U.S. and Cuban Churches Denounce U.S. Embargo and Recent Additional U.S. Actions Against Cuba

On April 26 the National Council of  the Churches of Christ in the USA and the Cuban Council of Churches issued the following Joint Statement. [1]

“Today, Friday, April 26, the fifth day after Easter Sunday, we come together once again as two Christian ecumenical councils to affirm our faith and love in Jesus Christ. Like the disciples walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), we desire to walk together with the resurrected Christ and share with him the bread that he has blessed with us and for us.”

“Our Councils have prayed, walked and worked together for many years. We have done so not only to witness to all the blessings we have received from God as a fruit of our unity in love, faith, and hope, but also to testify to the power of the Holy Spirit in all times of challenge to our dream of bringing our peoples and nations together. We have stood for peace when many cried for war. We have taken a stand for family unity when others tried to divide our families.”

“Since 1968, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has called for normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, for the removal of the economic blockade [embargo] imposed on Cuba, and for removal of travel restrictions.”

“Today, after our two nations began to make significant progress toward normalized relations, we are facing a critical moment that threatens to erase the gains already made.  We, therefore, reaffirm our solidarity in Christ and stand together to:

  • Work together to end the blockade — rejected by the vast majority of United Nations member countries — which has an extraterritorial effect, and for normal relations between our people and nations;
  • Express our opposition to the Trump Administration’s addition of new restrictions on travel between Cuba and the United States;
  • Express our opposition to the decision by the Trump Administration to no longer maintain the suspension of Title III of the Helms-Burton legislation, an action that will further hinder the quality of life of the Cuban people and will create enormous and unnecessary legal problems worldwide;
  • Express our opposition to the limitation and restriction of family remittances from the United States to Cuba;
  • Advocate for the reopening and normalization of consular services between the two countries, on a humanitarian basis, since it will facilitate the access to visas and the normalization of relations among families and between our peoples.”

“Finally, these recent actions by the Trump Administration will hinder us as we pursue together God’s mission and will be another obstacle to develop further our relations, partnerships, and the spiritual growth of the churches in the United States and Cuba. We, therefore, call on the churches in our countries along with all our partner ecumenical bodies, faith-based organizations, and all people of good will in our region and around the world to join us in our advocacy, solidarity, and action for a better present and future for our two countries, churches and people.”

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is,
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them, and
entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 

– Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV”

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, which was formally organized in 1950,  has 38 member communions with 45 million people in over 100,000 congregations.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC), which was founded in 1941, is the leading institution of the ecumenical movement in Cuba, with 52 churches and Christian institutions as members, including Protestants, Reformists, Evangelists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Orthodox; in addition to other ecumenical institutions and associate members.

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[1] National Council of Churches, Joint Statement: Facing a Critical Moment (April 26, 2019); Council of Churches of Christ of the United States and the Council of Churches of Cuba pronounce themselves against the blockade, Granma (April 28, 2019).

 

IRS’ Unjustified Threats Against IFCO/Pastors for Peace

The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) is a multi-issue U.S. ecumenical agency whose tax-exempt status is being challenged by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In order to understand this challenge, we will look at IFCO’s background and the purported bases for the IRS’ position before concluding that people concerned about U.S.-Cuba normalization should support IFCO in this matter.

IFCO Background[1]

According to its own website, IFCO “is a multi-issue national ecumenical agency, which was founded in 1967 by progressive church leaders and activists. For [nearly 50 years it] . . . has assisted hundreds of community organizations and public policy groups – by providing technical assistance, training organizers, making and administering grants, and using our global network of grassroots organizers, clergy, and other professionals to advance the struggles of oppressed people for justice and self-determination.”

“IFCO has assisted the poor and disenfranchised in developing and sustaining community organizations to fight human and civil rights injustices. This work includes education about the realities of the poor in the U.S. and the third world and to organize and to assist local communities who are organizing around issues of racial, social, and economic justice. . . . In pursuit of this mission, IFCO promotes, funds and coordinates domestic and international community development efforts – programs designed to improve people’s own communities.”

“IFCO’s international work, which began in Africa in the 1970s, has focused on Central America and the Caribbean since the early 1980s. IFCO’s project Pastors for Peace was founded in 1988,” and in 1992 it started its annual “Friendshipment” caravans which IFCO/Pastors for Peace delivers to Cuba” to provide “humanitarian aid to the Cuban people   . . . as a nonviolent direct challenge to the brutal US economic blockade of Cuba. The caravans, brigades and delegations have also provided an opportunity for numerous US citizens to see Cuba with their own eyes.”

