U.S.’ Absurd Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On May 30, 2013, the U.S. Department of State issued its annual report on terrorism in the world: Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. A prior post reviewed the report as a whole

We now examine this report’s designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” i.e., as a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” This post’s analysis is also informed by the U.S.’s similar designation of Cuba in the annual reports on terrorism for 1996 through 2011.[1] Earlier posts analyzed and criticized the reports for 2009, 2010 and 2011.

State Department’s Rationale

The following is the complete asserted justification for the Department’s designation of Cuba for 2012:

  • “Cuba was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982. Reports in 2012 suggested that the Cuban government was trying to distance itself from Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) members living on the island by employing tactics such as not providing services including travel documents to some of them. The Government of Cuba continued to provide safe haven to approximately two dozen ETA members.
  • In past years, some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were allowed safe haven in Cuba and safe passage through Cuba. In November, the Government of Cuba began hosting peace talks between the FARC and Government of Colombia.
  • There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.
  • The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States. The Cuban government also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.
  • The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has identified Cuba as having strategic anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism deficiencies. In 2012, Cuba became a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America against Money Laundering, a FATF-style regional body. With this action, Cuba has committed to adopting and implementing the FATF Recommendations.”

Rebuttal of State Department’s Rationale

On its face this alleged justification proves the exact opposite: Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism.

Indeed, this and earlier U.S. reports admit that “Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world” (1996, 1997, 1998, 2008, 2009), that there was no evidence that Cuba had sponsored specific acts of terrorism (1996, 1997) and that there “was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups” (2011, 2012). Similar admissions were made in the U.S. reports for 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Some also reported that in 2001(after 9/11) Cuba “signed all 12 UN counterterrorism conventions as well as the Ibero-American declaration on terrorism” (2001, 2002, 2003).

I also note that the latest report in its Western Hemisphere Overview says that in “2012, the majority of terrorist attacks within the . , . Hemisphere were committed by the . . . [FARC]. The threat of a transnational terrorist attack remained low for most countries in the Western Hemisphere.” There is no mention of Cuba in this overview.

Nor is there any mention of Cuba in the latest report’s “Strategic Assessment” that puts all of its discussion into a worldwide context.

All of this rebuttal so far is based only on what the State Department has said about this designation since 1996.

In addition, the Cuban government has taken the following actions that strengthen the rebuttal of the designation and that, to my knowledge, the U.S. has not disputed:

  • First, Cuba publicly has stated that Its “territory has never been and never will be utilized to harbor terrorists of any origin, nor for the organization, financing or perpetration of acts of terrorism against any country in the world, including the [U.S.]. . . .  The Cuban government unequivocally rejects and condemns any act of terrorism, anywhere, under any circumstances and whatever the alleged motivation might be.”
  • Second, in 2002, the government of Cuba proposed to the U.S. the adoption of a bilateral agreement to confront terrorism, an offer which it reiterated in 2012, without having received any response from the U.S.
  • Third, Cuban President Raul Castro on July 26, 2012 (the 59th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution) reiterated his country’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the U.S. as equals. He said no topic was off limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Cuba so as long as the U.S. was prepared to hear Cuba’s own complaints. In response the U.S. repeated its prior position: before there could be meaningful talks, Cuba had to institute democratic reforms, respect human rights and release Alan Gross, an American detained in Cuba.

But let us go further.

1. Cuba As an Alleged Safe Haven for Terrorists 

The first stated basis for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is its allegedly providing safe havens to individuals associated with two U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations–ETA and the FARC–and to certain fugitives from U.S. criminal proceedings.

                a. ETA

There are only 20 to 24 ETA members in Cuba, and by now they must be older people who have not participated in any terrorist activities in Spain for many years. They are “side-line sitters.”

Moreover, the 2011 and 2012 reports state that Cuba is “trying to distance itself” from the ETA members on the island and is not providing certain services to them.

