U.S.’ Secret Cuban Social Media Program Raises Questions about the Validity of Criticisms of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

On April 3, 2014, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) had been providing financial support from 2008 through 2012 for “a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.” This “messaging network . . . [was designed to] reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.” “To hide the network from the Cuban government, [there was a] byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and . . . [recruitment of] unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.”

According to the AP, after an initial period of creating non-political messages for this social media program, the U.S. planed to “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In short, the social media program aimed to promote regime change in Cuba.

U.S. Government’s Responses to the AP Report

The U.S. Government responded to the AP article the same day by essentially confirming the existence of the social media program while playing word games over whether it was a covert operation and saying it was not aimed at changing the Cuba regime.

At an April 3rd press briefing, President Obama’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, implicitly admitted the existence of this secret program while claiming it was not covert and was pursuant to congressionally authorized funding. He said, “suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. . . . In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course the government has taken steps to be discreet.”

An USAID spokesman the same day said essentially the same thing. “Of course, [in] the implementation, . . the [U.S.]government [has] taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments . . . .  That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”

USAID also issued an April 3rd statement that did not deny the AP’s report. Instead, the agency said, “It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people.  All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls.”

USAID added, “It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground.” This was a backhanded way of admitting that the U.S. government’s involvement in this Cuban social media program was intentionally kept secret.

The U.S. State Department’s April 3rd briefing parroted these remarks. The spokesperson said, “there was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert.” She added, the funding was notified to Congress in a 2008 congressional notification titled “Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society” for the amount of $6,850,000 for a number of programs, including this one.” Moreover, the spokesperson alleged the U.S. was not “ somehow trying to foment unrest . . . [or] to advance a specific political agenda or point of view.” However, Senator Patrick Leahy has said he was not briefed on the program.

Yes, the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated and last year issued a “clean bill of health” report on the U.S. “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs, without mentioning the social media program. This report said that USAID and “Department of State .  . . provide democracy assistance for Cuba aimed at developing civil society and promoting freedom of information. Typical program beneficiaries include Cuban community leaders, independent journalists, women, youths, and marginalized groups.”[1]

Other U.S. Government Programs Directed at Cuba

The recent Cuban social media project must be seen in light of at least three other U.S. programs directed at and against Cuba.

First is the George W. Bush Administration’s creation in 2003 of the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It was directed it to report with recommendations for a comprehensive program to (i) “Bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the [Cuban] dictatorship;” (ii) “Establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law [in Cuba];” (iii) “Create the core institutions of a free economy [in Cuba];” (iv) “Modernize [Cuban] infrastructure;” and (v) “Meet [Cuban] basic needs in the areas of health, education, housing and human services.”

This Commission issued a report in May 2004 that stated “Religious organizations, including Catholic and certain authentically independent Protestant denominations, represent the fastest growing and potentially fastest growing alterative to the Cuban state in providing basic services and information to the Cuban people.” (P. 20; emphasis added.)

The rest of this report makes clear that the Commission believed that only evangelical Christian groups were authentically independent and should be used by the U.S. to build a free Cuba. According to this report, they had “the trust of the people and the means to organize through an existing social network of communications and distribution channels at all levels of society.”[i]

The report also called for the U.S. to avoid trying to use the Cuban Council of Churches, which the U.S. Commission believed had been “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches.” (P. 64.) However, most of the clergy and laity of churches that belong to the Council, the Commission asserted, were “not sympathasizers of Castro and the communists and therefore should not be denied assistance or a role in Cuban religious affairs due to ‘guilt by association.” (P. 64)

The second other U.S. program directed against Cuba was the George W. Bush Administration’s 2005 creation of the position of Cuba Transition Coordinator in the State Department to implement the recommendations of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Or in the words of then-Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, the position’s purpose was to “accelerate the demise of Castro’s tyranny.” In more practical terms, this position was charged with allocating millions of dollars in U.S. funding to Cuban dissidents and their U.S. supporters.

The third other program directed against Cuba is Radio y Televisión Martí, a radio and television broadcaster based in Miami, Florida that is financed by the U.S. Government (Broadcasting Board of Governors) and that transmits pro-democracy newscasts to Cuba.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Reports on Cuba

Another U.S. commission—the Commission on International Religious Freedom– in its annual reports consistently has been very critical of that freedom in Cuba.

