2020)(and previous posts and comments cited in footnote 2); José Daniel Ferrer Tried for Common Crime in Cuba (Feb. 28, 2020).

[2] Cuba Accuses U.S. of Using Ferrer Case To Try to Discredit Cuba, dwkcommentareis.com (Nov. 21, 2019).

[3] Response of the Patriotic Union of Cuba to the article in the Granma newspaper about José Daniel Ferrer, unpacu.org/en (Nov. 20, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo on the Release of the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Mar. 11, 2020); Jakes, Critics Hear Political Tone as Pompeo Calls Out Diplomatic Rivals Over Human Rights, N.Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2020).

[5] State Dep’t, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Cuba (Mar. 11, 2020).

[6] The regime postpones the sentence against José Daniel Ferrer, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 12, 2020); The authorities still do not reveal the sentence against José Daniel Ferrer, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 17, 2020).

[7] See Proposed Resolution of U.S.-Cuba Issues, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 31, 2019).

[8] Eaton, Dissident’s arrest triggers debate over funding, Cuba Money Project (Dec. 7, 2019); Eaton, NED kept secret more than a half million dollars in Cuba projects, Cuba Money Project (Jan. 2, 2020). The Cuba Money Project was started and is operated by Tracey Eaton, a U.S. journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News; it aims to report stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba.

[9] Eaton, Public diplomacy or interference?, Cuba Money Project (Feb. 1, 2020); U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Education & Culture: Annual Program Statement. (undated).

 

U.S. Litigation Over Cuba Medical Mission Program

On November 30, 2018, five Cuban doctors who had been on Cuban medical missions in Brazil filed a class action against PAHO alleging that it had “collected over $75 million since 2013 by enabling, managing, and enforcing illegal human trafficking [in Brazil] of Cuban medical professionals,” who were paid “10% or less of the fees the Brazilian Government paid PAHO for their services, while PAHO paid at least 85% to the Cuban Government” and retained 5% for its services. The 85-page complaint alleges violations of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (18 U.S.C. sec. 1589 and 1590); and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. sec. 1962).[1]

On December 25, 2019, PAHO filed a motion to transfer the case from the U.S. District court for the Southern District of Florida to the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia, which was denied by the U.S. Magistrate on May 23, 2019, and without explanation the docket sheet ends on July 2, 2019 with an entry for an Order setting the hearing on the transfer motion for July 18, 2019.

That status of the case is correct, according to a January 22, 2020, report by the Cuba Money Project, because plaintiffs’ counsel has not attempted to serve process on PAHO under 28 U.S.C. sec. 1330(b), 1608.[2]

Although PAHO never responded to the Complaint or Amended Compliant in the federal court in Miami, its motion to transfer the case to the federal court in the District of Colombia stated that after transfer it would file a motion to dismiss the complaint and amended complaint on the ground that PAHO is immune from this lawsuit. In addition, PAHO summarized the bases for its immunity claim as follows: [3]

  • The U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s section 1330(b) “is the exclusive venue provision for cases against foreign states and, by extension via the International Organizations Immunities Act, designated International Organizations such as PAHO. . . [and provides] venue in this case is proper, if anywhere, only in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.”
  •   Moreover, “PAHO enjoys both absolute immunity under international law, 21 U.S.T. 1418 (Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations), and all of the immunities “from suit and every form of judicial process” enjoyed by foreign governments under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 22 U.S.C. § 288a(b).”

More recently the Wall Street Journal’s anti-Cuba columnist, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, focused on Cuba’s now discontinued medical mission to Brazil and to this lawsuit. She merely said this lawsuit is still in the pre-trial stage, and PAHO’s motion to transfer the case to the District of Colombia is pending.[4] That technically is true, but reveals a failure to investigate.

This blogger as a retired attorney has not tried to verify PAHO’s immunity claim or to ask plaintiffs’ counsel why they have not proceeded with the case, but the most plausible explanation is that they concluded that they had little chance of defeating the immunity defense.

