The Cuban Revolution and Religion

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church since 2002 has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed church in Matanzas, Cuba,  a city of approximately 150,000 on the north shore of the island about  56 miles east of Havana.[1]

The existence of this partnership and my going on three Westminster mission trips to Cuba–November 2002, January 2004 and October/November 2007–have sparked an interest in learning more about Cuba and the history and politics of U.S.-Cuban relations. I already have shared some of the conclusions I have reached as a result of this personal involvement with Cuba and Cubans.[2] Now I would like to share some reflections on religious life in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

First, I give thanks to God and Jesus for the miracle of the survival of the Christian churches in Cuba. Over the 52 years of the Cuban Revolution, these churches indeed have been engaged in a struggle for survival.

Many of their fellow Christians, including pastors, starting in 1959, fled the island to escape the negative aspects of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban government expelled many foreign-born Roman Catholic priests who were seen as supporters of the pre-Revolution Batista regime and as opponents of the Revolution. The Cuban government since 1959 has controlled and severely restricted any construction of church property, which I see as a policy to control use of limited resources. The Cuban government in 1965-67 sent many Christians and others regarded as undesirable to forced labor camps in the Sierra Mastre Mountains at the eastern end of the island.

The Cuban government in 1961 closed and prohibited Christian schools and confiscated their property. This included the well-known Presbyterian Escuela la Progressiva in the city of Cardenas, now known as the home-town of Elian Gonzalez.

In the early 1960’s the Communist Party of Cuba banned Christians and other religious citizens from party membership, which was a requirement for many jobs controlled by the state. On my second visit to Cuba, I met a man who said he had been in seminary with the pastor of our partner church, but had left the church and only had returned after he had retired as a history teacher. (That ban lasted until 1991 or after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The Cuban government in 1976 amended the country’s constitution to make scientific materialism or atheism the official or established philosophy or religion. (That provision was deleted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992.)

The Cuban government still permits very limited church access to radio and TV. The Cuban government still controls and limits the publishing of religious materials. In fact, I believe, the only authorized such publisher on the island is our partner church. They print church bulletins and newsletters and other religious materials for most of the Protestant churches on the island.

The Cuban government plasters the island with billboards proclaiming the virtues of the Revolution and the sayings of Fidel, Che Guevara and Jose Marti, the 19th century Cuban poet and patriot. In contrast, the Cuban churches apparently are not permitted to have any billboards with competing messages of the good life.

Just compare our partner church with the next-door provincial headquarters of the Communist Party of Cuba. The church has virtually no identifying sign or message. The Party (CCP) has a bright red sign in its parking lot, and its building used to have a billboard with a Fidel quotation on top.

The Revolutionary socialist or communist philosophy and polices since 1959 have resulted in a leveling down of the society economically. Thus, there has been no prosperous middle class such as we have in the U.S., to provide financial and other support to the Cuban churches.

It, therefore, was not surprising for me to hear an active member of our partner Cuban church say that earlier she was not brave enough to be a Christian.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana

In 2007 we visited Havana’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center which is affiliated with the adjacent Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, Raul Suarez, said that in 1984 he learned that Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President that year, was coming to Cuba. Jackson said that Fidel Castro had invited him to discuss the status of 22 U.S. citizens then being held by the Cuban government. Jackson said that he also wanted an invitation from a Cuban church so that he could participate in a religious service in Cuba. Jackson asked Suarez, then Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Director of International Relations of the Cuban Baptist Church, if that would be possible. Jackson also gave Suarez a letter to provide to Castro on this issue. Castro responded that it would not be a problem even though atheism was the established “religion” in the Cuban constitution at the time.

Jackson made his trip to Cuba in June 1984 and gave a speech to 4,000 students at the University of Havana with Castro in attendance. Afterwards the two of them and their aides walked a few blocks to the nearby Methodist Church where Jackson would be preaching. As they neared the church, Suarez heard a Castro aide say to Fidel, “Take off your hat, you are close to a church.” Fidel took off his hat. Suarez was surprised by this comment and Fidel’s response. Suarez told Fidel that the people in the Plaza de Revolution (supporters of the Revolution) and the people in the church were one and welcomed Fidel to the church. Fidel said, do not ask me to preach.