This Commission has placed Cuba in its “Watch List,” now called its “Tier 2” list of countries “where religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments are increasing” or is “on the threshold of . . . [‘Countries of Particular Concern’] status—because the  “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe and that at least one, but not all three, of the elements of [the governing statute’s] ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard is met (e.g., the violations are egregious but not systematic or ongoing).”

The Commission apparently based its very negative appraisal of Cuba in its most recent  report for 2012 (issued in 2013) on the following grounds with respect to the Cuban government:

  •  alleged arrests and mistreatment of evangelical pastors, especially Pentacostal pastor Reutilio Columbie;
  • alleged arrests of human rights/democracy activists, including the Ladies in White, which prevented them for attending mass; and
  • alleged harassment of Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement and the Western Baptist Convention by allegedly making “short-term arrests of [their] leaders, confiscation, destruction or threats of destruction of church property; harassment and surveillance of church members and their relatives; fines of churches; and threats of losses of job, housing or educational opportunities….”

This Blog’s Prior Critiques of the Commission’s Assessment of Cuba

This blog has criticized the Commission’s reports on Cuban religious freedom for 2010, 2011 and 2012.

First, as the Commission reports themselves proclaim, there have been “improvements” or “[p]ostive developments” for the religious freedom of most of the religious organizations on the island. The most recent report states:

  • “Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. 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 in 2012. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations.”
  • “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve. March 2012 marked the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba’s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Cuba March 26-29 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he met Fidel Castro and Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue toured the island drawing large crowds. Prior to the Pope’s visit, 13 individuals occupied the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana seeking an audience with His Holiness. The government removed, but did not charge, the individuals at the request of the Church.”

Second, the Commission’s statements about positive developments cover, I submit, most of the religious organizations and believers in Cuba, whereas the organizations cited by the Commission for its harsh judgments are the distinct minority. That, of course, does not excuse the Cuban government from committing any of the alleged acts regarding these organizations and believers, if that in fact is the case.

Third, the Commission’s complaint about the treatment of “human rights/democracy activists,” if they are substantiated by evidence, are really complaints about violations of human rights other than religious freedom. Therefore, they do not really belong in the limited scope of the Commission’s mandate.

Fourth, the Commission apparently is unable to put itself in the shoes of the Cuban government, which for many years has had to contend with the super power of the North, which has consistently taken hostile actions against the island, including those of the “Cuba Democracy Assistance” program. The wise words of Matthew 7: 5 come to mind: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Conclusion

This blogger concludes that the revelation yesterday of the U.S. secret social media program for Cuba as part of the U.S.’ so called “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs should raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions on Cuban religious freedom coming from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Specifically, there should be an independent investigation of whether Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement, its Western Baptist Convention and pastor Reutilio Columbie have received or are receiving any funding or other support from the U.S. Government, including USAID, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Commission on International Religious Freedom itself. I hope that this is not the case.

More generally, such an investigation should determine whether the harshly negative views of the Commission on International Religious Freedom are being driven by the philosophy and objectives of the Cuba Assistance Programs. Again I hope this is not the case.

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[1] The Cuban government also reacted to the AP article by saying in Granma it “confirms the repeated complaints of the Cuban government. It shows once again that the U.S. government has not given up its subversive plans against Cuba, which aim to create situations of destabilization in the country to bring about change in our political system and which continues to devote multimillion dollar budgets each year. The U.S. government must respect international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and, therefore, cease its illegal and covert actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and the international public opinion.”

 

 

 

 

U.S. Policy Implications of State Department’s Report on Cuban Human Rights

A prior post reviewed the U.S. State Department’s just-released 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices while another post discussed its chapter on Cuba. Now we look at the implications of that report for U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

Some people assert that the negative aspects of Cuban human rights justify continuing U.S. hostility toward the island. They see the Cuban glass of human rights at least half empty. Notable among them is U.S. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, a Cuban-American and a Republican Congressman from Miami, who remains a stalwart powerful defender of the embargo and other anti-Cuba policies of the U.S.

Others, including this blogger, reach the opposite conclusion based, in part, on the belief that the Cuban glass of human rights is half full.

