Two Major U.S. Groups Urge Congress To Promote U.S. Trade and Travel with Cuba

This month two major U.S. groups have reiterated pleas to Congress to promote U.S. trade and travel with Cuba. They are the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba and Engage Cuba. Here is a report on those efforts.

U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba

On June 8, 2015, the Agricultural Coalition, an association of more than 90 U.S. agricultural companies and state and national organizations committed to normalizing exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations.[1]

The letter reiterated the Coalition’s opposition “to any effort to restrict trade and travel with the nation of Cuba—including possible amendments to appropriations bills or the State Department reauthorization bill.” Any such restriction “would be detrimental to the U.S. agricultural industry and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.”[2]

Indeed, the letter continued, Coalition members “share a commitment to liberalizing trade between the United States and Cuba.  We support Congressional action to expand opportunities for U.S. agriculture by normalizing commercial relations with Cuba and, ultimately, ending the Cuban embargo.”

Because of existing restrictions in U.S. law about trade with Cuba, the letter further stated, the U.S. agriculture “industry is losing out on valuable opportunities to market U.S. food and agriculture products in Cuba. U.S. farmers, ranchers, and food businesses should not be losing out to other countries like Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Vietnam, and countries in the European Union.  Cuba is a logical export market for the U.S. industry.”

Engage Cuba

On June 16, 2105, Engage Cuba formally commenced its operations in Washington, D.C. as a coalition of major corporations, business associations and non-profit groups. Its members include the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Council of the Americas, the American Society of Travel Agents, Third Way, #CubaNow, the Cuba Study Group and the Center for Democracy in the Americas. It also works directly with many leading businesses, including Procter & Gamble, Cargill, Caterpillar, Choice Hotels and The Havana Group,[3]

This coalition on June 16 started an ad campaign called “Guess What?” that is being broadcast on Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC. It calls for ending travel and trade bans on Cuba.[4]

The Engage Cuba press releases stated the various provisions that seek to halt reconciliation with Cuba that House Republicans had inserted into pending appropriations bills. He said they were “like the last gasps of a defeated army that’s in retreat. They are just trying to delay the inevitable. The Senate will not support those versions of the bill[s] and the White House already has said they would [veto them]. So they [have a] zero chance of becoming law.”

This theme about pending legislation was expanded in a June 16 article by Williams and two other Engage Cuba leaders (Steven Law and Luke Albee).[5] They said, “While there are plenty of big fights still to be had, bipartisan progress is clearly emerging on an unlikely issue: Cuba policy.” As “examples of seeking compromise and working across party lines,” they cited the bill to end the ban on U.S. travel (S.299) offered by Republican Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) and the recent bill to end the embargo (S.1543) offered by Republican Senator Jerry Moran (KS) and Independent Senator Angus King (ME).

Engage Cuba, they said, “reflects that same bipartisan spirit. The founder of the group (James Williams) is a public policy adviser to philanthropists with strong ties to the Obama Administration. Its top two advisers come from opposite sides of the political barricades: Steven Law runs American Crossroads and Luke Albee is a well-known Democrat who served more than two decades in Congress as Chief of Staff to Sens. Leahy and Warner (Dem.,VA).”

This article concluded with an urgent call for that bipartisan spirit and effort to combat “provisions . . . [to House of Representatives’] funding bills to try to roll Cuba policy back to a Cold War posture, even as embassies are in the process of being announced. The bills immediately drew veto threats, and it’s clear they have little chance of getting through the Senate with those measures. However, progress isn’t going to be made by fighting rear-guard actions; we need to move our policy toward Cuba in a new, positive direction.”

On January 15, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) hosted a party at a Washington, D.C. bar to celebrate the launching of Engage Cuba. People from that coalition were joined by other senators; Roberta S. Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the U.S.’ chief negotiator in the Cuba talks; and José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, Cuba’s ambassador-in-waiting as chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

Flake,  Rodriguez, collin and Roberts
Rodriguez, Flake, Collins and Roberts

Senator Flake had just returned from another trip to Cuba, this time with Senators Susan Collins (Rep., ME) and Pat Roberts (Rep., KS). Here is a photo ot the three of them with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Afterwards, on June 15 Flake said, “To see where we are today is really heartening. The feeling I had the last couple of visits to Cuba is that the reforms . . . that have been made are irreversible. It’s full steam ahead.”[6]

Conclusion

All supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should thank both of these organizations for their efforts to do the same while also urging their Senators and Representatives to oppose the House Republican rear-guard efforts.