There were 700 to 800 people in the church that day, including 35 church leaders and the Roman Catholic Archbishop (now Cardinal). When Castro entered the church, the choir extemporaneously cried, “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.” Castro did make a short speech from the pulpit with a cross behind him. (Another Cuban pastor who was present told me that Castro obviously felt uncomfortable with the Bible on the lectern and awkwardly put his hands behind his back.) Castro praised Dr. King and Jackson and said there was a need for more exchanges between the churches and the government.

Later that same day Suarez was invited to a dinner with Fidel and Jackson. This was the first time he had ever shaken Fidel’s hand, and Fidel asked him to come to the airport the next day to say goodbye to Jackson.

Soon thereafter Suarez asked for a meeting of religious leaders with Fidel and submitted to Fidel a document of concern about the official policy of atheism’s limiting the space for religion. This resulted in a four-hour meeting between Fidel and about 14 Protestant leaders and the College of the Roman Catholic Bishops. Fidel expressed surprise at the Protestant ecumenicism, saying that when he was a boy in Jesuit schools, Roman Catholics disparaged Protestants. At the end of the meeting Castro made a covenant with these leaders: the churches will made an effort to understand “us” while Fidel and the Cuban Communist Party will make an effort to understand the churches. This agreement, said Fidel, should be easier for the churches than for the party.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there have been signs of a more tolerant Cuban policy toward the churches, some of which have already been mentioned: elimination of scientific materialism as the established “religion” in Cuba and of the Communist Party’s ban on religious people becoming members of the Party.

Pope John Paul II & Fidel
Mass in Plaza de Revolucion

In addition, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998 and celebrated mass before a huge crowd in Plaza de Revolucion (the site of many Revolutionary celebrations and long speeches by Fidel). The next year Cuban Protestants had a similar gathering in that Plaza.

Recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his planned visit to Cuba in 2012, and the Cuban government said that it would release many political prisoner

Fidel & Patriarch @ Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Greek Orthodox Cathedral,Havana
Patriarch & Fidel mosaic @ Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Havana

In 2004, during my second visit to Cuba, Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church was in Havana for the dedication of the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral that was paid for by the Cuban government.

These developments, in my opinion, were real politik moves by the Cuban government to gain international allies to help combat el Gringos de Norte.

In short, Revolutionary Cuba has made life very difficult for churches and religious people, especially from 1959 through 1989. On the other hand, there were no assassinations or disappearances of priests or other religious people who were opposed to the regime like what happened in El Salvador.

Pursuant to statutory authorization the U.S. government and a quasi-independent U.S. commission have been releasing annual reports on religious freedom in the world that have been very critical of such freedom in Cuba. These reports will be discussed in a subsequent post.

This then is the historical context in which Westminster initiated its partnership with the church in Matanzas in 2002, a relationship that has grown and become more meaningful for the people of both churches. A future post will discuss our Cuban partnership.

[1] See Post: Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (April 6, 2011).

[2]  In the “Tag Cloud” at the top right of my blog, click on “Cuba” to look at the posts about Cuba.

U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba

On October 25, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly debated a resolution: “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” It passed, 186 to 2 with 3 abstentions. Only Israel joined the U.S. in opposition while three small  Pacific island nations – Palau, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia – abstained.[1]

During the debate, the Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that the sanctions have caused direct economic damages of close to $1 trillion to the Cuban people over nearly half a century. In response, the U.S. Senior Area Adviser for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ronald D. Godard, said the embargo is a bilateral issue and “not appropriately a concern of this assembly.” Godard added that the sanctions represent “just one aspect of U.S. policy toward Cuba, whose overarching goal is to encourage a more open environment in Cuba and increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Before this year’s vote the U.N. Secretary-General, pursuant to a provision of last year’s resolution on the subject, invited U.N. members and agencies to comment on the embargo for a report by the Secretary-General. [2] Of the 193 U.N. Members, 142 (of 73.6%) responded, all criticizing the embargo as did the 20 U.N. agencies that replied; the U.S. and Israel did not comment. [3] Here are some of the strongest statements on the subject:

  • Australia. “Since 1996, the Government of Australia has consistently supported General Assembly resolutions calling for an end to the trade embargo against Cuba. Australia has no trade or economic legislation or measures which restricts or discourages trade or investment to or from Cuba.”
  • Brazil. “The Brazilian Government has consistently opposed the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed against Cuba. Accordingly, Brazil has also continued to foster and pursue a growing economic relationship with Cuba. . . . The maintenance of the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba is inconsistent with the dynamic regional policy that has recently been marked by the return of Cuba to dialogue and cooperation forums of the Americas.”
  • China. “This [embargo] is not only a serious violation of the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of relevant United Nations resolutions, but also a source of immense economic and financial losses for Cuba. It is an impediment to efforts by the Cuban people to eradicate poverty, to promote their economic and social development and to attain the Millennium Development Goals, it impairs the Cuban people’s right to survival and development, and it adversely affects normal economic, commercial and financial relations between Cuba and other countries.”
  • European Union. “…the European Union and its member States have been clearly expressing their opposition to the extraterritorial extension of the United States embargo, such as that contained in the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.”
  • Holy See. “The Holy See has never drawn up or applied economic, commercial or financial laws or measures against Cuba.”
  • Japan. “Japan shares the concern, arising from the . . . (the Helms-Burton Act) and the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, that, if application of such legislation causes undue hardship in relation to the economic activities of the enterprises or nationals of a third party, the legislation is likely to run counter to international law regarding the extraterritorial application of domestic laws.”
  • Mexico. “Mexico emphasizes that [the embargo] has serious humanitarian consequences that are contrary to international law and, moreover, signify the abandonment of diplomacy and dialogue as the appropriate ways of settling disputes between States. . . . The Government of Mexico has also consistently opposed Cuba’s economic and political-diplomatic isolation. It has therefore firmly supported Cuba’s inclusion in all regional integration machinery in order to promote economic and commercial exchange, cooperation and development.”

This is the twentieth straight year the General Assembly overwhelmingly has adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo. In 2010, for example, a resolution that called upon the U.S. to repeal the embargo was approved by 187-2, again with only Israel joining the U.S. in opposition and the same three Pacific island nations abstaining.

Here are some of the reasons why the U.S. should end the embargo:

  1. The embargo undermines U.S. foreign policy interests. It undermines the empowerment of Cuban citizens, harming them economically and depriving them of choices that could emerge from greater U.S. engagement with Cuba. (Steve Clemons, Washington Editor-at-Large, The Atlantic and Senior Fellow & Founder, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation.)
  2. The embargo hurts U.S. national security interests . It prevents normal trade and travel between our two countries. It prevents cooperation with Cuba on common security issues such as crime and terrorism. It hurts U.S. standing throughout the world by highlighting our aggression against a neighboring country that poses no threat. (John Adams, Brigadier General US Army (Retired).)
  3. The Cuba embargo runs counter to our experiences with China and Viet Nam. Both countries have Communist systems, and we fought a war with Viet Nam. Yet we trade with both. (John R. Block, Secretary of Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan and officer with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC0.)
  4. The embargo isolates the U.S. government and cuts off contact between Cubans and Americans . The embargo isolates and weakens U.S. policy makers and U.S. policies at a time of increasing integration between Latin America and the Caribbean and the global south. U.S. citizens are denied ready access to highly praised Cuban achievements in the arts and culture, education, medical and technological advances, and deprived of sustained engagements with Cuban citizens and the Cuban government to share our national virtues. (James Early,Trustee, Institute for Policy Studies, and Director of Cultural Heritage Policy, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.)
  5. The embargo undermines the image of the United States throughout the world. The embargo is senseless and irredeemable. It is the act of a bully, based on pique. It is an abysmal moral and political failure, diminishing not Cuba but the U.S. in world opinion and respect. It has achieved the opposite of what it has sought, hurting both the Cuban people as well as U.S. interests. The embargo is opposed by virtually the entire world as well as large domestic majorities, even Cuban exiles and dissidents; yet, the U.S. government persists with its petty punitive policy, not out of reasoned principle but for internal political posturing. (Rubén G. Rumbaut, ENCASA/US-CUBA, University of California, Irvine.)
  6. The embargo imposes great suffering on Cubans . The embargo continues to inflict gratuitous and pointless suffering on the Cuban people. Children dying from cancer are denied access to potentially life-saving drugs, heart patients cannot get U.S. manufactured pace-makers, and Cuba’s cutting-edge biotechnology institutes that provide important drugs at an affordable price to the rest of the world are denied the U.S. substrates they need. (Peter Bourne, Chairman of the Board, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC).)
  7. The embargo hobbles our ability to protect the environment . Oil drilling in Cuban waters creates an unprecedented urgency to rethink U.S. policy toward Cuba. An oil spill in Cuba could be disastrous to shorelines, marine life, coastal communities and livelihoods in both countries. The U.S. should eliminate political and legal obstacles that hinder its ability to share expertise if an emergency occurs in shared waters. The Obama Administration has taken some positive steps to promote scientific exchange and dialogue on environmental protection with Cuba. Environmental diplomacy-done right and carried out in good faith-can lay a foundation for real and lasting improvement in Cuba-U.S. relations. (Daniel Whittle, Senior Attorney and Cuba Program Director, Environmental Defense Fund.)
  8. The embargo is not about principle; it’s about politics . The embargo is an international embarrassment to a country that continues to claim leadership in the realm of human rights. An unnecessary and sickening relic of the Cold War, the embargo has become a political football proving that elections – and electoral votes – mean more to American politicians than fairness, justice, the human needs of the Cuban people or the lives, health and education of Cuban children. (Mike Farrell, Actor and human rights advocate.)
  9. Ending the embargo would be doing the right thing. It is time for President Obama and Congress to do the right thing, cast off the failed embargo of Cuba, and embrace a policy of engagement that will provide economic opportunities for U.S. farmers and businesses as well the workers they employ. Doing the right thing will improve economic conditions in both the U.S. and Cuba and will also over time contribute to greater social stability in the Caribbean region. (Cal Dooley, President and CEO, American Chemistry Council.)
  10. 10.   Ending the embargo is long overdue . Lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba is long overdue. (Katrin Hansing, Associate Professor of Black and Hispanic Studies at Baruch College (CUNY).)