Rev. Raul Suarez
Rev. Raul Suarez

As Rev. Raúl Suárez put it at the February 27th briefing for the U.S. Congress, “Cuba has many problems but Cuba isn’t hell . . . . We have many good things that have been achieved [but] . . . Cuba is not the Kingdom of God.” Suárez added, “God . . . wants us [Cubans and Americans] to live like brothers and sisters.”[1]

Indeed, the humility expressed by Rev. Suárez should lead the U.S. to the same conclusion. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last month on release of the Human Rights Reports, “from our own nation’s journey, we know that [human rights] is a work in progress. Slavery was written into our Constitution before it was written out. And we know that the struggle for equal rights, for women, for others – for LGBT community and others – is an ongoing struggle.” Secretary Kerry admitted that we  “know that we’re not perfect. We don’t speak with any arrogance whatsoever, but with a concern for the human condition.”

In evaluating Cuba’s mixed human rights record and deciding on U.S. policies regarding that country, that same humility should cause we in the U.S. to remember the U.S. immense superiority in economies and military might and the long-standing U.S. actions of hostility towards Cuba, including the following:

  • the U.S. usurpation of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain in the late 19th Century (what we in the U.S. call the “Spanish-American War“);
  • the U.S.’ making Cuba a de facto U.S. protectorate in the early 20th Century;
  • the U.S. support for the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961;
  • the U.S. threats of military action against Cuba during the pressured Cuban missile crisis of 1962;
  • the CIA’s hatching several plots to assassinate Fidel Castro when he was Cuba’s President;
  • the U.S. conduct of an embargo of Cuba over the last 50-plus years; and
  •  the U.S. Government’s Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba setting forth what amounted to a U.S. blueprint for taking over Cuba.

This history provides Cuba with many legitimate reasons to be afraid of the U.S. It, therefore, is understandable why Cuba has harshly treated what we call “dissidents” and what Cuba fears are or could be supporters of a U.S. takeover.

And we in the U.S. should know from our own history since 9/11 that societies and governments tend to clamp down on civil liberties when they fear outside interference or attacks.

Cuba’s regrettable lapses on human rights, though perhaps understandable in context, should not be a reason for continued U.S. hostility toward the island.

Therefore, as a prior post argued, improving Cuban human rights should be one of many items on an agenda for a comprehensive, mutually respectful negotiation between the two countries. The objectives of such a negotiation, in my opinion, should be restoration of full diplomatic relations; ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba;[2] terminating the unjustified U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism;” [3] terminating the one-sided U.S. lease of Guantanamo Bay; and compensating owners for expropriation of property on the island as part of the Cuban Revolution.[4]

Such a negotiation, in my opinion, is in the interest of the U.S. Cuba poses no threat to the U.S. Our businesses and farmers would benefit economically from open relations with Cuba. Normalizing our relations with the island would be seen by most people in the world, especially Latin America, as a sign that the U.S. is a mature, rational country.

These thoughts were echoed by the Cuban religious leaders who held a U.S. congressional briefing on February 27th. Joined by the President and CEO of Church World Service, [5] they reaffirmed their long-held opposition to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

They also called “for the U.S. government to end the ban that prevents U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba and seeing the island for themselves; to take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism . . . ; and for the American government to open up trade and commerce in ways that support the small enterprises, cooperatives, and non-profits that are emerging on the island. Finally, the U.S. and Cuban governments ought to open a high level dialogue between our countries to normalize relations and discuss differences in ways that honor and respect the dignity of both nations.”

Before the commencement of such complicated negotiations, the U.S. President should commute the sentences of three of the Cuban Five to the 15-plus years they already have spent in U.S. jails and prisons and let them return to their home country. Similarly Cuba should commute the sentence of U.S. citizen Alan Gross to the time he already has spent in Cuban prison and allow him to return to the U.S.

Given the long period of hostility between the two countries and the apparent lack of movement toward negotiations, I believe that the assistance of a neutral third-party mediator would be helpful to both countries. Such a mediator, in my opinion, should be someone who is bilingual in English and Spanish with experience as an international mediator, who is in fact and perceived to be neutral and who has the time (and staff?) to make a major commitment to this process.

Such a mediator indeed could and should step forward and invite representatives of both countries to participate in mediated negotiations, rather than wait on them to agree on such a process.

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[1] Suárez is a Baptist pastor and the founder and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Havana. When I visited the Center in 2007, Rev. Suárez told our group that he had founded the Center because he thought King’s philosophy of non-violence and social justice was relevant to Cuba, especially to Afro-Cubans. He also said that in 1984 he and other religious leaders met with then President Fidel Castro to protest the government’s endorsement of atheism (or scientific materialism) as limiting the space for churches, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba abandoned that endorsement and provided more space for churches to participate in issues facing the island.