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[1] This Agricultural Coalition letter was the subject of an article in Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, Granma: U.S. agricultural coalition opposes trade and travel restrictions against Cuba. Granma (June 15, 2015) Prior posts discussed the Coalition’s January 2015 launching and its March 2015 trip to Cuba.

[2]  Pending policy bills against reconciliation and the anti-reconciliation inserts in appropriations bills have been discussed in posts on May 26 and 28 and June 2, 10, 12 and 16.

[3] Torres, Major U.S. companies support new group that will lobby to lift sanctions against Cuba, Miami Herald (June 16, 2015). A prior post discussed the organization of Engage Cuba. Engage Cuba already helped helping negotiate an agreement between the Florida-based Stonegate Bank and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to resume bank transactions for the Cuban diplomatic mission, an essential requirement for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the conversion of the Section to the Cuban Embassy. The group’s website has a useful page of Facts about public opinion on reconciliation in the U.S. and in Cuba, the potential Cuban market for U.S. products and services, statements of prominent individuals supporting reconciliation and lists of reconciliation-supportive businesses, agricultural organizations, faith-based and religious organizations, human rights, development and policy organizations, and labor, environmental and travel organizations. Another useful feature of the website is a form for individuals to send an email to their members of Congress.

[4] The TV ad itself is available online, and the ad is a subject of a press release from the group.

[5] Williams, Law & Albee, On Cuba, a bipartisan path emerges, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[6] Calmes, New Group Enjoys Thaw in U.S.-Cuba Relations with a Party, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2015)

Assessment of the Status of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Three recent articles in Cuba’s state-controlled media offer the Cuban government’s assessment of the current status of U.S. reconciliation. The lead article was Cuban journalists’ interview of Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead diplomat for the negotiations with the U.S. This post will summarize these three articles [1] and then offer an evaluation of Cuba’s assessment.

Current Status of Negotiations

Several days after the failure of the countries to reach an agreement about re-establishing diplomatic relations, Vidal remained optimistic. In the five months since the December 17th announcement of rapprochement and the mutual release of certain prisoners, she thought there had been progress in the process of normalization of relations. The removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism was to happen by the end of May, as it in fact did on May 29th, and Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington, D.C. has obtained a U.S. banking relation that was necessary for the effective operation of the Section and of a future Cuban embassy. [2]

In addition, for about the last two years, she added, the countries have been discussing and progressing on “technical” matters, including collaboration on infectious diseases, narcotics trafficking, immigration (including the U.S. “wet foot/dry foot” policy under its Cuban Adjustment Act) and their respective enforcement of their own domestic laws with visitors from the other country.

Moreover, said Vidal, the Cuba-U.S. interactions “are respectful, they are professional. We are treating each other as equals, on a foundation of respect and total reciprocity.”

Also supportive of reconciliation of the two countries have been visits to Cuba by U.S. federal and state government officials and U.S. business groups. [3]

 Re-establishment of Diplomatic Relations

Although the parties had not reached agreement on the details of re-establishing diplomatic relations at their negotiations in Washington, D.C. on May 21-22, Vidal suggested that progress had been made on these details, which conceivably could be resolved through direct communications without another negotiating session.

The remaining issues, she said, focused on the future “conduct of diplomats” and “the functioning of a diplomatic mission,” all under the U.N. Charter and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which both parties recognize as establishing or confirming the international law on the subjects. More specifically, Vidal said, “We must talk about the number of people, what kind of staff” the embassies will have or “what type of rank these officials [are] going to have” and “what privileges and immunities.” [4]

These comments by Vidal (and by Jacobson in the footnote) suggest that the provisions of the Vienna Convention provide flexibility and thus room for negotiation on the details of the functioning of the two countries’ embassies and diplomats. Indeed, that assumption is confirmed by the following relevant provisions of the Convention:

  1. Under Article 7, “the sending State may freely appoint the members of the staff of the mission. In the case of military, naval or air attachés, the receiving State may require their names to be submitted beforehand, for its approval.” However, Article 11 provides “the receiving State may require that the size of a mission be kept within limits considered by it to be reasonable and normal, having regard to circumstances and conditions in the receiving State and to the needs of the particular mission” and also “may equally, within similar bounds and on a non-discriminatory basis, refuse to accept officials of a particular category.”
  1. With respect to diplomatic personnel’s travel and conduct, Article 26 states, “Subject to its laws and regulations concerning zones entry into which is prohibited or regulated for reasons of national security, the receiving State shall ensure to all members of the mission freedom of movement and travel in its territory.” However, Article 41 provides, “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.” In addition, Article 41 states, “The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State.”

