Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation

God acting through people of Christian faith has been leading the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation and promises to be with the people of both countries as they confront the many issues and challenges in achieving full reconciliation.

Roman Catholic Church

Principal agents for God have been and are the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis.The Vatican’s role predated Pope Francis. Two of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in 1998 and 2012 respectively, and the church remains hugely influential among Cubans. The Obama administration first sought to enlist the Vatican’s support when Pope Benedict XVI was in office. It worked even more actively with the Vatican after Pope Francis came to the Vatican in 2013. The pope’s new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, an Italian, had served as papal nuncio in Venezuela and was well versed in Latin America politics. Mr. Kerry was also in contact with the Cardinal, meeting him at the Vatican in June of this year and again a week ago.

Most significantly, as has been widely reported, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church acted as a mediator to help the parties.[1]

This was verified in the Vatican’s Secretary of State’s December 17th statement, in which the Pope “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The statement also provided the following details:

  • “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”
  • “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”
  • “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

President Obama in his December 17th televised speech announcing this important initiative acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”

Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his televised remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Subsequent reports and research reveals some of the details of the Pope Francis’ involvement.[2]

Obama & Pope
Obama & Pope

On March 27, 2014, the Vatican reported that President Obama “was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which Obama met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” Presumably this was U.S.-Cuba relations.

Immediately after the Audience, at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama made comments that in retrospect might have alluded to conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

More recently a U.S. administration official said that at the Audience, President Obama spoke about Cuba with Pope Francis, who was “aware” that Obama was considering a change in the policy against Cuba and reached out to the President. Indeed, according to this official, Cuba was the at the center of the discussion.

Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement. In June the Pope sent another letter to the two men calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship. . . . The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented.

The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations in October when the parties were able to review the commitments that they to make on December 17th.” The Pope, U.S. officials said, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal reached in secret.

According to a New York Times articleCardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, also happened to be in Rome on October 3 and met with Francis, according to Vatican records, raising the possibility that he, too, attended the secret October meeting that is credited with sealing the diplomatic deal.’Ortega has always pushed for a gradual reform of the regime, for opening up, but at the same time he has been a trustworthy partner for the government — and with the full support of John Paul II, Benedict and Francis,’ said Marco Politi, an author and veteran Vatican analyst.”

An article by Juan Arias in El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, said Pope Francis “is only and always in favor of dialogue and peace, promote respect for all. Rescue the true dignity of the human being who is the subject of respect, travel partner, defender of life, rather than exploited, a commodity at the mercy of all who pay for it. In the world, managing the common good and the fight against injustice will inevitably present policy questions.” .

In the same vein, a Vatican spokesman said, in a December 18th interview with a Fox News interview, the Vatican has a culture of encounter the says it is better to be talking, rather than not talking, with another individual or country in the Vatican tradition of confidential diplomacy. Such a practice does not solve everything, but it opens up relations.

Another overall evaluation of Pope Francis’s diplomacy from the New York Times starts with his comments on December 18th to a new corps of diplomats to the Vatican, ” The work of an ambassador lies in small steps, small things, but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among people. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.” On the other hand, Francis has a “vision of diplomatic boldness, a willingness to take risks and insert the Vatican into diplomatic disputes, especially where it can act as an independent broker.”

Francis Campbell, a former British ambassador to the Holy See, adds that Francis had embraced the bully pulpit provided by the papacy. “The papacy is one of the world’s great opinion formers. Whether people agree with it or disagree with it, it has a huge voice.”

Another change under Francis is “appointing diplomats to key posts elsewhere, most notably his second-in-command, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, an Italian cardinal who has led delicate Vatican negotiations with Vietnam and served as apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, in Venezuela.” Moreover, Francis and Cardinal Parolin are seen as working in tandem — the charismatic pope and the methodical diplomat. . . .  Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, added that Francis had quickly built a rapport with world leaders. ‘He establishes relationships very easily.”

Additional insight into Pope Francis’ mediation of this situation is prompted by the Associated Press’ rediscovery of his 1998 booklet, “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” written while the Pope was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Soon to be named archbishop of Buenos Aires, he attended Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba.“In the booklet, Bergoglio harshly criticized socialism — and by extension Castro’s atheist revolution — for denying individuals their ‘transcendent dignity’ and putting them solely at the service of the state. At the same time, he denounced the U.S. embargo and economic isolation of Cuba that impoverished the island. ‘The Cuban people must overcome this isolation’. . . . [T]he first chapter titled ‘The value of dialogue’ . . . [says] that dialogue was the only way to end Cuba’s isolation and its hostility to the Catholic Church while promoting democracy.

This booklet was referenced by Austen Ivereigh in his new biography of Francis “The Great Reformer.” Ivereigh said Bergoglio “demonstrated an ‘incredibly evenhanded’ approach to the Cuban problem while outlining a future for the island that may well be more realistic now that the thaw has begun.” Pope Francis “sees Cuba’s future as being a democratic government rooted in the Christian, humanist values of the Cuban pueblo. It’s a kind of nationalist Catholic understanding of politics, neither left nor right, neither communism nor unadulterated market capitalism.”

Everyone in the world should be grateful that we have Pope Francis as a servant of God.