[2] Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also call for ending the U.S. embargo. So too does world opinion as evidenced by the U.N. General Assembly’s passing resolutions condemning the embargo for the last 22 years. The last such resolution in October 2013 was passed 188 to 2 with only the U.S. and Israel voting against it.  A prior post to this blog also has argued for ending the embargo and summarized the 2011 General Assembly resolution against the embargo.

[3] This blog has reviewed the State Department’s asserted rationale for the “State Sponsor of Terrorism” designation and called it ridiculous for 2010, 2011 and 2012 and absurd for 2013. This blog also noted Cuba’s adoption of legislation against money laundering and terrorism financing and thereby negating one of the purported reasons for the designation.

[4] In a letter to President Obama that was reproduced in this blog, I called for the U.S. to terminate the Guantanamo Bay lease and for Cuba to compensate property owners for expropriating their property. A comprehensive review of this lease is found in Michael J. Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay.

[5] Church World Service was founded in 1946 with this mission: “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, shelter the homeless.” It now has 37 Protestant member communions all over the world.

Other Details about Congressional Briefing by Cuban Religious Leaders

As noted in the prior post, on February 27th six Cuban Protestant Christian leaders briefed the U.S. Congress on the status of Cuban religious freedom.

Additional details about that briefing have been provided by one of these six leaders, Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, who is a Presbyterian minister and President of the Cuban Council of Churches.

In an article co-authored by Rev. John L. McCullough, who is a United Methodist minister in the U.S. and the President and CEO of Church World Service, they reported in the briefing “there is a thriving, growing faith community in Cuba.” In fact, there is “a wide range of churches active in the country, and religious membership and participation has been growing for twenty years. The Cuban Council of Churches has 54 member organizations. Church World Service and many of its 37 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member communities work closely with churches in Cuba and with the ecumenical Cuban Council of Churches.”

These churches, their Council and their international religious colleagues work together in “providing humanitarian aid in times of disasters and . . . accompanying and supporting the Cuban churches as they have gained more space to minister and offer social services over the past twenty years.”

They also noted that “[r]eal change is going on in Cuba today, including within the Cuban economy, that will reduce the size of the state workforce and expand private enterprise and cooperatives. Efforts are being made to preserve the gains in health care and education that Cubans are proud of. Change presents both challenges and opportunities for the Cuban people and the churches, but together we [in the Cuban churches] are committed to helping this process advance.”

“As church leaders and citizens of our respective countries, we have learned to work well together, and we have learned from each other in the process. We urge our governments to do the same.”

 

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights

U.S. Flag
U.S. Flag

The U.S. State Department’s just-released 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ chapter on Cuba needs analysis.[1]

The Report’s Negative Comments about Cuban Human Rights

The Executive Summary of its chapter on Cuba has a strongly negative tone. It states the following:

  • “Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Raul Castro, who is president of the council of state and council of ministers, Communist Party (CP) first secretary, and commander in chief of security forces. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and ‘the superior leading force of society and of the state.’ A CP candidacy commission preapproved all candidates for the February uncontested National Assembly elections, which were neither free nor fair. The national leadership that included members of the military maintained effective control over the security forces, which committed human rights abuses against civil rights activists and other citizens alike.
  • In January the government largely dropped travel restrictions that prevented citizens from leaving the island, but these reforms were not universally applied, and authorities denied passport requests for certain opposition figures or harassed them upon their return to the country.
  • The principal human rights abuses were abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.
  • The following additional abuses continued: harsh prison conditions, arbitrary arrest, selective prosecution, and denial of fair trial. [2] Authorities interfered with privacy, engaging in pervasive monitoring of private communications. The government did not respect freedom of speech and press, severely restricted internet access and maintained a monopoly on media outlets, circumscribed academic freedom, and maintained significant restrictions on the ability of religious groups to meet and worship. The government refused to recognize independent human rights groups or permit them to function legally. In addition, the government continued to prevent workers from forming independent unions and otherwise exercising their labor rights.
  • Most human rights abuses were official acts committed at the direction of the government. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.”

The Report’s Positive Comments about Cuban Human Rights

This Executive Summary paints a bleak picture of Cuban human rights, and I have no doubt that many of these points are legitimate. But I still believe that it overstates the negatives.

Indeed, the Executive Summary failed to acknowledge that the Report itself stated there were “no reports that the [Cuban] government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings . . . [or] politically motivated disappearances.”