[1] Assoc. Press, UN Condemns US Embargo of Cuba–Again, N.Y. Times (Oct. 25, 2011); Latin America Working Group, UN Cuba Vote–Happy 20th Anniversary (Oct. 25, 2011); CubaCentral Newsblast (Oct. 21, 2011). See also Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011); Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies” (Sept. 24, 2011); Post: Roots for Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); Comment: Cuban Foreign Minister Attacks U.S. Policies (Sept. 28, 2011); Post: President Obama Is Wrong on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2011); Comment: Obama and Romney Out of Touch on Cuba Oct. 15, 2011); Post: U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners (Oct. 14, 2011); Comment: Cuban-Americans in Congress Criticize U.S. Willingness To Discuss Issues with Cuba (Oct. 15, 2011).

[2] U.N. Gen. Assembly Res. 65/6 (Nov. 23, 2010).

[3] Report of U.N. Secretary-General, Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba (Aug. 16, 2011).

U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners

One of the so-called Cuban Five recently completed his sentence in U.S. prison and is now on probation in the U.S. and not permitted by the court to return to Cuba.[1]

We now learn that the U.S. offered to allow this individual with dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship to return to Cuba in exchange for his renouncing his U.S. citizenship and Cuba’s release of imprisoned U.S. citizen, Alan Gross. Another part of the offer was U.S. stated willingness after the exchange of these two individuals  to discuss certain other issues between the two countries, including removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism;[2] reducing spending on Cuban democracy promotion programs like the one that led to the U.S.’ hiring of Gross; authorizing U.S. companies to help Cuba clean up oil spills from Cuba’s planned offshore drilling; improving postal exchanges; ending a program that makes it easier for Cuban medical personnel to move to the U.S.; and licensing the French company Pernod Ricard to sell Havana Club rum in the United States.[3]

This is a positive development.[4]

Cuba, however, rejected this offer on the ground that the Cuban now on probation had already served his prison sentence. Instead Cuba is reported to have counter-offered to release Gross in exchange for the U.S. pardoning some or all of the Cuban Five.[5]

This too is a positive development in keeping open the possibility of further negotiations between the two countries on the many accumulated issues burdening their relationship.