Vidal’s concern about the “conduct of diplomats” and “the functioning of a diplomatic mission” was an allusion to Cuba’s objection to certain recent covert or secret or “discreet” programs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) allegedly to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba and to public seminars for Cuban journalists at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that will be discussed below.

 Future Issues for Discussion and Resolution

According to the Vidal interview, Cuba has presented to the U.S. the following “preliminary list” of other issues that need to be discussed and resolved for full normalization of relations: (a) the U.S. “lifting of the blockade [embargo];” (b) “the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base;” (c) “an end to illegal broadcasts by Radio and Televisión Marti;” (d) an “end to [U.S.] programs which were originally conceived to promote regime change” in Cuba and which for fiscal year 2016 have requests for funding of $20 million, especially in light of President Obama’s statement at the recent Summit of the Americas that the purpose of U.S. policy regarding Cuba was not regime change; [5] (e) “compensation for our country and our people for the damages caused by U.S. policy [primarily the embargo or blockade] over 50 years; ” and (f) restitution of Cuba’s frozen funds in the U.S.

The U.S., on the other hand, say the Cubans, has identified at least one issue for discussion in the second phase of negotiations: “compensation for the properties [of U.S. nationals] which were nationalized in Cuba at the beginning of the Revolution.” [6]

Moreover, Vidal said, the parties have not yet discussed how these issues would be discussed or resolved: “if a mechanism [such as commissions or groups] will be created;” or whether the issues would be discussed as a whole or separately.

According to the Gomez article in Granma, “the greatest challenge facing Cuba and the United States is establishing a relationship of civilized co-existence based on respect for their profound differences.”

 Conclusion

The Obama Administration and this blogger concur in the need for the U.S. to end the embargo (or “blockade” in Cuba’s view), which requires action by the U.S. Congress. Prior posts have discussed pending bills in the Senate and House of Representatives to do just that and urged U.S. citizens to press both chambers to pass such bills. Another post recommended submitting Cuba’s claim for money damages ($1.2 trillion as of last October) from the embargo/blockade to the Permanent Court of Arbitration where the U.S. can mount counter-evidence and arguments.

With respect to Guantanamo Bay, as discussed in a prior post, Cuba’s continually saying that the U.S. is “illegally” occupying the territory does not make it so and I do not think the U.S. would ever agree to such a legal conclusion. If Cuba continues to assert that contention, as I expect that it will, then the parties should submit the dispute for resolution by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The New York Times editorial board and this blogger agree with Cuba’s contention that the U.S. improperly has mounted covert, secret or “discreet” and ill conceived USAID programs to promote regime change in Cuba and that the U.S. should cease any and all such programs. Instead, it should propose joint-programs to the Cuban government for enhancement of Cuban human rights and democracy, and if and only if the Cubans agree, then the programs could proceed. (These issues were discussed in posts of 4/4/14, 4/9, 4/9, 8/12, 8/13 and 8/14).

The U.S. claims for money damages for compensation for Cuba’s expropriation of property owned by U.S. nationals and interests will obviously be discussed, as stated above, and in the likely event that the parties will not agree to the amount of such compensation, that too should be submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

In this process of working on the many issues that have accumulated over the last 50-plus years, both sides must recognize, as I think they do, the need to build mutual trust during the initial stages of diplomatic relations and, if all goes well, to the possible future relaxation of any restrictions. It does not help the process for bystanders, like Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, to loft scathing and premature criticisms of the process and to attempt to create new legislative roadblocks and impediments to that process.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Josefina Vidal discusses recent talks in Washington, Granma (May 26, 2015); Gómez, Seven key points, Granma (May 25, 2015); Cańedo, Cuba-United States after 17D [December 17], Cubadebate (May 25, 2015).

[2] Immediately after the May 21-22 negotiations in Washington, D.C., Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson, the U.S.’ lead diplomat, shared Vidal’s optimism. Jacobson said, “This round of talks was highly productive. . . . We have made significant progress in the last five months and are much closer to reestablishing relations and reopening embassies. . . . [W]e have gotten much closer than we were each time we talk. . . . I remain optimistic that we will conclude, but we still have a few things that need to be ironed out and we’re going to do that as quickly as possible.” On the other hand, according to Jacobson, “I’m also a realist about 54 years that we have to overcome.”

[3] These visits have included congressional trips in January, February (Senate and House), and May, and a visit by a major business delegation in March.