In addition, the Report itself stated in Cuba that there was “no societal pattern of child abuse;” that the government operated family counseling centers; that the government “continued to carry out media campaigns” against domestic violence; that the government “actively promoted racial integration and inclusiveness;” that a government resolution “accords persons with disabilities the right to equal employment opportunities and equal pay for equal work;” and that there was no “discrimination officially reported or permitted based on sexual orientation” accentuated by President Castro’s daughter’s promotion of LGBT rights.

With respect to Cuba’s prisoners and pretrial detainees, the Report conceded that they “had access to visitors;” that many “were able to communicate information about their living conditions through telephone calls to human rights observers and reports to family members;” that they “could practice limited religious observance;” and that “the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported access to prisoners during the year, with services offered in prisons and detention centers in most if not all provinces.”

On Cuban religious freedom more generally, the Report merely incorporated by reference the section on Cuba in the Department’s most recent International Religious Freedom Report that this blog previously criticized as understating the extent of religious freedom on the island.[3]

Moreover, the new overall Human Rights Report admits that “religious groups reported greater latitude to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings than in the past;” that “[r]eligious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and even the country’s leadership without reprisals;” that the “Catholic Church operated a cultural center in Havana that hosted debates featuring participants voicing different opinions about the country’s future, at which well-known dissidents were allowed to participate;” and that the “Catholic Church published two periodicals that sometimes included criticism of official social and economic policies . . . [and] a pastoral letter advocating for political and economic reforms and greater rights for citizens.”

The new overall Report also says that the “Catholic Church received permission to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run television stations . . . [while] the Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host a monthly 20-minute radio broadcast;” that religious “groups reported the ability to gather in large numbers without registering or facing sanctions;” and that “[r]ecognized churches, [and] the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas . . . were . . . legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state, the [Communist Party], and government-organized organizations.” In addition, there were “no reports of anti-Semitic acts.”

Finally the Report concedes that the Cuban constitution and other laws prohibit abusive treatment of detainees and prisoners and provide alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders and juveniles as well as rights to seek redress for improper prison conditions and treatment. Cuban law, the Report said, also specifies reasonable procedures for investigations and prosecutions of alleged crimes.

Conclusion

Cuba’s regrettable lapses on human rights, though perhaps understandable in context, should not be a reason for continued U.S. hostility toward the island. A subsequent post will examine what this blogger sees as the implications of this report for U.S. policies regarding Cuba.


[1] A prior post reviewed the Department’s overall summary of global human rights in 2013.

[2] The most recent annual report (May 2013) from Amnesty International makes similar allegations about Cuba as did Human Rights Watch’s April 2013 submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council regarding its Universal Periodic Review of Cuba.

[3] This blog criticized the prior reports on Cuban religious freedom by the State Department and by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In addition, another post reviewed positive comments on religious freedom from religious leaders with direct experience on the island. Similar points were made on February 27th, 2014, by six Cuban Protestant Christian leaders at a congressional briefing hosted by U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Republican of Arizona) and Representative Jim McGovern (Democrat of Massachusetts). In response, a strong supporter of current U.S. policies regarding Cuba launched an unwarranted ad hominem attack on these leaders.

 

U.S. State Department’s Latest Human Rights Report

StateDeptlogo

On February 27, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (commonly known as the Human Rights Reports) to the U.S. Congress. Now in their 38th year, the reports are mandated by Congress to inform U.S. government policy and foreign assistance and to provide reference material for other governments, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, legal professionals, scholars, interested citizens, and journalists.[1]

According to the Department, the following were among the most noteworthy human rights developments in 2013.

Increased Crackdown on Civil Society and the Freedoms of Association and Assembly

“Governments in every region of the world continued to stifle civil society and restrict citizens’ universal right to freedoms of assembly and association. Authorities increasingly used legislation to silence political dissidence and used excessive force to crack down on civil society and protest.”

Restrictions on Freedom of Speech and Press Freedom

“Governments around the world also continued to restrict freedom of expression and press freedom as a means of tightly controlling or eliminating political criticism and opposition. This included hampering the ability of journalists to report on issues deemed politically sensitive by placing onerous restrictions on members of the press, such as requiring government approval prior to meeting with international organizations or representatives, and limiting visas for foreign journalists. Governments also used harassment and physical intimidation of journalists to create a climate of fear and self-censorship, both online and offline. Authorities further censored the media by closing independent newspaper outlets and television stations. Officials detained or arrested activists and journalists on false charges in order to limit criticism of the government and impede peaceful protest, and some have even been killed for simply voicing dissent.”