Earlier U.S. reports also reflect the limited nature of this charge. Of the 20 to 24 members, some may be there in connection with peace negotiations with Spain (2009). In May 2003, Cuba publicly asserted that the “presence of ETA members in Cuba arose from a request for assistance by Spain and Panama and that the issue is a bilateral matter between Cuba and Spain” (2003). In March 2010 Cuba “allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members” (2010).

Moreover, in March 2011 the Spanish Ambassador to Cuba told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Spain was “not concerned about the presence of members of . . .  ETA . . . in Cuba.” Indeed, the Ambassador maintained that this enhances his country’s ability to deal more effectively with ETA.  In fact, the Ambassador added, some ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government.

The last two U.S. reports say that Cuba is providing “safe haven” to the ETA members, but their separate chapters on the legitimate international problem of terrorist safe havens have  no mention whatsoever of Cuba.

                b. FARC

Most of the reasons for the speciousness of the charges regarding ETA also apply to the charges regarding the Colombian group, FARC.

In addition, the 2008 report said in July of that year “former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.”

There is no indication in the State Department’s reports of the number of FARC members allegedly in Cuba, but some may be there in connection with peace negotiations with Colombia (2009 report).

Moreover, in March 2011 the Colombian Ambassador to Cuba told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Colombia was “not concerned about the presence of members of FARC . . . in Cuba.” Indeed, the Ambassador maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with FARC.

The Cuban connection for Colombia and the FARC resulted in a September 2012 statement by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations about the then recently-announced peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC. It stated that Cuba “has a historical commitment to peace in Colombia and efforts to put an end to [her] . . . political, social and military conflicts.” To that end, the Cuban Government “has made constructive efforts to . . . search for a negotiated solution, always responding to a request from the parties involved and without the slightest influence in their respective positions.” The statement continued. For over a year, at the express request of the Government of Colombia and the FARC, “the Cuban government supported the . . . exploratory talks leading to a peace process,” and as a “guarantor” Cuba participated in these talks. “The Cuban government will continue to . . . [provide its] good offices in favor of this effort, to the extent that the Government of Colombia and the FARC . . . so request.”

As a result, as the latest State Department report admits, in November 2012 Cuba has been hosting peace negotiations in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC seeking to end their long civil war. Colombia’s president said that support for such negotiations by Cuba and Venezuela has been crucial in helping the two sides to reach agreement on conducting the negotiations.

Late last month (May 2013), the two sides announced an agreement to distribute land to small farmers and undertake development projects that would improve rural education and infrastructure that will not take effect until a final peace agreement is reached.

                c. U.S. fugitives

There apparently were or are over 70 individuals living in Cuba who are fugitives from criminal charges in U.S. relating to violent acts in the 1970’s purportedly committed to advance political causes, but pursuant to a 2005 Cuban government statement, no additional U.S. fugitives have been permitted on the island. In a few instances Cuba has extradited such fugitives to the U.S. (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009).

One of the U.S. fugitives, William Potts, recently has asked to return and face trial in the U.S. In 1984, he  hijacked a Piedmont Airlines passenger plane with 56 people aboard in the U.S. and forced it to go to Cuba. There as a Black Panther and self-styled revolutionary, he dreamed of receiving military training in Cuba that he could use against the U.S. government. This did not happen. Instead he was tried and convicted in Cuba and served a  13.5 years in a Cuban prison plus 1.5 years of supervised release for the hijacking.

None of these fugitives apparently is affiliated with U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations. The issue of whether or not they will be extradited to the U.S. is an appropriate issue for bilateral negotiations between the two countries. But, in my opinion, it is not a legitimate basis for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

2. Cuba’s Alleged Financial System Deficiencies

The other asserted ground in the latest U.S. report for the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” was new for 2011 and is reiterated (in modified form) for 2012. It is Cuba’s having been identified by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) [2] as “having strategic AML/CFT [Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies.”