[4] Assistant Secretary Jacobson in her comments after the latest round of negotiations concurred that the Vienna Convention established the parameters for the functioning of the countries’ embassies and conceded that “there [is] a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries. We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range and so it won’t be unique. It won’t be anything that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. There are various circumstances in which embassies operate in somewhat restrictive environments. . . .[W]e have confidence that . . . our embassy will be able to function so that our officers can do their jobs as we expect them to do worldwide, but in highly varying locations around the world. So I have every expectation that it will fall within the range of other places where we operate.”

[5] Cuba correctly points out that USAID, on the one hand, proclaims on its public website that its Cuba programs “Provide humanitarian assistance (basic foodstuff, vitamins and personal hygiene supplies) to political prisoners and their families; Promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as support for independent civil society by strengthening leadership skills and providing opportunities for community organizing; and Facilitate information flow to, from and within the island” and that through four named private “partners” it has spent and will spend a total of $14.2 million for these programs for the three fiscal years ending 9/30/15 and an additional $20 million in Fiscal Year 2016.  USAID, on the other hand, has carried out these programs unilaterally, without the prior knowledge or consent, of the Cuban government. In addition, the U.S. Department of State at its Interests Section in Havana has hosted seminars for journalists and a Public Information Center with a lending library and Internet-enabled computers available to Cubans and others. Assistant Secretary Jacobson said at the May 22nd press conference, “[W]e have continued to request funds from Congress for various activities in support of the Cuban people [and] that those programs have changed over time since they began in 1996” and they might be changed in the future.

[6] A prior post discussed the issue of Cuba’s compensating U.S. owners of property expropriated in the Cuban Revolution. Moreover, the U.S. already has identified at least the following additional issues for further discussion and negotiation: extradition of persons for crimes in their home country (2/24/15 post) and Cuban human rights and democracy (posts of 3/27, 3/28, 3/29, 3/30 and 4/1), and such discussions already have been commenced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota has connections with Cuba that go back to the late 19th century. For most of this period (1890—2000), the connection has been indirect through our denomination (now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). The direct connections have been since 2001.

 Indirect Connections, 1890-1966

 In 1890 Cuban Presbyterianism started when a Cuban layman (Evaristo Collazo) asked the U.S. church’s Board of Foreign Missions for counsel and oversight for the school and worship services he and his wife Magdalena were holding in their home in Havana. That Board responded by sending Rev. Antonio Graybill, who held services, baptized forty adults, organized a congregation, ordained two Elders for the Session, and then ordained Callazo to the ministry and installed him as pastor. [1]

In 1904 the U.S. church organized the Presbytery of Havana with five pastors and seven congregations under the jurisdiction of the Synod of New Jersey. In 1930 it became the Presbytery of Cuba, but still as part of the Synod of New Jersey.

In 1946, the Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed Church joined with the Cuban Methodist and Episcopal churches to create the Evangelical Theological Seminary (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia or SET) in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. (In 2006 the Methodists withdrew from SET in order to establish their own seminary in Havana.)

In 1966 (five years after the Cuban Revolution), the overall governing body (the General Assembly) of the U.S. church approved an overture or motion by the Cuban Presbytery to be dismissed from the U.S. church in order to become an independent church. This overture came from the Cuban church’s recognition that it had to face on its own Cuba’s “new political, social and economic situation.” Cuba was now “socialist, shaken by a Revolution which left nothing untouched by its transformation,” and the Cuban church “had the responsibility of interpreting the Christian faith in its own environment.” One of Westminster’s former members, John Sinclair, then the U.S. church’s secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, played a key role in this change.

Indirect Connections, 1967-2000

At the inception of the independent Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed church, it had 3,082 members in 30 churches.

Immediately following its independence, the Cuban church adopted the U.S. church’s Confession of 1967 for its guidance, but started to develop its own theological reflection. The “Word of God became something nearer, more urgent, more vivid and more dramatic. The Church realized that God himself was involved in that revolutionary process which . . . led to the creation of a new society of greater justice for the people and of peace for society. The Gospel of ‘good news for the poor,’ of ‘freedom for the oppressed,’ and ‘sight for the blind’ came down upon us with all its prophetic implications.”