Presbyterian Church

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I join in the declaration by my brothers and sisters of LA IGLESIA PRESBITERIANA-REFORMADA EN CUBA (the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba) regarding the historic launching of this path of reconciliation that was signed by Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentin, the Moderator and my personal friend; Rev. Daniel Izquierdo Hernández, Secretary-General; Rev. Francisco Marrero Gutiérrez, Council President; and Rev. Antonio (Tony) Aja, D. Min. They said:

  • “Today we witnessed the televised speeches by the Presidents of Cuba and the United States in which both rulers recognized the need to put an end to the hostility of more than half a century and to re-establish Diplomatic relations between our two countries, which hopefully will lead to the normalization of relations. It was also gratifying to hear the news of the release of Mr. Alan Gross and others imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the release of the three Cuban prisoners in the U.S. American, which allows family reunification.”
  • Our church “gives thanks to God and celebrates with joy these agreements. For decades we have been encouraged with the exchange of visits between Cuban and American churches. We are in deep gratitude to the evangelical ideal to seek peace and justice, and we raised Our Voice against the severe measures, both economic and commercial, that have been imposed by American policy on our peoples.“
  • “In the same way we have received such support from our sister church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and from resolutions and talks official with leaders of the U.S. Congress and representatives of the U.S. government.”
  • “We acknowledge the efforts of the Vatican, in the person of Pope Francis, as well as the government of Canada in the achievement of these agreements. We hope that we are closer to an era of peace between our nations, it is precisely on the eve of the celebration of the Christmas which reminds us of the divine purpose of peace and Goodwill in our land.
  • “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:14. NRSV).

The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA], Gradye Parsons, made a similar statement. He said, “we welcome the historic steps taken by President Obama on normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.” The PCUSA ‘has been working for more than 30 years to help ease the hardships caused by the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba and to end the embargo itself.” We also have “emphasized [with the U.S. government] the humanitarian reasons for the release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners.” This set of decisions “also takes us closer to a day when our two peoples will have no impediments to full and flourishing relations. We rejoice along with the Cuban Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church of Cuba for the good news that will further the cause of peace and human rights around the world.”

Another statement was issued by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness. He said, “The release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners is an example of how nations can find common ground.  When there is a will to live as true neighbors as Jesus Christ has taught us, we find a way towards justice and reconciliation.” The statement also noted that this Office “has organized religious delegations from Cuba, led a coalition of denominations and faith-based organizations calling for a change in policy towards Cuba, and organized meetings with members of congress and the administration urging an opening of relations between the two countries.”

I also believe that Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church has played a small role in these historic decisions. Our connections with Cuba, our members’ visits to the island, our Cuban brothers and sisters visiting us, our prayer partnerships with members of the Matanzas church, our installing four potable water systems in Cuban churches and our learning more about Cuba and its relations with our country have inspired many of us to urge our Government to change its policies toward the island.

Our potable water projects are part of the “Living Waters for the World” ministry of the PCUSA’s Synod of Living Waters for the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. To date they have trained people from churches, primarily Presbyterian, all over the U.S. who have installed over 660 such systems in 25 other countries. Cuba has received 21 of the systems, four by my church.

The importance of such systems for the Cuban people and churches was noticed by a New York Times reporter on a visit to the 137,000-population city of Cardenas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. He says, “Many of the churches in Cardenas have become a moral and economic counterweight [to communism] . . . to help people survive, with food, water, and exercise classes, and by guiding their souls away from a focus on material things.” (Cave, Crucible of Cuban Zeal Redefines Revolutionary, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)

As an example, he cites El Fuerte Presbyterian Church which occupies a “religious campus” that used to house Escuela La Progressiva, a famous pre-revolutionary school. This church has become a “hub of activity for the community largely because of a sophisticated water filtration system carried into Cuba and installed in 2012 by members of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.”

Other Religious Organizations

I know that other churches and synagogues in Minnesota and all around the U.S. have connections with Cuba and am confident that they too have had similar transformative experiences with our Cuban brothers and sisters. Others without overt religious motivation also have been God’s agents for these changes; here I think specifically of the support groups for the Cuban Five and for ending the U.S. embargo.

As the Bible says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinth. 12:4-7)(NRSV)

We lift all of them up in our prayers of gratitude.

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[1] An August 2012 post included my public letter to President Obama suggesting, among other things,“Perhaps such negotiations would be assisted by having the two countries agree to the appointment of a respected international mediator/conciliator to supervise the negotiations.”

[2] The President’s Audience and press conference about this and other topics were discussed in a prior post.

U.S. and Cuba Embark on Reconciliation

December 17, 2014, was a historic day in the relations between the United States of America and Cuba. The day started with Cuba’s release of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, from a Cuban prison and his return to his home in the U.S. and of the similar release and return to the U.S. of an unnamed U.S. spy . Nearly simultaneously the U.S. released three Cuban spies from its prison..

President Obama’s Speech

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

At noon (EST) President Obama delivered a televised speech to the nation and the world about the U.S, and Cuba embarking on a new path of reconciliation. He opened with the bold proclamation,”Today the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.  After noting the prisoner exchanges, he said:

First. he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry “to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations” with an embassy in Havana. “Where we can advance shared interests, we will. . . . Where we disagree, we will raise those differences openly–as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba.”

Second, the President had “instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism . . . to be guided by the facts and the law.”

Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”

Fourth, the U.S. is “significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector.” The U.S. is also facilitating “authorized transactions [with Cuba], . . including U.S. financial institutions opening accounts with their Cuban counterparts and increased U.S. exports as well as  “increased telecommunications connections” with Cuba.

Fifth, the U.S. embargo against Cuba requires congressional action, and the President looks forward to  “engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

Sixth, the President also acknowledged that Cuba was releasing “a substantial number of prisoners” who had been jailed for political reasons, was increasing internet access to its citizens and its engagement with international institutions.

Nevertheless, the President acknowledged that there would not be “a transformation of Cuban society overnight.” He was convinced, however, “that through a policy of engagement we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the cuban people help themselves.”

Obama near the end of his speech said, “To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship.” The U.S. “wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.”

Cuban President Raul Castro’s Speech

President Raúl Castro
President Raúl Castro

Nearly simultaneously Cuban President Raúl Castro made a televised speech to his country about the new path for Cuba and the U.S.  After acknowledging the prisoner exchange and the release of some Cuban political dissidents from prison, he said the countries had “agreed to the restoration of diplomatic relations.” Unfortunately the U.S. embargo will not be ended immediately, but will be modified until Congress can enact a repeal.