Last year’s U.S. criticism of Cuba on this issue went on to say, “Despite sustained and consistent overtures, Cuba has refused to substantively engage directly with the FATF.  It has not committed to FATF standards and it is not a member of a FATF-style regional body.”

In 2012, however, Cuba joined such a regional body (the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering in South America (GAFISUD)), and  FATF recently said Cuba has “developed an action plan with the FATF” with “written high-level political commitment to address the identified deficiencies.”

The State Department’s recent report comes close to admitting this significant change in 2012. In short, the U.S. admits that Cuba is addressing its alleged financial system deficiencies.

Moreover, as of February 2013, Cuba is not on the FATF’s list of “bad guys” (my phrase).  The two at the bottom of that list are Iran and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), for which FATF calls for all states to apply counter-measures. The other 13 on this list are ones that have strategic AML/CFT deficiencies, but have not made sufficient progress in addressing the deficiencies or have not committed to an action plan developed with the FATF to address the deficiencies: Ecuador, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sao Tome and Principe, Syria, Tanzania, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen.

But all of these facts about Cuba’s financial system, in my opinion, do not support designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” If it were, then 13 countries on the “bad guy” list should be added to the U.S. list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” (Of the 15 countries on the “bad guy” list, only Iran and Syria are now U.S.-designated “State Sponsors of Terrorism.”)

Moreover, as noted above, the U.S. terrorism reports have indicated there was no evidence of Cuban financing of terrorism in the covered years. In addition, some of the reports reference Cuban laws permitting the tracking, blocking, or seizing terrorist assets (Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism and Instruction 19 of the Superintendent of the Cuban Central Bank) (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008). In addition, in its response to last year’s U.S. report, Cuba has asserted that it “regularly provides precise, truthful information to the appropriate United Nations bodies charged with addressing these issues and others related to confronting terrorism.”

The whole FATF issue raised in the U.S. terrorism report, in my opinion, is a “red herring.”

Conclusion 

In summary, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is absurd. This conclusion is shared, in less colorful language, at least by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Center for International Policy, the Latin American Working Group, former President Jimmy CarterThe Atlantic magazine’s  noted national correspondent (Jeffrey Goldberg) and a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General (John Adams).

Not surprisingly the Cuban government comes to the same conclusion. It said last year, “the only reason Cuba is kept on this list is exposed as an attempt to justify the U.S. blockade of our country, as well as the adoption of new measures to limit our financial and commercial transactions, to strangle the Cuban economy and impose a regime which responds to U.S. interests.”

Whatever legitimate issues are raised by these U.S. reports, I submit, they are appropriate subjects, among many, for the bilateral negotiations that a prior post recommended should occur between the U.S. and Cuba to the end of reconciliation and restoration of normal relations.


[1] Cuba has been so designated since March 1982.The U.S. terrorism reports for 1996 through 2012 are those that are accessible on the U.S. State Department’s website. I would appreciate detailed comments from anyone with knowledge about the reports for 1982-1995 although they are less relevant due to the passage of time.

[2] FATF “is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions. [Its] . . . objectives . . .  are to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF is therefore a ‘policy-making body’ which works to generate the necessary political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in these areas.” In other words, it apparently is a voluntary international organization, not one established by a multilateral treaty. FATF currently has 34 member jurisdictions (or only about 18% of the U.N. member states) plus 2 regional organizations (the European Council and the Gulf Co-Operation Council) representing most major financial centers in all parts of the globe. Starting in 1990,”FATF has developed a series of Recommendations that [it claims] are now recognised as the international standard for combating of money laundering and the financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

U.S. Report on International Terrorism for 2012

 TerrorismReport_Cover_120_1On May 30, 2013, the U.S. State Department submitted Country Reports on Terrorism 2012 to the U.S. Congress as required by law. [1] This report provides an assessment of trends and events in international terrorism that occurred during 2012. The Department’s Fact Sheet about the report highlighted the following as the most noteworthy developments of the year:

  • Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s ally Hizballah had a marked resurgence.
  • The al-Qa’ida (AQ) core in Pakistan continued to weaken.
  • Tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa have complicated the counterterrorism picture.  Leadership losses have driven AQ affiliates to become more independent.
  • AQ affiliates are increasingly setting their own goals and specifying their own targets.
  • There is a more decentralized and geographically dispersed terrorist threat.
  • Although terrorist attacks occurred in 85 different countries in 2012, they were heavily concentrated geographically. As in recent years, over half of all attacks (55%), fatalities (62%), and injuries (65%) occurred in just three countries: Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This report was submitted in compliance with 22 U.S.C. § 2656f, which defines “terrorism” for this purpose as ” premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” while the term  “international terrorism” means “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

The Department is statutorily required to identify countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” as “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” This year the following four countries were so designated: Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba. A subsequent post will examine this absurd designation of Cuba.

Another chapter of the report concerns “terrorist safe havens,” i.e., “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.”  The following were identified as such havens: Africa (Somalia, Trans-Sahara and Mali), Southeast Asia (Sulu/Sulawesi Seas Littoral and Southern Philippines), Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen), South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Western Hemisphere (Colombia and Venezuela).

The Secretary of State also is required to designate “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” i.e., foreign organizations that engage in terrorist activity or terrorism or retain the capability and intent to do so and that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the U.S. national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests). This year the report designates 51 such organizations.

In 2012, according to the report, a total of 6,771 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths and more than 21,600 injuries. In addition, more than 1,280 people were kidnapped or taken hostage. The 10 countries with the most such attacks were Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Thailand, Yemen, Sudan, Philippines and Syria.

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[1] A prior post reviewed the State Department’s terrorism report for 2011.

Cuban Blogger, Yoani Sanchez, Returns Home

 YoaniSanchezOn May 30th Yoani Sanchez, a world-famous blogger, returned home to Cuba after a three-month tour of South  and North America and Europe.

On her trip, Sanchez gave speeches criticizing President Raul Castro’s Communist-led government. She also met with human rights activists and foreign lawmakers and cultivated relationships with journalists at leading Western newspapers.

She said, “It has been a marvelous trip. A trip that is going to change my life in many ways … and I have returned with lots of projects.” After resting with her family, she plans to say more about her future plans.

Previously she had said a main goal of the trip was to prepare herself to launch an independent online newspaper in Cuba.

Prior posts have discussed Yoani’s  blogging and trip.

Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

We have provided a general overview of the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and another post analyzed the State Department’s report on that freedom in Cuba.[1] Now we contrast and compare the Commission’s shorter and less detailed report on that subject for Cuba.[2]

Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

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

First, it did not include Cuba in its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), i.e.,  those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

Second, it recognized that “[p]ositive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year.” (Emphasis added.)

The Commission endorsed the State Department reports “that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant 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.”

The Commission also stated that the Cuban 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. Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve,” marked by Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba.

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

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

Some of the criticisms echo the State Department’s report regarding the Cuban government’s system for registering religious groups, limiting certain activities to such registered groups, restricting permits for construction or repair of religious buildings, limiting access to state media and denying permission for religious processions outside religious buildings. The Commission, however, fails to mention the Department’s qualifications that these purported restrictions of religious freedom are not enforced in practice.

The Commission mentions the Cuban government’s arrest and detention of human rights/democracy activists that prevented them from attending church services, as did the Department’s report. As noted in my prior post, however, these arrests and detentions, in my opinion, are blots on Cuba’s general human rights record, not that for its religious freedom.