IRS Challenge to IFCO’s Tax-Exempt Status

On October 3, 2015, IFCO publicly announced that the IRS planned “to revoke the group’s non-profit tax exempt status because of its humanitarian work in Cuba and other countries.” This announcement was the result of the organization’s learning that the IRS Appeals Office planned to uphold the revenue agent’s recommendation to revoke our 501(c)3 status . . . . [because of IFCO’s] humanitarian aid to Cuba as well as IFCO’s fiscal sponsorship of a humanitarian flotilla that delivered aid to the people of Palestine.”[2]

On August 24, 2016, the organization apparently told a journalist, “The IRS claimed that our work to bring humanitarian aid and build friendship with the Cuban people was done in violation of the Treasury Department’s ‘Trading with the Enemy Act.’”

On September 1, 2016, IFCO’s Executive Director, Gail Walker, stated that the IRS had abandoned its efforts to remove its tax-exempt status because of its Cuba programs and instead was basing its efforts on IFCO’s alleged sloppy record-keeping.[3]

The IRS, on the other hand, has not made any public comment about IFCO’s tax-exempt status.

U.S. Legal Requirements for Tax-Exempt Organizations

The IRS summary of the U.S. legal requirements for tax-exempt (501(c)(3)) status[4] states the following:

  • “To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”
  • “The exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.  The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”
  • Political activities and legislative activities (commonly referred to as lobbying) are two different things and are subject to two different sets of rules and have different consequences of exceeding the limitations. The rules applied in a given situation depend on several issues: the type of tax-exempt organization (different rules apply to private foundations than to other section 501(c)(3) organizations), the type of activity (political or lobbying) at issue, and the scope or amount of the activity conducted.”

The U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act

On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany followed by a similar declaration against Austria-Hungary on December 7, 1917. In between these events–on October 6, 1917–the Trading with the Enemy Act (12 U.S.C. §§ 95a95b and 50 U.S.C. App. §§ 1—44) was enacted. Here are the relevant provisions of this statute:

  • Section 2(b) defines “enemy” as including “The government of any nation with which the United States is at war, or any political or municipal subdivision thereof, or any officer, official, agent, or agency thereof.”
  • Section 3(a) makes it unlawful for “any person in the [U.S.], except with the license of the President, granted to such person, . . . to trade, or attempt to trade, either directly or indirectly, with, to, or from, or for, or on account of, or on behalf of, or for the benefit of, any other person, with knowledge or reasonable cause to believe that such other person is an enemy or ally of enemy, or is conducting or taking part in such trade, directly or indirectly, for, or on account of, or on behalf of, or for the benefit of, an enemy or ally of enemy.”
  • Section 5(b)(1) of this statute: “During the time of war, the President may, through any agency that he may designate, and under such rules and regulations as he may prescribe, by means of instructions, licenses, or otherwise (A) . . . regulate, or prohibit, any transactions in foreign exchange . . . and (B) . . . regulate . . . or prohibit. . . transactions involving, any property in which any foreign country . . . has any interest. . . .”
  • Section 16 provides that any person who “willfully violate[s]” the statute or any regulation thereunder “shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $1,000,000 [or $100,000 for natural persons] or imprisoned for not more than ten years.

On December 28, 1977, this Act was amended by Public Law 95-223, which provides in section 101(b) that “authorities conferred upon the President by section 5(b) of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which were being exercised with respect to a country on July 1, 1977, as a result of a national emergency declared by the President before such date, may continue to be exercised with respect to such country . . . . [upon a determination by the] President [to] extend the exercise of such authorities for one-year periods upon a determination for each such extension that the exercise of such authorities with respect to such country for another year is in the national interest of the United States.”

This authority has been annually used by every president since 1978 to extend the prohibitions of the Act with respect to Cuba. Should a president fail to renew this designation, the statute’s application to Cuba will die as will the president’s executive authority to relax and modify regulations causing the embargo to automatically revert, word-for-word, to the strict form they had on March 1, 1996 under the Helms-Burton Law and thereby require congressional action to change its terms.[5]

The latest such annual extension occurred on September 13, 2016, when President Obama signed a document determining “that the continuation for 1 year of the exercise of . . . [certain authorities under the Trading With the Enemy Act] with respect to Cuba is in the national interest of the United States.” [6] Those authorities are found in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. Part 515. Specific information about these regulations is set forth in a U.S. Department of the Treasury website.