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[1] Class Action Complaint, Rodriguez v. Pan American Health Organization, Case 1:18-cv-24995-DPG (S.D. FL Nov. 30, 2018); First Amended Class Action Complaint, Case 1:18-cv-24995-DPG (S.D. FL  Dec. 26, 2018.

[2] Was lawsuit over Cuban doctors a publicity stunt?, Cuba Money Project (Jan. 22, 2020).

[3] Putative Defendant Pan American Health Organization’s Objections to and Appeal from Magistrate Judge’s Denial of Motion To Transfer This Action to the District of Columbia, Rodriguez v. Pan American Health Organization, Case NO. 1-18-cv-24995-DPG (S.D. Fla. June 6, 2019).

[4] O’Grady, The U.N. and Human Trafficking, W.S.J. (Jan. 26, 2020).

 

 

 

Examination of the Actions of EchoCuba (a U.S. Nonprofit)

The Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba (ECHO Cuba), a U.S. nonprofit organization, has emerged as one that calls for close examination by U.S. citizens interested in U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation. EchoCuba is active in Cuba, including successful public opposition to a provision of the then proposed new Cuban constitution and commenting on other controversial Cuban issues. It has received significant financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Finally EchoCuba has been used by the State Department as one of only two primary sources for the department’s most recent (and critical) annual report on Cuban religious freedom. These activities have not yet received the serious attention that they deserve. This blog post endeavors to start that examination.

ECHOCuba’s Background [1]

The organization was founded in 1994 by Cuban-American Teo Babún. Soon thereafter it was denounced in the Cuban TV news series “Razones de Cuba” for promoting subversion on the island, with funding from the U.S. government, by publishing counterrevolutionary blogs and printed propaganda and by hosting public events.

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, has reported that Senor Babún and his family before the triumph of the Revolution “owned the second largest sugarmill in the eastern part of [Cuba]; the Diamante construction company; a cement factory; the Sevilla estate; and the Santiago de Cuba ship line.” After 1959, however, he and his family left the island for Miami, where he made connections with the “annexionist” mafia [Cuban exiles], supported the U.S.-organized mercenary invasion of Play Girón [Bay of Pigs in 1961] and a subsequent terrorist attack on the coastal town of Boca de Samá in 1971.

A noted Cuban intellectual and historian, Nestor Garcia Iturbe, added that Senor Babún is (or was) the executive director of Americas Humanitarian Relief Logistics Team, Inc. (ART) , which says that it “provides aid to hurting people in the Americas” and “disaster response assistance throughout the Americas” as well as partnering with the U.S. Navy’s Southern Command and with “USAID and UN/OCHA through the U.N. Humanitarian System.” Indeed, Garcia says this organization also is a recipient of USAID fund. Another organization created by Babún was the Claims Register Assistance to aid persons who wanted to file claims in the 1960s with the U.S. Department of Justice for their Cuban properties that had been expropriated by the Fidel Castro regime.

The current website for EchoCuba states that its mission is “to equip and strengthen the independent evangelical churches of Cuba through theological education and leadership training of their existing and future pastors. . . . Since the early 1990s, . . . [it] has existed to advocate faith and freedoms in Cuba through a vast network of mostly . . . Protestant and Roman Catholic churches who have promoted Christian education, humanitarian aid, and small business initiatives.”

EchoCuba says in 2002 it “cooperated with different foundations and organizations  in distributing humanitarian assistance and training manuals on carrying out social and human services, such as caring for the elderly, disabled, and malnourished children. It also has aided in reaching out to the most marginalized pockets of Cuba’s populations, including the families of those persecuted by the communist regime for their beliefs and ideals.”

“Today [date not specified] we embark on a new chapter . . . [to focus on] the development of effective Christian leadership to promote Biblical truth while transforming communities. . . [and empowering] the in We collaborate with local leaders, seminaries and communities in the island to bring the Gospel to the masses.”