Another negative, according to the Commission, are the alleged Cuban government’s arrests and beatings on four occasions of evangelical pastors and the alleged targeting of the Apostolic Reformation and Western Baptist communities. We, however, do not know all the facts of these alleged events, and even if true as stated by the Commission, they do not, in my opinion, justify the Commission’s overall evaluation of Cuban religious freedom.[3]

That overall evaluation includes Cuba as one of eight countries on the Commission’s “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.[4] Its inclusion yet again, in my opinion, is due to sheer long-term blinders on U.S. perceptions of Cuba, not to an objective analysis of the facts.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy 

In accordance with its authorizing statute,[5] the Commission made the following recommendations for U.S. policy with respect to Cuban religious freedom:

  • press the Cuban government to “stop arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders;  cease interference with religious activities and the internal affairs of religious communities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; revise government policies that restrict religious services in homes or on other personal property; and hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of non-violent religious practitioners;”
  • “use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrest by supporting the development of new technologies, while also immediately distributing proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship;”
  • “increase the number of visas issued to Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to the United States to interact with co-religionists;” and
  • “encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocks, to ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

I note first that if Cuba properly were excluded from the Watch List, there would be no basis for the Commission’s making any recommendations with respect to Cuba.

With respect to the recommendations themselves, the first one seems like an excessive concern with formalities since in practice these restrictions are not enforced. Has the U.S. updated all of its statutes and regulations to conform them to what happens in the real world?

The third recommendation should be noncontroversial, and I agree the U.S. should grant tourist visas for Cuban religious representatives to visit the U.S.

I also have no problem with the fourth recommendation, but believe that most other countries and regional blocks would not see the alleged violations of freedom of religion or belief that the Commission sees.

The second recommendation, however, raises significant problems and is objectionable.

It is difficult to know exactly what is meant by recommending the U.S. use its funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists, to develop new technologies and to distribute proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship.

To me, it sounds like a recommendation for surreptitious efforts at regime change. Remember that the U.S. in 1961 supported an armed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, that the U.S. through the CIA had plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, that the U.S. for over 50 years has had an embargo of Cuba and that the George W. Bush Administration had a Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba that produced a de facto U.S. plan for such a regime change.

Another, and more powerful, reason for being at least skeptical of this second recommendation is the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, who is now in Cuban prison after conviction in 2009 for–as the Cubans see it– being part of a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities.” As an employee of an USAID contractor, Mr. Gross went to Cuba on multiple occasions purportedly to establish wireless networks and Internet connections for non-dissident Cuban Jewish communities and to deliver certain communications equipment to Cubans for that purpose.

In 2012 Mr. Gross and his wife sued USAID and the contractor for allegedly failing to give him better information and training for his dangerous work, and this month (May 2013) the Grosses and the contractor reached a settlement for dismissal of the case against the corporation in exchange for an undisclosed monetary payment by the contractor.

In short, this second recommendation is not designed to improve religious freedom in Cuba.

Conclusion

The State Department’s more balanced recent report on Cuban religious freedom, in my opinion, is better grounded in reality than the Commission’s. While I believe the U.S. should encourage and promote religious freedom around the world, including Cuba, the recommendations by the Commission are unjustified and counterproductive and evidence the same bias against Cuba that we see in other aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba.[6]


[1] The prior post also reviewed the religious makeup of the Cuban people and many other details on the subject that will not be repeated here.

[2] Prior posts examined the Commission reports for Cuba for 2010 and 2011(comment to prior post). A subsequent post will discuss the unusual structure of the Commission.

[3] The Commission’s heavy emphasis on the relatively few alleged wrongs against evangelical pastors and its ignoring the positive developments in religious freedom for “registered” religious groups like the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists demonstrate a totally inappropriate and unjustified bias in a purported nonpartisan U.S. agency of our federal government. Such a bias is not new. It also was present in the George W. Bush Administration’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which regarded unnamed evangelical Christian groups as the only “authentically independent” religious groups that could be used by the U.S. to build a “free” Cuba.  The Cuban Council of Churches, on the other hand, was seen by this U.S. commission as “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches” and, therefore, was not to be used by the U.S.