However, if the reports are correct that Cuba was seeking “pardons,” then it was asking for something that is not legally or politically possible. Federal pardons are theoretically available only to federal felons who have completed their sentences and are rarely granted as they involve collateral benefits under U.S. law. As the other four Cubans have not completed their sentences, they are not eligible for pardons. A commutation of sentence, on the other hand, reduces the period of incarceration; it does not imply forgiveness of the underlying offense, but simply remits a portion of the punishment. It has no effect upon the underlying conviction and does not necessarily reflect upon the fairness of the sentence originally imposed.The other four Cubans are eligible for clemency or commutations. [6]

I hope the U.S. and Cuba continue these preliminary discussions and reach an agreement on commuting the sentences of the Cuban Five and Alan Gross and allowing all of them to return to their home countries.

[1] See Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies” (Sept. 24, 2011); Post: Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); Comment: Cuban Foreign Minister Attacks U.S. Policies (Sept. 28, 2011)(Comment to prior Post); Post: President Obama Is Wrong on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2011).

[2]  See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”  (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”  (Aug. 21, 2011).

[3] Assoc. Press, AP Sources–US Offered Cuba Swap for American, N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2011).

[4] See Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011).

[5]  See n.3.

[6]  U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Pardon Attorney,

President Obama Is Wrong on Cuba

Yesterday President Obama said that the U.S. was prepared to change U.S. policies toward Cuba, including the U.S. embargo, if Cuba takes steps to open up to democracy and human rights and releases political prisoners.[1]

This U.S. position is wrong.[2]

First, the U.S. does not have any right to impose such pre-conditions on the mere willingness to begin discussions on addressing the many differences that have arisen between the two countries over the last half century. Moreover, in my opinion, it is contrary to the U.S. national interest to do so.

Second, the minor premise of this U.S. position is erroneous. Cuba in fact already is taking steps to  make these changes.

Cuba, pursuant to an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church, has released many political prisoners over the last couple of years. Cuba also is taking steps to open up its economy to more private enterprise. These changes are not happening as fast as many people hope for, but as President Obama has discovered, change is not easy, it takes a lot of work.

Third, Cuba recently reiterated its desire and interest in having normal relations with the U.S. and mentioned specific problems on which the two countries should be able to work together fairly quickly. All the U.S. needs to do is to reciprocate with a stated willingness to start the necessary negotiations.[3]

I have been, and continue to be, a strong supporter of President Obama. But his recent statements about our relations with Cuba are wrong. The U.S. needs to change its policies and approach toward Cuba.

[1] Reuters, Cuba Must Reform Before U.S. Eases Stance: Obama, N. Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2011); White House Blog, What you Missed: President Obama’s Open for Questions Roundtable (Sept. 28, 2011),

[2] See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011); Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies”

(Sept. 24, 2011).

[3] Associated Press, Cuba Seeks Normalization With US, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011); Archibold, Cuban Minister Leaves a Door Open to American’s Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011); Post: Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011).


Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations

Desires for normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba often seem hopeless.[1]

Today’s news offers two new reasons for hope for such a day.

Roots of Hope or Raices de Esperanza is a Miami-based non-profit network of more than 3,000 students and young professionals across the U.S. and abroad focused on empowering Cuban youth. They seek to inspire young people to care about Cuba, think outside the box and proactively support our young counterparts on the island through innovative means. They hope to make a positive impact on Cuba through academic and cultural initiatives guided by three basic principles: amor, amistad y esperanza (love, friendship and hope).[2]

The group’s current projects are (a) to provide young people in Cuba with refurbished cellular phones; (b) to publish the Ex(CHANGE) Guide that outlines different ways young people outside of Cuba can connect with young people on the island; and (c) to host an annual national youth leadership conference of diverse Cuban, Cuban-American and Cuba-loving young leaders.[3]

The other news providing hope were remarks yesterday in New York City by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, to the U.N. General Assembly and to the editors and reporters of the New York Times.[4]

Rodriguez reiterated his government’s willingness and interest in moving towards normalization of relations with the U.S. One way to make progress on this overall goal was to focus on problems where, he thought, both countries had an interest in negotiating cooperation agreements. These included drug-trafficking, terrorism, human smuggling, preventing and responding to natural disasters and protecting the environment.[5]

The Foreign Minister said the U.S.’ continued imprisonment of five Cubans (known as “The Cuban Five” in the U.S. and “The Miami Five” in Cuba) was “inhumane” and called for the U.S. to release them and allow them to return to Cuba.[6]

Cuba’s imprisonment of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, the Foreign Minister said, was not linked to The Cuban Five, but he hinted otherwise. He said, “I do not see any way in which we can move on towards a solution of the Mr. Gross case but from a humanitarian point of view and on the basis of reciprocity.”[7]

The time is ripe, President Obama. Commute the sentences of the Cuban Five and allow them to return to their homes on the island. Cuba has virtually committed to respond with its release of Alan Gross.