The two countries will take mutual steps “to improve bilateral climate and move toward normalization of ties . . . based on the principles of international law and the [U.N.] Charter.” Cuba has also reaffirmed its willingness to discuss all issues of democracy, human rights and foreign policy. Cuba has urged the U.S. “to remove obstacles that prevent or restrict th e links between our peoples, families and citizens . . ., in particular those relating to travel, direct mail and telecommunications.”

“Progress in sustained exchanges show that it is possible to find solutions to many problems. . . . [W]e must learn the art of living, in a civilized manner, with our differences.”

Conclusion

These historic agreements raise many issues that will be discussed in subsequent posts.

 

 

113th Congress Takes Actions on International Religious Freedom

In its waning days the 113th Congress has taken at least three actions regarding international religious freedom.

 New U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom

David N. Saperstein
David N. Saperstein

On December 12th the U.S. Senate by a vote of 62 to 35 confirmed President Obama’s nomination of David N. Saperstein, a prominent Reform rabbi, to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in charge of countering religious persecution around the world.

Saperstein was a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011. He also was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (the Commission) from 1999 to 2001 and its Chair (1999-2000). For 40 years, Mr. Saperstein has been director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, lobbying on a wide range of civil rights and social justice issues.

At a confirmation hearing in September, Mr. Saperstein spoke out against religious discrimination in Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, among other countries. “Even in Western Europe,” he said, “we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Semitic discourse and violence against Jewish communities.”

The Senate Republican Policy Committee noted that Mr. Saperstein had criticized a ruling in June in which the Supreme Court said that some corporations could deny contraception coverage to their female workers on religious grounds. He expressed dismay at the ruling, which was hailed by conservatives as a victory for religious liberty, and he supported legislation to override the decision, in an effort to protect women’s health.

Amendment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 [1]

On August 8, 2014, H.R. 4028 became Public Law No.: 113-154. It amended the “Findings” section (Section 2(a)(4)) of the 1998 statute to add three words (“desecration of cemeteries”) so that it reads as follows:

  • “The right to freedom of religion is under renewed and, in some cases, increasing assault in many countries around the world. More than one-half of the world’s population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice. Religious believers and communities suffer both government-sponsored and government-tolerated violations of their rights to religious freedom. Among the many forms of such violations are state-sponsored slander campaigns, confiscations of property, desecration of cemeteries, surveillance by security police, including by special divisions of “religious police”, severe prohibitions against construction and repair of places of worship, denial of the right to assemble and relegation of religious communities to illegal status through arbitrary registration laws, prohibitions against the pursuit of education or public office, and prohibitions against publishing, distributing, or possessing religious literature and materials.” (Emphasis added.)

The author of this bill, Representative Grace Ming (Dem. NY), said during the House debate, “There are two related problems we seek to address through this legislation. One is the religiously motivated vandalism of cemeteries that occurs with alarming regularity. The second is the building and development over cemeteries in places where there are no communities remaining to protect and look out for the cemeteries.” She added that the bill “works to identify and preserve cemeteries, memorials, and buildings in foreign countries that are associated with the cultural heritage of Americans, and it does much work in areas of the former Soviet Union, where Jewish communities were destroyed by the Holocaust and where power subsequently passed to atheistic, communist regimes.”

Other bills in this Congress were offered to make other amendments to the statute, but they were not adopted, including a bill by Senator Marco Rubio (S. 2675) that would have imposed requirements and restrictions on presidential actions with respect to countries designated by the Commission as “of Particular Concern for Religious Freedom.” He introduced his bill the day after the State Department had issued its annual report on this freedom, and Rubio said, “While I welcome . . . [the Department’s] announcement updating CPC designations, this administration has failed to do so since 2011.” This proposed amendment “encourages the administration to take a firmer stance on religious freedom violators and codifies America’s commitment to advancing religious freedom as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.”

In December 2014, too late for any legislative action this year, Reps. Joe Pitts (Rep., PA) and Anna Eshoo (Dem., CA) introduced H.R. 5878 (An Act to amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to further express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, freedom of religion or belief abroad and individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion or belief, and for other purposes). It would add non-state actors like Boko Haram in Nigeria to the group of bodies the U.S. government can sanction for violating religious freedoms. The bill will be re-introduced in the next Session of Congress.

Reauthorization of the Commission on International Religious Freedom

On December 10thth the House adopted H.R. 5816 re-authorizing the Commission essentially for only another nine months (to September 30, 2015), and on December 15th the Senate added its approval of the bill.

This action reflected the inability of the two chambers to reach agreement on the terms of a lengthier reauthorization. In this context, I was surprised by a statement about this inability from Leonard L. Leo, the Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies and a former member of the Commission (2007-2009) and its Chair (2009-2012). He said that the Commission was formed in 1998 to be a watchdog on the State Department to ensure that it would promote religious freedom.

In July the House passed a reauthorization bill (H.R. 4653) that never passed the Senate. It would have extended the Commission through September 30, 2019, essentially another five years. It also would have (a) required training of foreign service officers on “the relationship between religious freedom and security, and the role of religious freedom in United States foreign policy;” (b) encouraged the Department of State to allow Commission members and staff to have “access to classified information;” and (c) allowed the Commission interns, fellows and volunteers to be paid compensation by “sponsoring private parties” so long as there was no conflict of interest.

During the House debate on this bill, Rep. Chris Smith (Rep., NJ), said that the original statute was passed by “a somewhat supportive Congress but highly reluctant [Bill Clinton] White House.” He lamented that eight countries designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” or CPCs by the Commission had not been similarly designated by the State Department and that the Obama Administration had not enacted sanctions for such designations of other countries.