[4]  The other seven countries on the Commission’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

[5]  That statute charges the Commission with the responsibility of “making  . . . policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress with respect to [Cuban] religious freedom.” (International Religious Freedom Act of 1988, § 202(a)(2); id. § 202(b); id. § 202(c).

Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report)

cuba_havana_matanzas

We have just reviewed the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now we look at the Department’s recent report on Cuban religious freedom.[1] A subsequent post will examine and compare the Commission’s recent views on the subject.

Versalles Church, Matanzas, Cuba
Versalles Church,   Matanzas, Cuba
SET Chapel
SET Chapel, 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

According to the report, an estimated 60 to 70 percent (or 6,600,000 to 7,700,000) of the 11 million Cuban people are  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; Methodists, 35,000; Seventh-day Adventists, 33,000; 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. (On one of my trips to Cuba we visited a synagogue in Havana to deliver a digital version of the Talmud as a gift from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel.)

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. (On another trip to Cuba we visited the beautiful Greek Orthodox Cathedral to deliver an icon as a gift from our friends at Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church.)

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 State Department 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” (atheism) as the state ideology 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 State Department, “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.” (The same was true in the Department’s prior report for 2011.)

The Cuban government’s respect for religious freedom improved in 2012.

There “were some advances in the ability of members of established churches to meet and worship.”  In  addition, religious groups reported “improved ability [in 2012] to attract new members without government interference. . . . reduced interference from the government in conducting their services, and improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events.” It also was easier for them “to bring in foreign religious workers and visitors and restore houses of worship.” (The same was true in 2011.)

Churches reported “increased participation in religious education for children.” The Catholic Church’s cultural center in Havana “continued to offer academic and business administration courses.”  The “Jewish Community Center and some Protestant churches also offered courses in lay subjects, such as computers and foreign languages.” Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs, weekend retreats and workshops for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.” (The same was true in 2011.)

“Religious groups reported they were able to engage in community service programs. 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.” (The same was true in 2011.)

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 providing one free meal per week to neighborhood residents, many of whom are not members of the church.

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.

Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Havana
Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Havana

Another clean-water system was installed by Westminster members in Havana’s Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Luyano (Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church), which shares the water with people in its neighborhood. A similar water system was installed last year in another church near Havana by Westminster members.

During the year the report says “the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship.” The Catholic Church’s periodicals “sometimes criticized 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, the Cuban “Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host a monthly twenty-minute-long radio broadcast.” In addition, state-run television and radio stations mentioned a Council of Churches ceremony celebrating Reformation Sunday. (Essentially the same was true in 2011.)

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.

Cuban Council of Churches
Cuban Council of Churches

The Council, whose Havana 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 State Department said Cuban religious leaders reported that 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. Many houses of worship were thus expanded or repaired.” (The same was true in 2011.) And 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, said the State Department, most unregistered organizations and “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government. (The same was true in 2011.)

Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported “they were able to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in most 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 same was true in 2011.)

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 same was true in 2011.)

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. (The same was true in 2011.)

Pope Benedict XVI @ Plaza de Revolucion
Pope Benedict XVI @      Plaza de Revolucion

In late March 2012 Pope Benedict XVI visited the island at the invitation of the Cuban government, which assisted in organizing papal masses in large public squares in the two largest cities. During the mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion before a crowd of thousands, the Pope called for “authentic freedom.” The government declared a three-day public holiday to facilitate citizen participation in these events, and videos of the visit were broadcast on state-run television stations with parallel coverage in the print media.

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

Although to my eye the Department’s report is overwhelmingly positive, it still opens with an unnecessary negative tone. It says, “in practice, [the Cuban] government policies and practices restricted religious freedom . . . . The Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, continued to control most aspects of religious life.”