Yet another of its activities is “faith-based advocacy.” It correctly notes that Cuba was an “atheist state” and that during that period Christians suffered. It also claims that freedom of religion today on the island is “not fully available, and persecution of those who publicly profess a creed exists today.” [This statement is true for the period 1959-1992], but misleading on the years since then.]

EchoCuba also participates in the First Frontier Cuba Network, which “serves as a convening platform, which stewards and directs the investment of North American resources, time, energy and manpower wisely to directly respond to the continuing needs of the Cuban Church. [This Network] has been created to provide consultation and leadership to catalyze the right kind of change in Cuba, without harm, confusion, and fragmentation; and to be the voice of Cuban missiology that guides ministry action towards long-term and productive change for the Kingdom of God.”

The final activity listed on its website is “fighting Biblical poverty.” It claims in the last two decades, “Christianity has grown in Cuba in an unprecedented rate. With a population of 11 million, and only 10%-20% of that population being active Christians, the demand for Bibles is unlike any other point in history. For most Christians in Cuba, they feel isolated from the world. The government and its last of freedom restrict the ability of Christians to access the outside world through literature, internet, television even the distribution of Christian material including the Sword of God [the Bible]. In Cuba there are no places to buy or print Bibles on the island. However God always opens doors. Recently, easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba [with President Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba] after fifty years offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to receive bibles from international organizations like EchoCuba. Now, you can help Cubans discover the life and love of Jesus found in God’s Word. EchoCuba has vowed to bring the Gospel any way it can to God’s faithful servants in Cuba.”

The website also claims that “Churches in Cuba are not legally allowed to be constructed, [thereby forcing] God’s people . . . to operate through house churches, which hold no legal recognition from the government. Cuba has over 25,000 house churches on the island. The average house church holds an average of 20 to 40 members, on average only 5-10 bibles are available for the entire congregation. We believe that by providing Church leaders and seminarians with Bible and Scripture resources, even more people will experience the transformative power of God’s love for all of us. Our 2015 goal is to provide 5,000 bibles to Churches in Cuba.”

EchoCuba also is a member, since November 2007, of EFCA, which “provides accreditation to leading Christian nonprofit organizations that faithfully demonstrate compliance with established standards for financial accountability.”

EchoCuba’s Financial Support by USAID [2]

Although it is not mentioned on EchoCuba’s website, USAID, for fiscal 2009-2017, paid $2,302,464 to EchoCuba. Of this total, $1,033,582 was “for a three-year program entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society by Strengthening Economic Independence.’” Another $1,179,066 was for the Cuba Humanitarian Support Network, which was “aimed at providing “humanitarian aid to Cuba’s vulnerable religious leaders” and creating a “humanitarian network for the sustainable delivery of essential food and health supplies to marginalized Cubans and their family members.” In addition, EchoCuba to date has received at least $1,003,674 from USAID during the Trump presidency.

ECHOCuba’s Recent Activities in Cuba [3]

In late 2018, some Cuban evangelical churches, encouraged by EchoCuba and other U.S. conservative evangelical churches and organizations, registered strong objections to a provision of the proposed new Cuban Constitution that would have legalized same-sex marriage. According to Andrew Chestnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, ““Both the moral and financial support of U.S. Evangelical denominations and agencies has been crucial to backing Cuban Evangelicals in their campaign to oppose gay marriage on the island.”

In response, in December 2018, the Cuban government withdrew that provision before the new constitution was approved in a national referendum.

This year, Cuban evangelical churches and groups, with the support of similar groups in the U.S., objected to Cuba’s version of a gay pride parade in May, resulting in its cancelation by the organizers of the event.

In July 2019, EchoCuba was involved in the creation of the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches  as separate from the longstanding Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) on the ground that the latter did not represent their beliefs, including opposition to same-sex marriage. According to Elaine Saralegui Caraballo, a lesbian pastor and founder of a Cuban division of the Metropolitan Community Church, said, “The creation of this Alliance fosters a space of unity, from which the whole economic, spiritual, religious, and political force of the Christian fundamentalist churches will be deployed” and that the Alliance’s goal was to promote “Christian supremacy” with the guidance of the U.S. far right, in a similar manner as has occurred in other Latin American countries.”