Ten years later, in 1977, the Cuban church adopted its own Confession of Faith to speak to Cubans’ contemporary situation. This Confession starts with “The Centrality of the Human Being Given in Jesus Christ.” It asserts that the “human being [is] the center of interest and concern of God” and, therefore, “of the Church of Jesus Christ.” The human being is an “econome” or steward of all things on behalf of God. “The human being is a social being and a free person. History is seen as “the Integrating Reconstruction of the Human Being, since the Human Being is being disintegrated by sin. . . . [and] the Kingdom of God [is] the Fulfillment of History.”

During this period, Westminster’s connections with Cuba continued to be indirect via its denomination. Here are some of the highlights of these events:

  • In 1985 the Presbytery of Long Island and the Presbytery of South Louisiana established contact and began visits to Cuban congregations in the Presbytery of Havana and the Presbytery of Matanzas respectively.
  • Also in 1985 the Cuban church invited agencies of the  PC(USA) to a consultation in Havana. They drafted a Mutual Mission Agreement that included procedures for forming ties between governing bodies of the two churches. The agreement was adopted by both General Assemblies in 1986.
  • In 1990 the Cuban church celebrated the Centennial of Presbyterianism in Cuba. Attending was a  Presbyterian delegation from the U.S.  Protestant Church leaders meet with Fidel Castro to discuss church-state relations. Castro asserts that religious groups were providing important support for the Cuban people in a time of great stress and should be respected. 
  • In 1995 the first Partnership Consultation was held in Havana, bringing together leaders of the Cuban church with staff of the U.S. denomination and representatives of the then four partner presbyteries: Long Island, Santa Fe, South Louisiana and Transylvania.
  • In 1996 the U.S. Presbyterian Cuba Connection was founded as an unofficial network of Presbyterians for interpretation, advocacy, and financial support of the life and mission of the Cuban church. That same year the leader of the U.S. church visited the Cuban church, participating in the October Conventions of the latter’s presbyteries.
  • In 1999 the Cuban Evangelical Celebration united the great majority of Cuba’s 49 Protestant Churches in a series of 19 municipal and four national public rallies, culminating on June 20 in the Jose Marti Revolution Plaza in Havana in a three-hour program of hymns, prayers, music, dance and a sermon attended by 100,000 persons, including President Fidel Castro and a number of government leaders.
  • In 2000 the Celebration of Mission Partnership in the New Millennium was held in Cuba bringing together  representatives of the U.S. church with an equal number of representatives of the Cuban church. A joint declaration of intention and commitment was adopted.

 Direct Connections, 2001- Present

During this period indirect connections similar to the ones previously mentioned continue, but now Westminster developed and strengthened its own direct connections.

In 2001 Westminster formed its Cuba Task Force to explore whether and how our congregation could have a more direct connection with the Cuban Church. (I was a member of this Task Force.) After a couple of exploratory trips to the island, we established a partnership in 2002 with Versalles Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas. In our written Covenant Agreement, for a set period of time, each congregation covenanted to pray for and with each other, to engage in Bible study together, to share our personal stories, to visit each other and to stand together against all that is unjust in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ. (This Covenant Agreement has been renewed several times.)

Since 2002, every year Westminster members have visited our partner congregation under several licenses from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Our visits typically include Sunday worship together, sometimes with our Spanish-speaking pastors delivering the sermon; attending meetings of its governing body (the Session); enjoying a fiesta at the church; having meals at the church and in the homes of members; visiting a school and medical clinic near the church; and staying in the church’s dormitory. The church also has printing equipment that prints materials for many of the Protestant churches on the island. (I have been on three such trips.) In more recent years some of Westminster’s high-school and college students have gone to our partner congregation to assist in conducting a Vacation Bible School for its young people and others from the neighborhood. (Our next trip to Cuba is this February.)

We also have hosted visits by Cubans from our partner and other Cuban churches and often helped defray the costs of their travel to the U.S. This coming June we are expecting the visit of a female member of the Cuban church to attend a national meeting of Presbyterian Women. In addition, last March we hosted a meeting of various churches and other organizations interested in Cuba with the First Secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. and in October with its Chief of Mission (or de facto Cuban Ambassador to the U.S.)

In 2002 we also formed a similar partnership with the governing body for the whole Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. In 2007, as part of its Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign, Westminster committed to make a substantial monetary grant over five years to the Cuban Synod to assist its education and development of ordained and lay leaders. These gifts have been made through the U.S. Treasury Department’s license to our denomination that permits certain transfers of money to Cuba.