The report also had specifics 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. It was not an attempt to restrict religious freedom. Moreover, as noted above, the State Department recognized that it was relatively easy in 2012 for Cuban religious groups to obtain government permission to repair and remodel existing buildings.)

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, as previously noted, the report said that unrecognized religious groups 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.”

(However, as previously noted, the report also says that the “house churches” operate without governmental interference.)

The report states that religious groups may not establish schools. This is true because the Cuban Revolution nationalized all private schools 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 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.
MLK Center, Havana
MLK Center, 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.

“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.)

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 the church prints and distributes religious bulletins and journals for most, if not all, of the Protestant churches on the island.)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.” (May be true.)

The government took “measures to limit support for outspoken religious figures that it considered a challenge to its authority.” I have no basis to challenge that statement or the specifics cited by the report on this point with respect to Pastor Omar Perez Ruiz (aka Omar Gude Perez), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches or the Ladies in White, or the death of Oswaldo Paya Sardinas in an auto crash. (Whatever the facts are in these cases, I believe they are issues of civil liberties for Cuban dissidents, not issues of religious freedom.)

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 Cuban Protestant leader and in my opinion, the glass of such freedom in Cuba is more than half full.

Therefore, there is no basis whatsoever  for the U.S. government or her citizens to castigate Cuban religious institutions or leaders or members. 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.


[1] Prior posts examined the State Department’s reports on Cuban religious freedom for 2010 and 2011.

Latest U.S. Reports on International Religious Freedom

Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world.[1] In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject for selected countries.[2]

It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].” [3] Instead the agencies reports rely upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[4]

The post will review the latest State Department report on this subject for all 194 other countries in the world and the Commission’s latest report on 29 countries plus one large region (Western Europe).[5]

Latest State Department Report

USDeptStateseal

After emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, the State Department’s May 20, 2013, report “tells stories of courage and conviction, but also recounts violence, restriction, and abuse. While many nations uphold, respect, and protect religious freedom, regrettably, in many other nations, governments do not protect this basic right; subject members of religious minorities to violence; actively restrict citizens’ religious freedom through oppressive laws and regulations; stand by while members of societal groups attack their fellow citizens out of religious hatred, and fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable for their actions.”

The report continues.”The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom. These causes include impunity for violations of religious freedom and an absence of the rule of law, or uneven enforcement of existing laws; introduction of laws restricting religious freedom; societal intolerance, including anti-Semitism and lack of respect for religious diversity; and perceptions that national security and stability are best maintained by placing restrictions on and abusing religious freedom.”

Highlighted for concern by the report were “[l]aws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive. Numerous governments imposed such undue and inappropriate restrictions on religious groups and abused their members, in some cases as part of formal government law and practice.” Another concern was the “use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.” They “continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”

The report documented “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world. Of great concern were expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media.”

According to the report, “Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Government policy that denies citizens the freedom to discuss, debate, practice, and pass on their faith as they see fit also undercuts society’s ability to counter and combat the biased and warped interpretations of religion that violent extremists propagate. Societal intolerance increased in many regions during 2012.”

Finally the report said, “Governments exacerbated religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric, fomenting violence, fostering a climate of impunity, and failing to ensure the rule of law. In several instances of communal attacks on members of religious minorities and their property, police reportedly arrested the victims of such attacks, and NGOs alleged that there were instances in which police protected the attackers rather than the victims. As a result, government officials were not the only ones to commit abuses with impunity. Impunity for actions committed by individuals and groups within society was often a corollary of government impunity.”

The report also acknowledged the Department’s statutory obligation to designate “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), i.e., those countries that are considered to commit “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the Act. The term ‘‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’’ means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as: (a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (d) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

Accordingly the report re-designated the following eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.[6]

Latest Commission Report

USCommRelFree

 

Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

In its latest report, issued on April 30, 2013, the following 15 countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan (all of which had been designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department the prior year) plus Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met.