During another House debate, the one on the previously mentioned “desecration of cemeteries” bill, the same Representative Smith said at a May 22, 2014, hearing he chaired, there had been evidence of “the lack of enforcement and the lack of due diligence on the part of the administration when it comes to the International Religious Freedom Act. Not since 2011 has there been a designation of what we call country of particular concern, CPC status, or the dishonorable status that it conveys ought to be done every year. . . . [despite the Commission’s pointing out] that there are eight [other] countries that ought to be so designated, followed by eight others, including Vietnam, that needed to be added to the list, making a total of 16 countries that are then liable to sanctions.”

In the other chamber Senator Richard Durbin (Dem., Illinois) offered a reauthorization bill (S. 2711) that was not adopted by either chamber. It would have extended the Commission through September 30, 2016, but also would have required annual rotation of its chair and vice chair based on political party affiliation and restricted service in such positions to one term. It also would have required the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to be notified in advance of all Commission meetings and allowed the Ambassador to attend all meetings as a nonvoting member. Finally it would have required (a) at least six commissioners to approve any commission statement and allow dissenting statements and separate staffs for the two major political parties; and (b) the Commission’s annual report to be issued after the issuance of the annual religious freedom reports by the Department of State.

Conclusion

Congressional criticism of the State Department and the President for their alleged failure to follow every recommendation of the Commission, in my judgment, is uncalled for. I also disagree with any proposed legislation like that of Senator Rubio’s that seeks to impose legislative constraints on the president based upon the Commission’s reports.

The basic reason for this judgment was expressed well by the Commission’s current Chair, Ms. Katrina Lantos Swett, when she acknowledged the Commission has limited authority when compared with the U.S. Department of State and implicitly the U.S. President. She said, “The State Department has a more difficult job than we do because they are balancing American security interests, American commercial interests, American cultural interests, American exchange interests, a whole range of diplomatic interests, and one of the things that they are putting into that mix is the defense of our fundamental values, human rights and religious freedom and other such things. Because of its much larger portfolio the State Department cannot be as single-minded as we are.”

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[1] Detailed information about bills in Congress can be obtained at www. Congress.gov. A prior post summarized the structure and members of the Commission while others posts have discussed the international law on this subject and some of the Commission’s annual reports. Although I believe that freedom of religion is important for every individual and for nation states, I believe that the Commission’s negative views on the status of that freedom in Cuba for 2011 and 2013 are unjustified.

New York Times Reiterates Call for Ending U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On December 15th a New York Times editorial, “Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads,” called for the U.S. to end its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” This recommendation first was made on October 11th in the Times’ initial editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”

Summary of the Editorial

Now, however, ending the designation is seen as a way the U.S. could assist a struggling Cuban economy. Surprisingly this editorial does not mention ending the U.S. embargo of the island as another, and more important, way the Cuban economy could be aided by the U.S. Instead the Times makes a vague suggestion of the U.S.’ “relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.”

Most of the editorial is devoted to discussing the many problems of the Cuban economy.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution’s “[c]ommunism brought an ever more anemic and backward economy, one propped up largely by Moscow. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did Cuba’s economy.” After that collapse, Cuba found Venezuela as a “new benefactor” that provided “heavily subsidized oil” to the island, but now that country’s “worsening economic and political crisis” threatens that subsidy.

Low wages and poor prospects have forced many Cubans to leave the island “in recent years in search of a better life.” This could be accelerated by the elimination of the country’s two-currency system, which the government plans to do.

“The country’s birthrate is declining, while its elderly are living longer.” Couple these facts with the exodus of working-age citizens presents Cuba with an enormous demographic challenge.

“The agricultural sector remains stymied by outdated technology and byzantine policies. A foreign investment law Cuba’s National Assembly approved in March has yet to deliver a single deal.”

Cuba’s leaders have adopted various measures to reform the economy, but the “pace [of economic reform] has been halting, with plenty of backtracking from the government’s old guard.”

Yet these reforms have created a “small but growing entrepreneurial class.” All of them “struggle with the [Cuban] bureaucracy, since they are unable to import legally items as basic as mattresses and pillows. Bringing items from the United States is onerous and complicated by American sanctions.” Changes in U.S. policies could make “it easier for Americans to provide start up-capital for independent small businesses. Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation. More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.”

Continuing U.S. antagonism, on the other hand, “is only helping the old guard.”

Reactions

I concur in the Times’ call for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” It is an unfounded, stupid, absurd action that is only counter-productive as has been argued in posts in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

But I do not see ending this policy as the linchpin for the U.S.’ helping the Cuban economy. Instead it is ending the embargo, which the Times on October 11th recommended, but which is not mentioned in the latest editorial.

Moreover, I think the latest editorial understates the troubled state of the Cuban economy even though a prior post expressed optimism about Cuba’s attracting $8.0 billion of foreign investment for the Mariel port’s industrial park now under construction. Further reflection raises the following points that question that optimism:

  • First, the Cuban economy by itself is obviously unable to afford to purchase the many commodities that presumably will be unloaded from the new super-container ships that will be able to cross the expanded Panama Canal.
  • Second, for the commodities to go elsewhere will require the unloading of the super-container ships at Mariel and then reloading those commodities in smaller container vessels to go to the major countries on the northern and eastern sides of the South American continent: Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. How big are those markets?
  • Third, presumably the major Latin American countries with coasts on the Pacific Ocean like Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile will not be markets for commodities transshipped from Mariel.
  • Fourth, unless there is U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, the largest potential market for such transshipment, the U.S., presumably would not be importing commodities from the Mariel port.

Similar skepticism about Cuba’s ability to attract foreign investment for other reasons have been voiced by foreign investment experts. The Inter-American Dialogue, which is the leading U.S. center for policy analysis, exchange, and communication on Western Hemisphere affairs, has provided the following four such skeptics.

Matthew Aho, consultant in the corporate practice group of Akerman Senterfitt in New York, said, “While the [Cuban] rhetorical message was positive: ‘Cuba is open for business,’ little has changed to improve Cuba’s general investment climate, and foreign companies there report few changes to their dealings with Cuban counterparts. In fact, many businesses say the same bottlenecks, delays and idiosyncrasies that have long frustrated investors have been exacerbated recently by growing wariness among major banks to handle legitimate Cuba-related transactions.” He added, “While Cuba clearly has potential, most mainstream investors will steer clear until the Cubans define clearer rules of the road and improve their track record with new and existing partners.”