Accountability Deficits for Security Forces Abuses

“In too many places, government security forces abused human rights with impunity and failed to protect their citizens. Military and security forces in numerous countries engaged in unlawful arrests and extrajudicial killings, gender-based violence, rape, torture, and abductions . . . . Weak or nonexistent justice institutions did not hold security forces accountable for human rights abuses and often failed to uphold the rights to due process and a fair trial.”

Lack of Effective Labor Rights Protections

“People continued to work in conditions that were hazardous to their health and safety, some – often migrant workers – against their will. Workers’ attempts to organize and bargain collectively for improved labor rights protections were frequently impeded by governments’ inability or unwillingness to enforce labor protections, as well as government interference in their activities and violence and threats against labor leaders. However, 2013 did see the entry-into-force of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, which set forth protections for fundamental rights [for domestic workers] . . . , and several countries took steps to enact legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers.”[2]

The Continued Marginalization of Vulnerable Groups

There was “continued marginalization of religious and ethnic minorities, women and children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. Governments subjected these groups to repressive policies, societal intolerance, discriminatory laws, and disenfranchisement, and authorities failed to hold those who committed crimes against them accountable. Faith organizations and religious and ethnic minorities suffered growing intolerance and violence, as well as faced threats to and restrictions on their religious belief and practice. Women and girls in all regions suffered endemic societal discrimination, and there was a surge in gender-based violence. The rights of LGBT persons were increasingly threatened, as limitations on freedoms of association and assembly for the LGBT community and new laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations unleashed increased violence and intimidation against LGBT persons. Finally, persons with disabilities continued to experience a lack of access to quality inclusive education, inaccessible infrastructure, and weak non-discrimination protections.”

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[1] This summary of the most noteworthy overall human rights issues of 2013 comes from the Department’s simultaneously released 2013 Human Rights Fact Sheet. Also accompanying the reports themselves were remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry and by Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Uzra Zeya. Articles about the reports appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Future posts will examine the reports on human rights in Cuba and Ecuador. A prior post reviewed the similar reports for 2012.

[2] ILO Convention No. 189 (Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers) entered into force on September 5, 2013, after eight nation-states had ratified the treaty. As of March 4, 2014, the number of ratifications had increased to 12; this group does not include the U.S.

 

 

My Vocations

The words and music about vocation at the January 26th and February 9th worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church have inspired my general thoughts about vocation set forth in a prior post. Now I reflect on my own vocations.

Until I was in my early 40’s, I had no religious beliefs after high school and no sense of vocation.

That started to change in 1981 when I joined Westminster and embraced what I now see as my first vocation: serving the church as a ruling elder (1985-1991) and over time as an active member of several of its committees (Spiritual Growth, Communications and Global Partnerships). More recently I joined its Global Choir. After all, a new member covenants to find “a definite place of usefulness” in the church.

For 10 years (2003-2013) I served as chair of Global Partnerships, which supervises the church’s partnerships with churches and other organizations in Cuba, Cameroon, Palestine and for a time in Brazil. This lead to my going on three mission trips to Cuba, one to Cameroon and another to Brazil. As a result, I established personal friendships with people in those countries as part of our collective, and my personal, vocation of being present with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and standing in solidarity with them. I also learned about the history, culture and current issues of those countries. This in turn lead to a strong interest in promoting reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba and Cuban religious freedom, and as a U.S. citizen I have endeavored to do just that.

This sense of religious institutional vocation also encompassed my serving on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities for another 10-year period (1988-1998). In my small way, I helped nurture future ministers of the church. In the process I got to know interesting members of the faculty, administration and board and about the life of U.S. seminaries.

I, however, initially struggled with how to integrate my newly reclaimed religious beliefs and my life as a practicing lawyer, and over the years found ways to share this struggle with others, especially with my fellow lawyers.

One way I discovered a vocation in the practice of law resulted from experiencing the bitterness and lack of reconciliation between opposing parties in litigation and, too often, as well between their lawyers, including myself. This experience lead in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s to a personal interest in, and writing and speaking about, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), one of whose objectives is resolution of such disputes more amicably, and to my active participation in the ADR Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Another and more powerful vocation involving my professional life emerged when a senior partner of my law firm in the mid-1980’s asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church (“ALC” and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The problem: how should the ALC respond to information that the U.S. immigration agency (INS) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible-study meetings at ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that provided sanctuary or safe places to Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars.