[1] See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011); Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies”

(Sept, 24, 2011).

[2] Associated Press, Nonprofit Plants Seed for Future US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011); Roots of Hope/Raices de Esperanza,

[3] Id.

[4]  Associated Press, Cuba Seeks Normalization With US, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011); Archibold, Cuban Minister Leaves a Door Open to American’s Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.; Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies” (Sept, 24, 2011).

[7] See n.4.

Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies”

The U.S. has been involved in three disputes over individuals convicted and imprisoned for alleged spying.

Shane Bauer & Joshua Fattal
Alan Gross

One dispute has been with Iran over its conviction and imprisonment of two American hikers (Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal) for alleged spying. This week Iran unilaterally released the two men, a decision prompted, in part, by its desire to improve its international image at the start of the U.N. General Assembly meeting.[1]

The second dispute is with Cuba over its conviction and imprisonment of an American, Alan Gross, who apparently brought some electronic equipment to Cuba for Jewish people on the island. Former Governor Bill Richardson recently was unsuccessful in his trip to Cuba to gain Gross’ release. Late this week, however, there were hints that Cuba might release him for humanitarian reasons. Cuba should follow the lead of Iran and commute the sentence to time served and release him to return to his family in the U.S.[2]

The last dispute is also with Cuba over the U.S. conviction and imprisonment of five Cubans for their efforts to gain information in the U.S. over Cuban exile groups’ flights to and over Cuba. The so called “Cuban Five” were arrested in September 1998 and subsequently convicted of various crimes. They have been in U.S. jails and prisons for the last 13 years. Yet during this long period the U.S. cruelly has granted very few visas to the Cuban spouses of four of them to visit them in U.S. prisons. One of the “Cuban Five” will complete his sentence this October, and the trial judge recently imposed three years of supervised release in the U.S. only, thereby rejecting his plea to be able to return to his family in Cuba. The U.S. should act in a humanitarian manner and commute the sentences of all five to time served and allow them to return to their families in Cuba.[3]


In Cuba the five are known as the “Miami Five” and are regarded as Cuban heroes for helping to protect Cuba from terroristic attacks by Cuban exile groups in the U.S. You see posters with their photographs or portraits all over the island. Cuba has mounted an international “Free the Cuban Five” campaign.


The time is way past due for the U.S. to have normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba.[4]

[1] E.g., Goodman & Cowell, American Hikers Leave Iran After Prison Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 21, 2011).

[2] E.g., Archibold, Cuban Minister Leaves a Door Open to American’s Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 23, 2011).

[3]  E.g., Assoc. Press, Spy Wants Return to Cuba After Prison, U.S. Objects, N.Y. Times (Sept. 12, 2011); Cave, Americans and Cubans Still Mired in Distrust, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2011); Cuban Embassy in Netherlands, Denied by Judge Lenard, Rene’s motion on his return to Cuba (Sept. 16, 2011),

[4] See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011); Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011).

U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”


The U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” already has been shown to be ridiculous.[1]

Now the U.S. has done it again in the State Department’s recently released Country Reports on Terrorism 2010.[2] The following is the complete text of the U.S. “rationale” for so designating Cuba:

  • “Overview: Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982, the Government of Cuba maintained a public stance against terrorism and terrorist financing in 2010, but there was no evidence that it had severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and recent media reports indicate some current and former members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba. Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support. In March, the Cuban government allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members.
  • Cuba continued to denounce U.S. counterterrorism efforts throughout the world, portraying them as a pretext to extend U.S. influence and power.
  • Cuba has been used as a transit point by third-country nationals looking to enter illegally into the United State. The Government of Cuba is aware of the border integrity and transnational security concerns posed by such transit and investigated third country migrant smuggling and related criminal activities. In November, the government allowed representatives of the Transportation Security Administration to conduct a series of airport security visits throughout the island.
  • Legislation and Law Enforcement: Cuba did not pass new counterterrorism legislation in 2010. The Cuban government continued to aggressively pursue persons suspected of terrorist acts in Cuba. In July, Venezuela extradited Salvadoran national Francisco Antonio Chavez Abarca to Cuba for his alleged role in a number of hotel and tourist location bombings in the mid to late 1990s. In December, a Cuban court convicted Chavez Abarca on terrorism charges and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. Also in December, the Cuban Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of two Salvadorans, René Cruz León and Otto René Rodríguez Llerena, who had been convicted of terrorism, and sentenced them both to 30 years.
  • Regional and International Cooperation: Cuba did not sponsor counterterrorism initiatives or participate in regional or global operations against terrorists in 2010.”