EchoCuba as Source for State Department on Cuban Religious Freedom [4]

The latest State Department’s report on international religious freedom that was released in June 2019 contained many adverse allegations about that freedom in Cuba with only two principal stated sources, one of which was EchoCuba (without any disclosure about its funding by USAID).

That report contained the following statements about the evangelical or apostolic churches:

  • “There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International.  According to some Christian leaders, there is a marked growth of evangelical Protestant groups in the country.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the ORA [Communist Party’s’ Office of Religious Affairs] approved some registration applications, but it took as many as two to three years from the date of the application.  Other applications received no response or were denied without explanation, while some groups continued to wait for up to 25 years for a response.  EchoCuba said Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing these churches to operate without legal status.”
  • “In October leaders of Apostolic churches including Bernardo de Quesada, Alain Toledanos, and Marco Antonio Perdomo, issued an official statement on behalf of non-registered groups, which they said are ‘in practice discriminated against,’ urging the government to establish a new statute formally defining and granting the right to, and laying out procedures for, legal registration of religious organizations by the MOJ [Ministry of Justice].  The ORA and the MOJ did not announce any progress on revising the law on associations, announced in August 2017.”
  • “In March the New Apostolic Church, not affiliated with the many loosely affiliated Apostolic churches, registered with the MOJ.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not.  Similarly, the government continued to reward religious leaders who were cooperative with the government and threatened revocation of those rights for noncooperative religious leaders.  EchoCuba reported that, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits other non-member churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad.  EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to single out religious groups critical of the government, such as the unregistered Apostolic Movement, for particularly severe persecution, destroying their churches, confiscating properties, and banning travel of their pastors.  In contrast, the government allowed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also unregistered, to operate with little intervention because the Church continued to maintain a close relationship with the government and did not question the country’s laws.  Some religious leaders said the government continued to grant permits to buy properties for use as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there.  Other religious groups said securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish.  A decree continued to place restrictions on internal movement and migration, making it difficult, if not impossible, for pastors and their families to register their new place of residence if they transferred to a church that lost its pastor due to death or retirement.  To engage with even the smallest of bureaucratic details, pastors refused the right to reregister needed to travel to wherever they were officially registered and submit the paperwork there.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.  According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities.  Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from travelling within the country to attend special events or meetings.  Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from travelling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.”

As pointed out in a prior post, this State Department report made only the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): ““Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

Criticism of U.S. Report on Cuban Religious Freedom [5]

This report’s ever so brief reference to the CIC, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.

Relevant here is CIC’s statement (on or about July 17, 2019) in response to the announced intent to create the previously mentioned Evangelical Alliance if Cuban Churches. “We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto ‘United to Serve‘ which states:

  • ‘We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
  • ‘Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.’
  • ‘Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church.’
  • ‘The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers.’

Therefore, the CIC statement continued, “It is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.” It then added the following:

  • “In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”
  • “On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”
  • “God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”
  • “The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Personal Testimony [6]

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which for the last 17 years has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I have been on three mission trips to the island to visit our partner and other churches and the office of the CIC. I also have welcomed Cuban visitors to our church in Minneapolis, have discussed other members’ trips to the island, have read widely about many aspects of Cuban-U.S. history and have written many blog posts criticizing hostile U.S. policies and actions against Cuba and encouraging reconciliation and normalization of relations. As a result I now have many Cuban-Presbyterian friends and can testify that these churches and members as well as the CIC enjoy many aspects of religious freedom and embrace a warm and loving Christian faith.