Conclusion

I personally am glad that IFCO has been engaged in providing certain goods to Cuba, and I have enjoyed riding around in Cuba in a garishly decorated Pastors-for-Peace bus that was left there after one of IFCO’s caravans. I have signed a petition asking the IRS and Congress to stop this persecution of IFCO and urge others to do the same. I also am pleased that IFCO has obtained the support in this dispute from many Cuban organizations: the Cuban Council of Churches, Havana’s Martin Luther King Center, the Religious Organizations of Cuba, Cuba’s Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) and Cuba’s First Deputy Education Minister.[7]

The U.S. use of the Trading of the Enemy Act with respect to Cuba after the December 17, 2014, announcement of the beginning of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations is paradoxical and contradictory on its face. However, as noted above, this statute gives the president authority to relax the embargo, which President Obama has done. Without the annual renewals regarding Cuba under this statute, the president would not have any such authority and the embargo would be tightened unless and until Congress passes a law to end the embargo, which certainly will not happen during the remaining months of Obama’s presidency.

This statute, however, is not directly linked to the tax-exempt status of IFCO or any other organization, and the IRS does not have authority to enforce it. Perhaps the IRS’ apparent abandonment of this ground for revoking IFCO’s tax-exempt status is the IRS’ implicit recognition of the validity of the argument against any IRS use of the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Instead the Department of Justice has the authority to enforce statutes that carry criminal penalties for their violation. As previously mentioned, the Trading with the Enemy Act calls for a fine of not more than $1,000,000 [or $100,000 for natural persons] or imprisonment for not more than ten years. Thus, if IFCO were charged with such a crime and found guilty after a trial in federal court, IFCO would be subject to such a fine. I suspect that the fine would be relatively small in light of the organization’s overall religious purposes, its not making a financial profit from such activities, its not secretly conducting its activities regarding Cuba, its not having been previously challenged by the U.S., and IFCO’s not adversely affecting U.S. national security.

Moreover, I do not see how IFCO’s caravans to Cuba could be deemed to be attempting to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities or participating in any campaign activity for or against political candidate, all of which are illegal for a 501(c)(3) organization and would be a ground for revoking tax-exempt status.

However, I must confess that I am not familiar with the case law interpreting these provisions. As always I invite comments of concurrence or disagreement or pointing out errors and omissions.

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[1] IFCO, About IFCO.

[2] IFCO Press Release, IRS Attacks Faith Based Civil Rights Group for Humanitarian Work with Cuba (Oct. 3, 2015).

[3] Whitney, Pastors for Peace Close to Losing Tax Exempt Status Courtesy of IRS Assault, CounterPunch (Sept. 2, 2016); Torres, IRS goes after Pastors for Peace for sending aid to Cuba, InCubaToday (Aug. 24, 2016); Barbosa, Solidarity organization harassed for its work in Cuba, Granma (Sept. 13, 2016).

[4] IRS, Exemption Requirements—501(c)(3) Organizations; IRS, Exempt Purposes—Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3); IRS, Political and Lobbying Purposes.

[5] Muse, Press Release: Presidential Embargo Authority over Cuba: Renew it or Lose it, Latin America Goes Global (Sept. 2, 2015).

[6] White House, Presidential Determination—Continuation of the Exercise of Certain Authorities Under the Trading with the Enemy Act (Sept. 13, 2016);Obama renews Act trading with the Enemy supporting the blockade of Cuba, CubaDebate (Sept. 13, 2016); Muse, Press Release: Presidential Embargo Authority over Cuba: Renew it or Lose it, Latin America Goes Global (Sept. 2, 2015).

[7] Cuban Council of Churches, Communioqué from Cuban Council of Churches, Granma (Sept. 1, 2016); Reuters, Cuban Churches Denounce U.S. Probe of Humanitarian Aid Project, N.Y. Times (Sept. 7, 2016); Gomez, Love should not pay taxes, Granma (Sept. 7, 2016); Cubans support ecclesiastics Pastors for Peace, “Love and faith cannot pay taxes, CubaDebate (Sept. 7, 2016); Statement by religious organizations of Cuba in support of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, Granma (Sept. 1, 2016); Rodriguez, Pastors for Peace faces attack on solidarity work, Granma (Aug. 30, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

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

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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.