According to José R. Cárdenas, director of Visión Américas in Washington, “Eight billion dollars is a wildly exaggerated figure that Cuba has no chance of ever realizing. [Foreign investors] demand such things as transparency, legal guarantees and predictability, which the Cuban government is incapable of providing. Witness the widely publicized ordeals of Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian and Englishman Stephen Purvis, among others, who wound up in incarcerated in Cuba’s Kafkaesque legal system for unclear reasons. There may as well be a ring of flashing red lights surrounding the island warning foreign investors of the exorbitant risks to doing business in Cuba. . . . Any progressing economy needs the freedom to innovate, take risks and guarantee that one will reap the benefits of their efforts. Cuba, like China, cannot ultimately offer such conditions. As long as the primacy of the Communist Party remains the Cuban lodestar, the country will continue to head into an uncertain future.”

Scott J. Morgenstern, associate professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh also was skeptical. He said, “Cuba must create new opportunities for private employment. Thus, while the reforms are making some investment possible, investors will not find wide-open markets and streamlined bureaucratic procedures. In many areas, there are severe limits concerning where people can invest and the types of businesses they can open. Currency convertibility will also be a critical issue for any business; currently there are two currencies, only one of which is convertible. Foreigners, formally, are only allowed to use the convertible currency, and the official exchange rates distort the currency values. Reforms are promised, but the uncertainty will likely discourage some investors. One other important concern for investors is the size of the Cuban domestic market. The country is attracting several million tourists per year, and many Cubans do receive financial support from abroad, but purchasing power is still limited.”

Carlos A. Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group and Regis HR Group offered these comments. “Cuba’s economic reforms so far have been too little, too late and too timid to result in significant economic performance . . . . [Cuba’s] continuing economic mismanagement, the numerous distortions in Cuba’s economic and political systems, a stubborn ideology, an obtuse and weighty bureaucracy and the fears of change harbored by Cuba’s leaders all play even more heavily in keeping Cuba’s economy from reaching its full potential. Cuban leaders continue to expect ‘silver bullet solutions’ to their economic woes. The port of Mariel is a perfect example. Pinning hopes of an economic recovery on mega-projects or a few foreign investments take attention away from the core distortions and inefficiencies plaguing the entire domestic economy. Fear of change and ideological rigidity can be clearly seen in Cuba’s eight-month-old foreign investment law. Since the law was passed, Cuban authorities still don’t have any significant major investment projects to report. The foreign investment law was a great missed opportunity to really send a message to the world, and specifically to the United States, that Cuba is ready for business. Such a message would have added great momentum to the anti-embargo movement, which is building momentum in the United States and in Miami. Yet, they chose more of the same, leaving arbitrariness, lack of clarity and burdensome regulations.”

Similar skeptical opinions about the Cuban efforts to develop the Mariel port were expressed by Richard Feinberg, the Brookings Institution’s Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin American Initiative. He said, “the industrial sites are not yet fully leveled nor are they hooked up to basic infrastructure! But the problems run much deeper: previous Cuban efforts to launch free trade zones floundered on the requirement of hiring expensive labor through government employment agencies, and the continuing closure of the most logical export market, the nearby [U.S.]. Cuba’s newly revised foreign investment laws appear to allow investors greater flexibility in setting wage scales, but this potentially promising reform, and its impact on labor costs, remains to be fully tested in practice.”

Finally, Miguel Coyula, a retired Cuban government official on a trip to Washington before returning home to the island, stated ““Mariel is the most promoted place in Cuba, with special development zones for investors. But soon it’ll be a year after the opening of Mariel, and there is absolutely nothing. Even the container terminal in Havana was moved to Mariel to give it a sense of activity, but no one will invest there. For one thing, potential foreign investors in Mariel don’t like the fact that they can’t hire employees on their own, but instead must pay a government employment agency in dollars for that labor. The agency, in turn, pays workers in Cuban pesos. That’s because the Castro government wants to avoid creating a class of highly paid Cubans who work for foreign companies, ‘but inequalities are there whether you like it or not.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel

On November 17th the New York Times published another editorial in its series urging changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.[1] Under the title “A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.,” the editorial targets the U.S.’s Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPPP).

In order to understand the editorial, we first must look at the Cuban government’s policy and program of sending Cuban medical personnel to other countries and then at the CMPPP’s response to that Cuban program. Thereafter we will examine the Times’ rationale for its recommendation along with the arguments for the Wall Street Journal’s support of the CMPPP before we voice our conclusions.

 Cuban Policy and Program of Sending Medical Personnel Abroad

According to a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, since 1973 Cuba has been sending medical ‘brigades’ to foreign countries, “helping it to win friends abroad, to back ‘revolutionary’ regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. [The] Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June [2010] that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in 77 countries. Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams—revenue that Cuba’s central bank counts as ‘exports of services’—vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year.”

Again, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, Cuban doctors often desire such overseas assignments because they provide opportunities to earn significantly more money than at home. “When serving overseas, they get their Cuban salaries [of $25 per month], plus a $50-per-month stipend—both paid to their dependents while they’re abroad. . . . In addition, they themselves receive overseas salaries—from $150 to $1,000 a month, depending on the mission.” Many on-the-side also engage in private fee-for-service medical practice, including abortions. As a result, many of the Cubans are able to save substantial portions of their overseas income, which they often use to purchase items they could not have bought in Cuba like television sets and computers. Other desirable purchases are less expensive U.S. products that they can sell at a profit when they return to Cuba.