Although Westminster does not have a formal partnership with SET (the ecumenical seminary) in Matanzas, we do have a close informal relationship. Today SET is an ecumenical institution for basic and advanced theological training of pastors and lay leaders of Cuban and other Latin American churches. It also is the home of the history of Cuban Protestantism and of the Ecumenical Movement in Cuba. In addition, SET is engaged in exchange programs with institutions in the U.S., Europe and the rest of Latin America. Situated on a hill overlooking Matanzas’ bay, it is one of the most beautiful places on the island with soft breezes usually flowing from the bay.

Since SET is in the same city as our partner congregation, our travelers to Cuba always visit the Seminary, and some of our financial grants to the Cuban Synod have subsequently gone to SET to assist in its education of church leaders. In addition, the current head of SET, Rev. Dr. Reinerio Arce, has visited Westminster several times and has delivered the Sunday sermon on at least one occasion. (This coming May or June he plans to visit us again with his yet unnamed successor as head of the seminary.)

Another way that Westminster carries out its Cuban ministry is keeping all members informed of our various activities on the island. All who go on mission trips, for example, commit to sharing their experiences with other church members. In addition, our church library now has many books about Cuba.

All of these direct connections with Cuba have prompted Westminster to become an active member of the Presbyterian Cuba Partners Network, a group of U.S. churches with Cuba partners. So too is Westminster an active member of the Presbyterian Cuba Connection that provides funds to the Cuban church under a general license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

As a result of this involvement, some members, including this blogger, have learned a lot about Cuba and its relations with the U.S. and have become advocates for improving those relations.

Nachito Herrera Concert at Westminster

As mentioned in a prior post, another example of our Cuba connections occurred this January 11th with a free concert at the church by Cuban-American jazz pianist Nachito Herrera.

Congressman Ellison
Congressman Ellison

Before the start of the concert itself, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison from the Twin Cities made brief remarks.[2] He said that President Obama’s December 17th announcement of the historic changes in the relationship of the two countries demonstrated the importance of persistence and hope for all who have been urging such changes for many years, as had most of the people in the audience. He congratulated us for having this persistence and hope. This lesson also was demonstrated, he said, by the current movie, “Selma,” which the Congressman recently had seen with his children. His parting injunction to us all: now we all need to keep the pressure on Congress to end the embargo and support the reconciliation.

Hart-Andersen & Herrera
Hart-Andersen & Herrera
Concert audience
Concert audience

 

Nachito was introduced by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, our Senior Pastor, who said our church has had a partnership with Nachito. We take things to his family in Cuba on some of our mission trips, and Nachito plays music at our church. Implicitly Tim was saying the church had the better part of that understanding.

To a capacity-crowd in our Great Hall, Nachito played Cuban music with great passion. He also told us that he was surprised and overjoyed by the December 17th news of the historic change in the two countries’ relationship and wanted to celebrate this important change by sharing his music with Westminster, which he regarded as part of his family. He also was very happy with the U.S. release from prison of the remaining three members of the Cuban Five, and in recognition of this event he returned his “Free the Cuban Five” button to two members of the Minnesota Cuba Committee.

Prof. August Nimtz, Jr., Aurora Gonzalez, Frank Curbelo & Nachito
Prof. August Nimtz, Jr., Aurora Gonzalez, Frank Curbelo & Nachito

Nachito concluded the concert by saying that he and his wife (Aurora Gonzalez) recently had become U.S. citizens and by playing a beautiful jazzy rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

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[1] This historical sketch of Presbyterianism in Cuba is  based on a summary of that history by Dean Lewis, a Presbyterian minister with long involvement with Cuba.

[2] Ellison is the Co-Chair of the House’s Progressive Caucus, which on December 17th released a statement that said the following: “Congress must lift the trade embargo and normalize travel between our two nations, which are only 90 miles apart. The Congressional Progressive Caucus looks forward to working with President Obama and members of Congress who want to stabilize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”

New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.- Cuba Relations

In an October 12th editorial the New York Times says, “For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo.” Indeed, in the Times’ opinion, these changes in U.S. policy should be accompanied by ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”[1]

 Editorial’s Commentary on Cuba’s Current Conditions

The Times points out that Cuba has “taken significant steps to liberalize and diversify the island’s tightly controlled economy.” This includes “allowing citizens to take private-sector jobs and own property.” encouraging foreign investment, constructing a major deep-sea port in Mariel with Brazilian capital and negotiating a cooperation agreement with the European Union. Although the pace of reform may seem slow and inconsistent, these are significant changes.