Therefore, it is totally illegitimate for the State Department virtually to ignore the faith and work of these churches and members and of the CIC. It also is illegitimate for the Department and others in the U.S. government implicitly to assume that some U.S. notions of religious freedom should apply to Cuba without considering the vast differences in economic circumstances. This especially is true with respect to building new church buildings. Like the U.S., construction permits are needed in Cuba for new buildings, religious and otherwise. That does not make such construction illegal, as is claimed in the previously mentioned State Department report. Moreover, the granting of such permits in Cuba is inhibited by limitations on the island’s financial resources.

Although I did not visit Cuba during the period of its close relationship with the Soviet Union, until 1992, it is true that Christians and other religious people were discriminated against. However, Cuba did not assassinate or disappear religious opponents of the regime as was done by the right-wing government of El Salvador in the 1980’s. On one of my trips to our partner church on the island, one of the members told me that she had not been brave enough to have been a Christian during those prior years. Another member told me that he had been in seminary with the pastor of our partner, but he had left the Cuban church in order to become a public school teacher. Now that he was retired, he again freely could attend church.

After the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba adopted a more conciliatory position towards religion and lessened its promotion of atheism. In November 1991 the Communist Party began to allow believers into its ranks, and in July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism–Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Another important change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased acceptance of religion in Cuba, several Protestant pastors became members of the National Assembly, two of whom I have met: Rev. Sergio Arce, a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, and Rev. Raúl Suarez, a Baptist pastor.[ii]

In 2004 the first Greek Orthodox Cathedral opened in Havana; shortly thereafter I visited the island and saw flags welcoming Greek Orthodox Archbishop Bartholomew to the city while my Presbyterian delegation delivered an icon to the new Cathedral from a Minneapolis’ Greek Orthodox Church. Four years later, in 2008, the first Russian Orthodox Church was opened in Havana during an official ceremony attended by then President Raúl Castro. Three Popes have visited the island: Pope John Paul II (1998), Pope Benedict XVI (2012) and Pope Francis (2015).[iii]

Nevertheless, it must be noted that upon the recent appointment of Monsignor Juan de la Caridad as the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba lamented that the Catholic Church on the island does not have schools, universities, newspapers, radio stations or welfare centers while less than 3% of the population attends Sunday Mass even though at least half confess being of that faith.[iv]

The recent State Department report on Cuban religious freedom also blindly accepts assertions by EchoCuba and Christian Solidarity Worldwide about alleged Cuban discrimination and persecution of various evangelical churches, especially when at least EchoCuba receives USAID funds. The U.S. government should not forget or ignore that the State Department and USAID over the years have helped finance so-called U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts on the island that in reality were efforts at “regime change.” As a result, it is reasonable for Cuba to exercise close surveillance of the activities of such organizations.

Conclusion [7]

As someone who strives to follow Jesus as a member of a Presbyterian Church, I am glad to see the U.S. emphasizing the importance of religious freedom around the world. However, given the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election and the support for Trump in the last election by many U.S. evangelical leaders and groups, one has to wonder whether current U.S. hostility towards Cuba and the Trump Administration programs like the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and the first two of promised annual Ministerials on International Religious Freedom are really designed to solidify that U.S. domestic political support for the re-election of Donald Trump.

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[1] EchoCuba; Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba? Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011); ECFA, ECHOCuba.

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019;); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019)

[4] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019); State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019); U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom, dwkcommenaries.com (July 18, 2019).

[5] Background on the Cuban Council of Churches; World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Joint Statement of the Cuban Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (Apr. 25, 2019); Larkman, Cuba contingent hopes to further partnership between U.S., Cuban churches (Nov. 13, 2017); Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba, Wikipedia

[6] E.g., Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation, dwkcommentareis.com (Dec. 22, 2014); The Cuban Revolution and Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 30, 2011); posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” section of List of Post to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA; Bishops lament that the Catholic church lacks a ‘massive social presence in Cuba,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 3, 2019).

[7] See posts  to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights; U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentries.com  (July 7, 2019); U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom , dwkcommentaries.com(July 21, 2019); Realpolitik Analysis of U.S. Ministerial To Advance Religious Liberty and U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 23, 2019).