The conclusion of this engagement was the ALC and the Presbyterian Church (USA)—my own denomination—jointly suing the U.S. government to challenge the constitutionality of such spying. Eventually the U.S. district court in Arizona held that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “free exercise” of religion clause protected churches from unreasonable government investigations.

U.S. immigration law was in the background of this case, but I did not know anything about that law. I, therefore, sought to remedy that deficiency by taking a training course in asylum law from the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.

I then volunteered to be a pro bono lawyer for a Salvadoran seeking asylum in the U.S. because of his claim to a well-founded fear of persecution in his home country because of his political opinions and actions opposing its government. Again, my initial motivation for this action was to be a better lawyer for the ALC.

I discovered, however, that being a pro bono asylum lawyer was my passionate vocation while I was still practicing law and continued doing so until I retired from the practice in the summer of 2001. In addition to El Salvador, my other clients came from Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia. I was able to assist them in obtaining asylum and thereby escape persecution. In the process, I learned more about asylum law and other aspects of immigration law as well as the horrible things that were happening in many parts of the world. I was able to use my experience and gifts in investigating and presenting facts and legal arguments to courts and officials and came to see this as one of the most important and rewarding vocations I have ever had.

In the process of this asylum work, I also learned for the first time about the humbling and courageous ministry and vocation of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in March 1980 because he repeatedly spoke out against human rights violations in his country. He now is my personal saint. I also learned about the important and courageous work in that country by the Jesuit priests and professors at the University of Central America, six of whom were murdered in November 1989 for the same reason, and they too have become heroes for me.

Another Salvadoran I met on my first trip to that country enriched my sense of the potential for vocation in practicing law. He was Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the Lutheran Church’s human rights office, who spoke about the joy he experienced in his work.

After retiring from the full-time practice of law in 2001, I served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School (2002 through 2010) to co-teach international human rights law. I thereby hoped to encourage law students to become interested in the field and to include such work in their future professional lives. Thus, this became another vocation with the side benefit of enabling me to learn more about the broader field of international human rights.

I chose another retirement in 2011, this time from part-time teaching, in order to start this blog about law, politics, history and religion. I came to see it as yet another vocation. I think it important to share my religious experiences and beliefs in the midst of active consideration of legal and political issues and demonstrate that it is possible for an educated, intelligent individual to have such beliefs.

In 2011 as a member of the planning committee for my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion. I thought we should do more to remember our deceased classmates than merely list their names in our reunion booklet. I, therefore, suggested that if each committee member wrote five or six obituaries, we would have written memorials for all of our departed classmates. However, no one else volunteered to participate in this project so I did it all myself except for a few written by spouses. After the reunion, I continued to do this when the need arises.

Although this project required a lot of work, I came to see it as pastoral work and rewarding as I learned about the lives of people, many of whom I had not really known when we were together as students. I drew special satisfaction when I learned that a classmate who had died in his 30’s had two sons who had never seen the College annuals that had a lot of photographs of their father as a physics student and co-captain of the football team, and I managed to find a set of those annuals which were sent to the sons. I thus came to see this as a vocation.

Many of these vocations resulted from invitations from others to do something, which I accepted. Initially the invitations did not seem to be calls for a vocation, and it was only after doing these things and reflecting upon them that I saw them as such.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors. I have learned about different areas of the law, different countries and the lives of interesting people, living and dead.

I feel blessed that I have discovered at least some of the work that God has called me to do, in Frederick Buechner’s words, “the work that I need most to do and that the world most needs to have done.”

Or as Rev. Hart-Andersen said on February 9th, “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

What’s next?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Global Choir of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

The Global Choir is one of several choral groups at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Since 2001 this small Choir has explored the vast landscape of sacred music from all over the world. It generally sings once a month at the 8:30 a.m. service in the Chapel and is directed by Barbara Prince, who serves in many capacities in the church. It includes members of the church’s regular choir and others regardless of age or experience. (I recently joined this Choir even though the last time I sang in a choir was nearly 60 years ago when I was a member of the Youth Choir at the First Methodist Church in Perry, Iowa.)