The Wall Street Journal article adds, “Since Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, Cuba has been bartering its [medical personnel] . . . for Venezuelan oil. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that in [2010] Venezuela ships Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil a day—worth more than $2 billion a year at [then] current prices. In addition, Venezuela pays Cuba for medical teams sent to countries that Mr. Chávez considered part of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” sphere: Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador and Paraguay.”

As a result of this quid pro quo, Cuba has over 10,000 medical personnel serving in Venezuela. According to the Los Angeles Times just this past September, the working conditions in that country for the Cubans are horrible. Many of the clinics lack air-conditioning and functioning essential medical equipment. The Cubans’ workload is often “crushing.” Common crime is rampant, and the Cubans are often caught in the middle of Venezuela’s civil unrest between followers of the late Hugo Chavez who want the Cubans to be there and more conservative forces that oppose the Cuban presence. As a result, as we will see below in the discussion of CMPPP, many Cuban medical personnel serving in Venezuela have chosen to defect to the U.S. under CMPP.

The Times editorial says, “This year, according to the state-run newspaper Granma, the government expects to make $8.2 billion from its medical workers overseas. The vast majority, just under 46,000, are posted in Latin America and the Caribbean. A few thousand are in 32 African countries.”[2]

Facts Regarding CMPPP

A U.S. Department of State website says this program was announced on August 11, 2006, “by the Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the Department of State, [as a program] that . . . would allow Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the United States.”[3]

Under the program “Cuban Medical Professionals” (i.e., health-care providers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers) are eligible if they meet the following criteria: (1) Cuban nationality or citizenship, (2) medical professional currently conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Government of Cuba, and (3) not otherwise ineligible for entry into the U.S. Spouses and/or minor children are also eligible for such parole.

According to the Times’ editorial and the Wall Street Journal, the program “was the brainchild of Cuban-born Emilio González,” a former U.S. Army colonel, the director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008 and a “staunchly anti-Castro exile.” “He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking.’” The Cuban doctors, he says, work directly for health authorities in other countries and have no say in their assignments.

The Times’ editorial includes the following table showing the official numbers of CMPPP visas that have been issued:

Fiscal Year Number
2006      11
2007    781
2008    293
2009    519
2010    548
2011    384
2012    681
2013    995
2014 1,278
TOTAL 5,490

Given the large numbers of Cuban medical personnel that are sent to Venezuela to help pay for Cuba’s importation of Venezuelan oil, it is not surprising that the largest number of defections of Cubans has been from that country. As of the end of FY 2010, according to the previously mentioned Wall Street Journal article, the total defections by country were the following: Venezuela, 824; Colombia, 291; Bolivia, 60; Dominican Republic, 30; Ecuador, 28; Guatemala, 25; Brazil, 21; Namibia, 21; Peru, 19; and Guyana, 14.

Apparently the largest number of defections from Venezuela continues in light of the previously mentioned difficult working conditions. For FY 2011-2014 there were an additional 1,181 Cuban defections from Venezuela to the U.S. under CMPPP for a grand total of 2,005.[4] In addition, many of the Cubans in that country fear being seen going to the U.S. embassy in Caracas and instead fly to neighboring Colombia and apply there for CMPPP.

Another obvious reason for such defections under CMPP is the desire of the Cubans to earn more income in the U.S. I have met a Cuban neurologist whose wife was a skilled nurse, but who worked as a waitress in a nearby resort in order to earn more income and obtain tips in hard currencies. Like almost all Cubans, they did not earn enough to afford to have their own automobile and told me about Cuban television announcements that people who had an automobile or other vehicle had a special obligation to give rides to anyone in a white coat. Later while on a mission in Central America they defected to the U.S. under CMPPP. At least as I heard their story, they were merely looking for a way to improve their lives financially.

The Times’ Reasons for Ending CMPPP

The editorial starts by noting, “Secretary of State John Kerry and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have praised the work of Cuban doctors dispatched to treat Ebola patients in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently sent an official to a regional meeting the Cuban government convened in Havana to coordinate efforts to fight the disease. In Africa, Cuban doctors are working in American-built facilities.The epidemic has had the unexpected effect of injecting common sense into an unnecessarily poisonous relationship.”

Therefore, says the Times, “it is incongruous for the [U.S.] to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake [and the current Ebola crisis in West Africa] while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy [under CMPPP].”

Moreover, says the Times, “Cuba has been using its medical corps as the nation’s main source of revenue and soft power for many years. The country has one of the highest numbers of doctors per capita in the world and offers medical scholarships to hundreds of disadvantaged international students each year, and some have been from the United States. According to Cuban government figures, more than 440,000 of the island’s 11 million citizens are employed in the health sector.”

The creation of CMPP was really motivated by a desire by anti-Castro Americans “to strike at the core of the island’s primary diplomatic tool, while embarrassing the Castro regime.” This is hardly a worthy motivation for the U.S.

For a poor country like Cuba, it makes sense to use one of its few economic strengths to bolster its foreign exchange earnings. Is this not an example of the concept of comparative advantage first formulated by classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo? The program also helps Cuba garner good will around the world for helping to improve the health of others. There is no legitimate reason for the U.S. to be opposed to such a program.

Adds the Times editorial, “American immigration policy should give priority to the world’s neediest refugees and persecuted people. It should not be used to exacerbate the brain drain of an adversarial nation at a time when improved relations between the two countries are a worthwhile, realistic goal.”

In 2006 when CMPPP was commenced, Cuban medical personnel could not obtain their government’s permission to leave the island for any reason, and this was asserted as one of the reasons for the U.S.’ creation of CMPPP. Last year, however, the Times says, “the Cuban government liberalized its travel policies, allowing most citizens, including dissidents, to leave the country freely. Doctors, who in the past faced stricter travel restrictions than ordinary Cubans, no longer do.”

Moreover, the Times asserts, “The Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity. It undermines Cuba’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises and does nothing to make the government in Havana more open or democratic. As long as this incoherent policy is in place, establishing a healthier relationship between the two nations will be harder.”