The latest report designated the following eight countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.[7]

The latest report also discussed six other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey and Venezuela and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. At first glance the monitoring of Western Europe seems anomalous, but here are the topics of concern to the Commission:

  • Restrictions on religious dress (full-face veils) in France and Belgium.
  • Failure in Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Norway and Iceland to exempt religious slaughter of animals from laws requiring prior stunning of the animals.
  • Suggestions in Germany and Norway that religious circumcisions of male children were illegal.
  • Restrictions on construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, and the lack of an official mosque in Athens, Greece.
  • “Incitement to hatred” and other laws in almost all European states that can be used to restrict expression of religious beliefs.
  • Reluctance in many European states to provide accommodation of religious objections to generally applicable laws.
  • Measures in France, Austria, Belgium and Germany against religious groups perjoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.”
  • Societal intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief such as towards Muslim women with full-face veils, Jewish people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It should also be noted that the Commission sometimes takes an adversarial position vis-à-vis the U.S. State Department. For example, on April 30, 2013, when the Commission released its latest report, its simultaneous press release recommended that the Department designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” the seven additional countries the Commission had placed in Tier 1 as noted above.

When the Department failed to do so in its May 20th report, the next day the Commission issued a press release criticizing the Department for failure to make additional CPC designations since August 2011 and to do so for the same seven additional countries.

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will compare and contrast the two reports regarding that country.

Such a comparison, in my opinion, will show that the State Department’s reports are more balanced and fair at least with respect to Cuba.


[2]  Id. § § 202, 205. The fascinating structure and composition of the Commission will be the subject of a future post.

[3]  U.S. Const., First Amend.

[5] A prior post examined the prior State Department report.

[6] The State Department report noted that it considers the recommendations of the Commission on CPCs, but that the Secretary of State makes the final decision on that issue. The Department’s report thereby implicitly rejected the Commission’s recommendation for an additional seven countries to be so designated.

[7] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

Cuban Blogger Obtains Cuban Passport and Plans Trip to Latin America, North America and Europe

YoaniSanchez

From her home in Havana, Cuba, Yoani Sanchez has been courageously blogging her critical comments on many aspects of life in her country as noted in a prior post.

In January 2013, under Cuban’s new law granting Cubans increased ability to obtain passports, she received her Cuban passport. She was overjoyed by this development after she had been denied a passport 20 times over the last five years.

Upon receiving the great news that she would obtain a passport, she bravely said in her blog:

  • She intends to “continue ‘pushing the limits’ of reform, to experience first hand how far the willingness to change really goes. To transcend national frontiers I will make no concessions. If the Yoani Sánchez that I am cannot travel, I am not going to metamorphose myself into someone else to do it. Nor, once abroad, will I disguise my opinions so they will let me ‘leave again’ or to please certain ears, nor will I take refuge in silence about that for which they can refuse to let me return. I will say what I think of my country and of the absence of freedoms we Cubans suffer. No passport will function as a gag for me, no trip as bait.”
  • “These particulars clarified, I am preparing the itinerary for my stay outside of Cuba. I hope to be able to participate in numerous events that will help me grow professionally and civically, to answer questions, to clarify details of the smear campaigns that have been launched against me… and in my absence. I will visit those places that once invited me, when the will of a few wouldn’t let me come; I will navigate the Internet like one obsessed, and once again climb mountains I haven’t seen for nearly ten years. But what I am most passionate about is that I am going to meet many of you, my readers. I have the first symptoms of this anxiety; the butterflies in my stomach provoked by the proximity of the unknown, and the waking up in the middle of the night asking myself, what will you look like, sound like? And me? Will I be as you imagine me?”

On February 17th she plans a worldwide tour visiting Latin American (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico), North America (U.S. and Canada) and Europe (Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland and Germany).

I pray that there will not be any last minute move by the Cuban government to block her leaving the island. I look forward to her comments on Cuba during her visits to these countries.

Yoani, congratulations and God Speed on your journey!