One of the implicit factual predicates for the most recent designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is true: FARC and ETA have been designated “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” by the State Department, and such designations presumably are well founded. But what has Cuba done with respect to these two organizations? This report itself indicates that Cuba has done practically nothing with or for the FARC or ETA. The report states, “the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members” and “there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support.” (Emphasis added.) In addition, the report says, “the Cuban government allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members.”

The most recent report states “some current and former members of . . . (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba.” But the report does not say how many. Nor does it state the particulars of their residence in Cuba. Moreover, in last year’s report, the State Department conceded that some of these FARC and ETA members were in Cuba to participate in peace negotiations with the governments of Columbia and Spain.

Other qualifications to this basis for the “state sponsor of terrorism” designation were made in a prior  State Department  annual antiterrorism report, which said that “on July 6, 2008, former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding [in Colombia] without preconditions.”  Fidel “also had condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians [in Colombia] who had no role in the armed conflict.”[3]

Furthermore, former President Jimmy Carter while visiting Cuba in March 2011 had a meeting with the Spanish and Colombian Ambassadors to Cuba. The two Ambassadors said “they were not concerned about the presence of members of FARC, ETA, and ELN [another Colombian rebel group] in Cuba. Indeed, they maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with these groups. In fact, ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government.”[4]

The second basis for the most recent designation is “Cuba continued to denounce U.S. counterterrorism efforts throughout the world, portraying them as a pretext to extend U.S. influence and power.” From my following Cuba news over the last year, this is a fair assessment, in my opinion, of the Cuban government’s public statements about U.S. foreign policy. But Cuba is a sovereign nation. It has a right to express its views of U.S. policies and actions. This does not amount to Cuba or any other country’s  being a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The third basis for the most recent designation is Cuba’s allegedly being “used as a transit point by third-country nationals looking to enter illegally into the United States.” I do not know if this is true, but even if it is, Cuba is hardly unique in the Western Hemisphere for this phenomenon. And the U.S. report admits that this last year Cuba “allowed representatives of the [TSA] . . .  to conduct a series of airport security visits throughout the island.”

The fourth basis for the most recent designation is Cuba’s not adopting new counterterrorism legislation in 2010 and not sponsoring counterterrorism initiatives or participating in regional or global operations against terrorists in 2010. Again, I do not know if this is true, but even if it is, it does not justify the designation. Moreover, the report undermines this purported basis for the designation with its admission that the “Cuban government continued to aggressively pursue persons suspected of terrorist acts in Cuba.”

In short, the U.S. has no legitimate basis for designating Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”[5]

[1] See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011).

[2] U.S. Dep’t of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2010 (Aug. 19, 2011),; DeYoung, Terorrism report arrives with a whimper, Wash. Post (Aug. 19, 2011). The Cuban government immediately denounced this report, saying Cuba had an “unblemished” record of fighting terrorism. (Assoc. Press, Cuba Rejects Continued Inclusion on US Terror List, N.Y. Times (Aug. 20, 2011).)

[3]  U.S. Dep’t of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, ch. 3 (April 30, 2009),

[4]  The Carter Center, Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Cuba, March 28-30, 2011 (April 1, 2011),

[5]  Last year the Council on Foreign Relations basically came to the same conclusion. (Council on Foreign Relations, State Sponsors: Cuba (March 23, 2010), July the U.S. Congressional Research Service reviewed the arguments, pro and con, for the designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” It did not come to a conclusion as to whether the designation was justified, but it does not rebut my analysis. (See Congressional Research Service, Cuba: Issues for the 112th Congress (July 15, 2011),