On the other hand, the Times asserts that the Cuban “government still harasses and detains dissidents . . . [and has not explained] the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of political activist Oswaldo Payá.” This is outweighed, however, by the Cuban government’s in recent years having “released political prisoners” and showing “slightly more tolerance for criticism of the [government’s leadership” while loosening travel restrictions “enabling prominent dissidents to travel abroad.”[1a]

Editorial’s Recommendations for U.S. Policy

End Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” The Times recommends that the U.S. “should remove Cuba from State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorist organizations . . . .   Cuba was put on the list in 1982 for backing terrorist groups in Latin America, which it no longer does. . . . [and Cuba now] is playing a constructive role in the conflict in Colombia by hosting peace talks between the government and guerrilla leaders.” [2]

End the Embargo. Just 16 days before the U.N. General Assembly is expected again to overwhelmingly approve Cuba’s resolution to condemn the embargo, the Times says the U.S should end its embargo of Cuba as it has become “clear to many American policy makers that the embargo was an utter failure.” In addition, now a slight majority of Cuban-Americans in Florida oppose the embargo.

“Fully ending the embargo will require Congress’s approval,” which may be difficult to obtain in this time of a dysfunctional Congress, but the Administration could “lift caps on remittances, allow Americans to finance private Cuban businesses and expand opportunities for travel to the island.”

Ending the embargo, according to the Times, “could also help American companies that are interested in developing the island’s telecommunications network but remain wary of the legal and political risks. Failing to engage with Cuba now will likely cede this market to competitors. The presidents of China and Russia traveled to Cuba in separate visits in July, and both leaders pledged to expand ties.”

In addition, ending the embargo would eliminate Cuba’s using the embargo as an excuse for the Cuban government’s shortcomings.[3]

Restoration of Diplomatic Relations. Says the Times, “Restoring diplomatic ties, which the White House can do without congressional approval, would allow the United States to expand and deepen cooperation in areas where the two nations already manage to work collaboratively — like managing migration flows, maritime patrolling and oil rig safety.[4] It would better position Washington to press the Cubans on democratic reforms, and could stem a new wave of migration to the United States driven by hopelessness.”

Closer ties could also bring a breakthrough on the case of an American development contractor, Alan Gross, who has been unjustly imprisoned by Cuba for nearly five years.[5] More broadly, it would create opportunities to empower ordinary Cubans, gradually eroding the government’s ability to control their lives.

In the opinion of the Times, Restoring relations would improve U.S. “relationships with governments in Latin America, and resolve an irritant that has stymied initiatives in the hemisphere.” The most current example of that irritant is “Latin American governments . . . [insisting] that Cuba, the Caribbean’s most populous island and one of the most educated societies in the hemisphere, be invited” to next year’s Summit of the Americas in Panama over U.S. opposition.

Moreover, “The [Cuban] government has said it would welcome renewed diplomatic relations with the United States and would not set preconditions” while a significant majority of Cuban-Americans favor restoring diplomatic ties, mirroring the views of other Americans.

Reactions to the Editorial 

I concur in all of the Times’ recommendations, but believe it understates the economic reasons for these changes in U.S. policy. Here is a fuller exposition of those economic reasons.

This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the Chief of Mission, Cuban Interests Section, said that the U.S. was running the risk of becoming economically irrelevant to Cuba. Many foreign countries, especially China, and foreign companies are developing good commercial relationships with Cuba and its new private businesses with ordinary commercial terms, unlike the U.S. sales of food and agricultural products under an exemption to the U.S. Helms-Burton Law that requires Cuba to pay in advance and in cash for such products. This U.S. practice is not a good way to encourage future business. Moreover, the new Mariel port and its adjacent business park is attracting interest from companies all over the world, and if all the space in that park is committed to these foreign companies, there will be nothing left for U.S. companies.

The geographical setting of the new Mariel port is strategic in terms of trade, industry and services in Latin America and the Caribbean. On the northern cost of Cuba only 45 km west of Havana, it is located along the route of the main maritime transport flows in the western hemisphere. As the largest industrial port in the Caribbean, it will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology to handle cargo from the larger container ships that will begin to arrive when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in December 2015. Those larger ships can carry up to 12,500 containers, triple the capacity of the current ships, and the port’s warehouse capacity is 822,000 containers. Here are some photos of the development of this port.

Mariel PortMariel3

The Mariel project includes highways connecting the port with the rest of the country, a railway network, and communication infrastructure. In the adjacent special zone, currently under construction, there will be productive, trade, agricultural, port, logistical, training, recreational, tourist, real estate, and technological development and innovation activities in installations that include merchandise distribution centers and industrial parks.