Finally, according to the Times, “Many medical professionals, like a growing number of Cubans, will continue to want to move to the United States in search of new opportunities, and they have every right to do so. But inviting them to defect while on overseas tours is going too far.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Reasons for Supporting CMPPP

The Wall Street Journal’s opinions on this subject are frequently uttered by its columnist on Latin American issues, Mary Anastasia O’Grady. The headline for her November 9, 2014, column makes clear her ultimate conclusion: “Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors.” She asserts that Cuba’s policy and practice of sending some of its medical personnel to other countries is an “extensive human-trafficking racket now being run out of Havana.”

Her argument centers on the Cuban government’s being paid for these services by other countries like Venezuela or by international organizations like WHO and the government’s paying its medical personnel only some of the Cuban government’s revenues for their services. But this ignores the fact that any corporation or other business entity that sells services, pays the people who actually provide the service less than what is collected by the corporation because there are other cost factors that have to be covered plus a profit.

While she admits that “Cuban doctors are not forced at gunpoint to become expat slaves,” she argues they “are given offers they cannot refuse.”

Conclusion

When the CMPPP was created in 1966, Cuba’s government prohibited its medical personnel from leaving the island, and one of CMPP’s original rationales was providing a legitimate way to provide them with a way to leave Cuba and go elsewhere. Now, however, the Cuban government permits such citizens to leave. This change, in this blogger’s opinion, eliminates the only arguably legitimate basis for CMPPP.

The allegation by some supporters of CMPP that Cuba’s practice of sending medical teams to other countries is a form of human trafficking is absurd, in this blogger’s opinion. The Cuban government has paid for all of the education of its medical personnel, and sending some of them to serve in foreign countries is a way for them to compensate the state for their free education. This Cuban practice is like the U.S. practice during some wars of having a selective service system and drafting some people to serve in our armed forces. Similarly we in the U.S. from time to time have debated having some kind of required national non-military service program for younger citizens without anyone arguing that it would be illegal human trafficking.

The U.S. State Department issues annual reports on the status of other countries’ human trafficking, which the reports define as “umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” This compelled service requirement uses “a number of different terms, including involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor.”

Although the latest U.S. report on this subject unjustly casts Cuba into the report’s Tier 3 status,[5] as argued in a prior post, that report rejects the argument that Cuba is engaged in human trafficking when it sends its medical personnel to other countries. Here is what that report says on this issue:

  • “Some Cubans participating in the work missions have stated that the postings are voluntary, and positions are well paid compared to jobs within Cuba. Others have claimed that Cuban authorities have coerced them, including by withholding their passports and restricting their movement. Some medical professionals participating in the missions have been able to take advantage of U.S. visas or immigration benefits [under the CMPPP], applying for those benefits and arriving in the United States in possession of their passports—an indication that at least some medical professionals retain possession of their passports. Reports of coercion by Cuban authorities in this program do not appear to reflect a uniform government policy of coercion; however, information is lacking.”

This blogger, therefore, supports the Times’ calling for an end to CMPPP.

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[1] Under the overall title of “Cuba: A New Start,” the prior editorials (all of which are simultaneously published in Spanish) have urged overall reconciliation between the two countries, including ending the ending of the U.S. embargo of the island, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and re-establishing normal diplomatic relations; U.S.-Cuba collaboration in combatting Ebola in West Africa; recognizing changing U.S. public opinion on relations with Cuba; U.S.-Cuba exchange of prisoners; and ending USAID covert programs to promote regime change in Cuba.

[2] Another issue unrelated to CMPPP is whether or not the services provided by the Cuban medical personnel meet the professional standards of the country where they serve. A South American ophthalmologist has told this blogger that she frequently has been called to fix problems created by Cuban doctors on such missions, but this blogger has no information about any comprehensive study of this issue.

[3] The program’s stated statutory authorization is INA section 212(d)(5)(A), 8 U.S.C. 1182(d)(5)(A) (permits parole of an alien into the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit); 8 CFR 212.5(c) & (d) (discretionary authority for granting parole), whereby the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may exercise its discretionary parole authority to permit eligible Cuban nationals to come to the United States.

[4] This calculation is based upon a November 9, 2014, article in Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper.

[5] Tier 3 is a U.S.-created category of countries that the U.S. asserts “do not fully comply with [a U.S. statute’s] minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.

Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders

Díaz-Canel Bermúdez
Díaz-Canel Bermúdez

Granma, Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, and the Cuban News Agency have reported that Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the First Vice President of the Cuban Councils of State and Ministers and a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee (Political Bureau),[1] recently met with Cuban evangelical and protestant leaders from the Cuban Council of Churches. [2] The meeting’s purpose was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first meeting between Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro and leaders of the Council and to discuss current challenges facing the organization.

After the first meeting in 1984, considered to be milestone in relations between the church and State, a practice developed of holding periodic meetings between all religions and the leadership of the country to promote work and dialogue.

The Recent Meeting

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico
Rev. Joel               Ortega Dopico

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, the President of the Cuban Council of Churches and a pastor of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba, highlighted the importance of sustaining the churches’ relations with the government and of the role the Council has played, at crucial moments, for the Revolution, such as the Council’s “staunch opposition to the U.S. blockade against the Cuban economy, fighting for the return of Elián [Gonzalez to Cuba from the U.S.] and the release of our five anti-terrorist brothers from the unjust incarceration they have been subjected to in the U.S.”

Rev. Raúl Suárez
Rev. Raúl Suárez

 

Rev. Raúl Suárez, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, recalled Fidel’s comments at the first of these meetings in 1984 about the need for mutual understanding between Cuban religious organizations and State institutions and Cuban society.

Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal
Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal

Rev. Pablo Odén Ma­ri­chal, Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, stated that “protestant churches have been a means of cultural penetration in Cuban society” and given this reality he urged for “a greater strengthening of the ethical and behavioral work of the faith toward the community of believers and society, based on human and patriotic values.”