The Global Choir is one way that Westminster seeks to be in solidarity with her sisters and brothers around the world and to remind us in Minnesota that our Christian faith perspective is not the only one in the world. Another way is congregational and individual participation in our ongoing partnerships with churches and other organizations in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine.

To illustrate this choral mission, here are the anthems from the Choir’s most recent appearance and from the forthcoming early worship service on February 16th.

January 19, 2014

On January 19th, the Global Choir sang Palestinian and Israeli anthems.

The Palestinian anthem, Truth Is Our Call, has the following lyrics:

  • “Truth is our call and justice our claim. The will of our God is our vanguard and aim; the God of us all, of mercy and love, of freedom and peace for all of humankind.
  • Refrain: We’ll strive and we’ll strive and we will not be still to lift all oppression with God’s help and will. We’ll raise high the banner of righteousness and truth, we’ll strive and we’ll strive and we will not be still.
  • We shall not give in to fear or to hate; we will speak the truth and we’ll strive to be just. With love we will stir the conscience of the world; with patience and faith we’ll save our home and land.”
  • Refrain.

Truth Is Our Call was composed by Rima Nasir Tarazi, a musician, an activist, a community leader and, above all, a humanist and a loving grandmother. After 1967, she started writing the lyrics for her compositions. Through those songs she documents the inhumane daily events taking place under the Israeli military occupation. She expresses the voice of Palestinian mothers, prisoners and children who all yearn for freedom, dignity and peace. Although Rima’s songs are about a dispossessed and suffering people, yet they are full of hope as they communicate the dreams and aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The Israeli anthem was Sim Shalom—Prayer for Peace. Here are its lyrics:

  • “Grant us peace Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace. Bless our country, that it may be a stronghold of peace. May contentment reign within its borders, bonds of friendship throughout the world. Plant virtue in every soul and love for Thy name in every heart. Give us peace.”

Sim Shalom (Song of Peace) was composed by Max Janowski (1912–1991), a composer of Jewish liturgical music, a conductor, choir director, and voice teacher. Born in Berlin, in his early 20’s he became head of the piano department at a music academy in Tokyo, Japan, but emigrated to the U.S. in 1937 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war he was the longtime music director at a synagogue in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago.

Sim Shalom is dedicated to the U.S. African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche, who was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as the United Nations’ chief mediator in assisting Israel and its neighbors (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) in negotiating the 1949 Armistice Agreements that ended the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and established Armistice Demarcation Lines.

February 16, 2014

On February 16th in honor of U.S. black history month the Choir will sing an African-American spiritual and an anthem from Uganda.

The spiritual is “Who Will Be a Witness” with new words and music by Donald Moore, an Ohio-based composer, arranger, lyricist and author of over 800 sacred, secular, educational and pop choral works.[1] Its words are the following:

  • “Who will be a witness, O my Lord? Who will be a witness, O my Lord?  Who’ll be there beside me?  Who’ll be there to guide me?     Who will be a witness, O my Lord?                                                                   I’m goin’ to heaven, want to do it right. I’m goin’ to heaven, I’ll be dressed in white.
  • Who’ll be there to meet me? Who’ll be there to greet me?                   Who will be a witness, O my Lord?                                                                   Don’t want to stumble, don’t want to fall.                                                     I’m goin’ to heaven when the roll is called.                                                   Heaven bells are ringin’. Saints are all a singin’.                                         Who will be a witness, O my Lord?                                                                   A witness, a witness, O my Lord.                                                                       Who’ll be there beside me? Who’ll be there to guide me?                     Who’ll be there to meet me? Who’ll be there to greet me?                   Who will be a witness, O my Lord?”

The Ugandan anthem is “Come and Let Us Worship God,” which was composed by Cranmer Mugisha, a Bishop of the Church of Uganda, a “Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Anglican Church engaged in the mission of Jesus Christ in today’s world.” The anthem’s words are as follow:

  • “Come and let us worship God, turn to serve the living Lord, move from where we are misled, do as ancient prophets said.
  • Oh our living God, We, the creatures of your word, come to make our home in you, knowing that your word is true.
  • Let us hear our Maker’s voice, and let Christ inform each choice.
  • Sister women, brother men, let us turn to God again.
  • Oh our living God, We, the creatures of your word, come to make our home in you, knowing that your word is true.

[1] Moore also is the President and CEO of Moore Racing Enterprises LLC, which maintains a competitive midget race-car team, and a smooth-jazz/greatest-hits solo performer.