The special zone is divided into eight sectors, to be developed in stages. The first involves telecommunications and a modern technology park where pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms will operate. Other sectors include renewable energies, agriculture and food, chemical, construction materials, logistics and rental equipment. For the last four sectors Cuba is currently studying the approval of 23 projects from Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The May 2014 visit to Cuba by a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce evidences U.S. businesses’ cognizance of these economic and commercial realities. The delegation’s head and the Chamber’s president, Thomas Donohue,  said in a speech in Havana, “For years, the US Chamber of Commerce has demanded that our government eliminate the commercial embargo on Cuba. It’s time for a new approach.” At the conclusion of the trip he said the delegation and Cuban officials had “talked about steps forward that might be taken by both countries” to improve U.S.-‪Cuba relations and that their meetings with President Raul Castro had been “positive.” In addition, the Chamber in congressional testimony has called for an end to the embargo and has supported proposed legislation to end the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to the island and easing restrictions on U.S. exports of farm and medical products.

Another sign of U.S. companies’ interest in Cuba is the visit to the island this past June by Google executives. They said they discussed increasing Cubans access to the Internet and Cuba’s need for improving its Internet technology.

These U.S. economic concerns were highlighted in February 2014 by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who earlier had led a visit with four other Senators to Cuba. Leahy said, “Trade with Latin America is the fastest growing part of our international commerce.  Rather than isolate Cuba with outdated policies, we have isolated ourselves.  Our Latin, European and Canadian friends engage with Cuba all that time.  Meanwhile, U.S. companies are prohibited from any economic activity on the island.” Therefore, the Senator said, “It is time – past time – to modernize our policies and the frozen-in-time embargo on Americans’ travel and trade with Cuba that have accomplished nothing but to give the Cuban regime a scapegoat for the failures of the Cuban economy.  Change will come to Cuba, but our policies have delayed and impeded change.  It is time to elevate the voice of a crucial stakeholder:  the American people. Thanks to this [recent public opinion] poll, they are silent no longer. It is time to recognize that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been unsuccessful in achieving any of its objectives.”

Given the limited space for an individual editorial, the New York Times editorial does not discuss any of the other many issues that need to be addressed by the two countries in order to establish truly normal relations. Nor does it discuss how this normalization process can happen or be facilitated.

In contrast, this blog repeatedly has suggested both counties need a neutral third-party with the resources and commitment to act as mediator and has called for such a third-party to step forward to offer such services, rather than waiting for the U.S. or Cuba to make such a proposal unilaterally or for the two countries to agree to such a mediation. [6]

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[1] Interestingly the online version of the editorial is titled “End the U.S. Embargo on Cuba” with a linked Spanish translation while the print version is titled “The Moment to Restore Ties to Cuba.”

[1a] This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the Chief of Mission, Cuban Interests Section, emphasized that Cuba now has term limits on every governmental office, including president: two terms of five years each for a total limit of 10 years, and Raul Castro has announced that this applies to him and thus ends his term as president in 2018. Dr. Cabañas also emphasized that many younger people are taking over many governmental positions and that there has been a decentralization of power to municipalities.

[2] This blog has provided detailed criticism of the ridiculous, absurd, stupid and cowardly rationales provided by the U.S. for such designations in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

[3] This blog has provided criticisms of the embargo.

[4] This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez also said that the U.S. and Cuba in recent years have had bilateral discussions regarding migration, drug trafficking, search and rescue in the Florida straits, stopping oil spills in the Caribbean, airline security measures, scientific exchanges and restoration of direct telephone and mail services. In addition, the U.S. has invited or permitted an invitation to Cuba to attend a Clean Oil Conference in San Antonio, Texas in December 2014.

[5] Although it certainly is debatable whether Mr. Gross was unjustly convicted in Cuban courts for violating Cuban law, I agree that it is in the U.S. national interest to have him released and returned to the U.S. Cuba, however, has argued that the three of the “Cuban Five” still in U.S. prisons should also be released and allowed to return to their homes. At a minimum, I believe that negotiations between the two countries could and should lead to at least a one-for-one exchange with the U.S. President commuting the sentence of one of the three Cubans to time served.

[6] This blog has called for normalization of Cuba-U.S. relations and has criticized the U.S. for insisting on preconditions for holding any talks with Cuba to improve relations. Another blog post was a public letter to President Obama recommending reconciliation with Cuba. In addition, this year a group of 50 prominent Americans issued a public letter to the President urging him to take executive action to expand U.S. involvement with Cuba. Another blog post criticized recent opposition to pursuing such reconciliation.