Marichal emphasized greater participation of the inter-faith movement and churches in the search for solutions to problems facing Cuban society, such as an aging population. He stated, “We must revive Fidel’s idea of a strategic alliance between revolutionary Christians and Marxists, for which permanent dialogue is necessary.”

Díaz-Canel, the government Minister, commented on the importance of transmitting this historic occasion to the current generation in order to strengthen dialogue and unity among Cubans. He described the meeting as an encounter of faith, friendship and memories. He said, “It is touching to remember all those moments – lack of understanding at times which was later overcome through respectful dialogue.”

He also expressed the desire to address concerns about Cuba’s social and economic order, as well as challenges being faced in the struggle to strengthen and promote social values “in order to prevent the establishment of a base of neocolonial and neoliberal capitalist reconstruction. This is the struggle we must assume, strip away all the pseudo culture, all the banality and selfishness and individualism,” he concluded.

The First Meeting in 1984

Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana
Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana

In 2007 I heard directly from Rev. Raúl Suárez  about the circumstances surrounding the first meeting between Cuba’s Revolutionary government and the Cuban churches. This happened when I was with a group of Westminster Presbyterian Church members from Minneapolis that visited Havana’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, which is affiliated with the adjacent Baptist Church, where Rev. Suárez was the pastor.

Suárez told us 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 Suárez, 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 Suárez a letter to provide to Castro on this issue.

Suárez  then contacted Fidel, who 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, Suárez heard a Castro aide say to Fidel, “Take off your hat, you are close to a church.” Fidel took off his hat. Suárez was surprised by this comment and Fidel’s response. Suárez 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 (in 2007, a 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 Suárez 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 Suárez 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 Protestants, 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.

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[1] Díaz-Canel often is seen as a potential successor to Raúl Castro as President of Cuba.

[2] The Council was founded in 1941 as “a fellowship of churches, ecumenical groups, and other ecumenical organizations which confess Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to respond to their common calling, to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It gives “unity to the Christian Churches of Cuba” to facilitate cooperation with other churches around the world. Its purposes include encouraging “dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. [The Council] also promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.” Its membership now includes 22 churches, 12 ecumenical groups and centers, 3 observers and 7 fraternal associates.

 

New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

On November 10, 2014, the New York Times published its latest editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”[1] Under the title, “In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change,” this editorial focuses on criticizing the efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote regime change in Cuba and recommending “stronger [U.S.] diplomatic relations” with Cuba as a more productive way to try “to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society.”

The editorial also recommends that the U.S. “should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. [The U.S.] should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.”

The editorial’s foundation is the following set of documented factual assertions:

  • In 1996, the U.S. enacted the Helms-Burton Act that spelled out “a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and ‘assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.’”This statute “has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.”
  • “During the final years of the Clinton administration, the [U.S.] spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under . . . [this statute].”
  • That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world.” USAID, “better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.”
  • “In the early years of the [George W.] Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the [Cuban]government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.”
  • “According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy ‘a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,’ purchases . . . [the contractor] was unable to justify to auditors.”
  • “The G.A.O. probe led . . . [USAID] to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount.”
  • In December 2009 Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, went on his fifth trip to the island posing as a tourist but acting on behalf of an USAID contractor to smuggle communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Gross was arrested, charged and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.[2]
  • “At the time [of Gross’ arrest], many senior State Department officials were not fully aware of the scope and nature of the covert programs, . . . and some argued that the covert programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.”
  • “After Mr. Gross’s arrest, [USAID] . . . stopped sending American [citizens] into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban intelligence services.”
  • “An investigation by The Associated Press published in April [2014] revealed . . . [that between] 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to assemble ‘smart mobs.’” Although the contractor paid “text-messaging fees to the Cuban telecommunications company, [the contractor] never found a way to make the platform self-sustaining.”[3]
  • A second A.P. report revealed in August [2014] that U.S.A.I.D. had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify ‘potential social change actors,’ under the pretext of organizing gatherings like an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily landed them in prison.”[4]
  • Although the “American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to satellite-based Internet connections, . . . it has done more to stigmatize than to help dissidents.”
  • “Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

As previous posts to this blog have discussed, I concur in this editorial’s criticisms of the USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the editorial’s recommendations for changes in U.S. policies regarding the island nation.

I take exception, however, to the editorial’s unexamined assertion that Cuba has “one of the most repressive governments in the world.” Although I am confident that Cuba ideally should have a more open society and hope that it continues to move in that direction, all of us in the U.S. should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Cubans.

For decades the immensely more powerful U.S. has openly engaged in hostile policies and actions against the small, poor and militarily weak island. This includes the U.S.-supported and unsuccessful 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba; the threatened U.S. bombing and invasion of Cuba in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the recently revealed 1976 military plans to “clobber” Cuba that were being prepared by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the half-century U.S. embargo of Cuba; and the very USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba that are discussed in this editorial. If we in the U.S. were in this situation, we too would, I am confident, impose restrictions on an open society. Have we not done this very thing in our response to the 9/11 attacks and the threats of international terrorism?

As I said in an earlier post about U.S. policies regarding Cuba, all of us should remember that when the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked Jesus what he had to say when the law of Moses said stone her, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-7)

Likewise, the President and all of us should also remember these other words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 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.”

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[1] Prior posts have discussed the recent Times’ editorials urging U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, commending Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa, recognizing changes in U.S. public opinion about Cuba and recommending an U.S.-Cuba prisoner exchange.

[2] An earlier Times editorial urged the U.S. and Cuba negotiate an exchange of Mr. Gross for three Cubans in U.S. prisons.

[3] Prior posts to this blog on April 4,  9 and 9, 2014, discussed the AP investigation of the USAID social media program.

[4] Prior posts (August 12, 13 and 14, 2014) examined the AP investigation of the USAID “use” of Latin Americans to open HIV-AIDS clinics in Cuba.