National Security Advisor Bolton Discusses New U.S. Sanctions Against Cuba

On April 17, as discussed in a prior post, the U.S. State Department announced new sanctions against Cuba. The major change was eliminating the waiver of Title III of the Helms-Burton (LIBERTAD) Act allowing U.S. litigation by U.S. owners of Cuban property that was expropriated by the Cuban government in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. This Act also allows the U.S. to deny or revoke U.S. visas to any person or corporate officer “involved in the confiscation of property or trafficking in confiscated property,” as well as their family members.

Later that same day in a Miami speech National Security Advisor John Bolton  proudly announced that “President Trump decided to END the Helms-Burton Title III Waivers, once and for all and that under Title IV of Helms-Burton no U.S. visas would be issued to “anyone who traffics in property stolen from Americans.” In addition, Bolton announced additional anti-Cuba measures.[1] As noted in a prior post, Bolton’s hostility towards Cuba is not new.

The Additional New Sanctions

The additional new sanctions announced by Bolton are the following:

  • Remittances from Cubans in the U.S. to family members on the island will be reduced by the U.S. Treasury Department to $1,000 per person [payor or payee?] per quarter. According to Bolton, the unlimited remittances permitted by the Obama Administration had allowed the Cuban government to evade U.S. sanctions and obtain access to hard currencies.
  • “Non-family travel” or “veiled tourism” to Cuba will be subject to new (and unspecified) restrictions in order to “steer American dollars away from the Cuban regime, or its military and security services, who control the tourism industry in Cuba.” (However, there still are 12 categories of permissible U.S. nationals travel to Cuba under Treasury Department regulations.)
  • The State Department will add five companies to its Cuba Restricted List, including Aerogaviota, an airline controlled by Gaviota, a group of tourism-relative companies controlled by the Cuban Armed Forces.[2]
  • The U.S. Treasury Department will adopt new regulations to “end the use of “U-turn transactions,” which allow the regime to circumvent sanctions and obtain access to hard currency and the U.S. banking system.”

Bolton’s Remarks

Bolton, once again, referred to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as the “troika of tyranny” and their leaders as “the three stooges of socialism.” They all now are “beginning to crumble” and the U.S. “looks forward to watching each corner of this sordid triangle of terror fail.”

While accusing Cuba of propping up Venezuela’s Maduro with thousands of security force members in the country, Bolton also warned “all external actors, including Russia, against deploying military assets to Venezuela to prop up the Maduro regime.”. The United States will consider “such provocative actions a threat to international peace and security in the region.” Bolton noted  that Moscow recently sent in military flights carrying 35 tons of cargo and a hundred personnel.

In short, from Bolton’s perspective, “the destinies of our nations will not be dictated by foreign powers; they will be shaped by the people who call this Hemisphere hme. Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” (Emphasis added.)

In addition, Bolton had harsh words for President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. The National Security Advisor said, “Tragically, the Obama administration’s misguided Cuba policy provided the Cuban regime with the necessary political cover to expand its malign influence and ideological imperialism across the region.” He added, “In no uncertain terms, the Obama administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela today.” The Trump Administration’s changes were designed to reverse “the disastrous Obama-era policies, and finally end the glamorization of socialism and communism.”

“To justify its policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, President Obama said Cuba (quote) ‘poses no genuine threat.’ Tell that to the American diplomats who were attacked in Havana. Tell that to the terrorized people of Venezuela. The reality is that the Obama government sought to normalize relations with a tyrannical dictatorship.”  In contrast, Bolton reminded his audience that Trump met with Cuban opposition activists like the Ladies in White and called the late Fidel Castro “a brutal dictator.”

Bolton also implicitly criticized Obama by saying “Naïve beliefs have now given way to clear-eyed common sense. We are no longer surrendering American liberty in the name of global governance. We are no longer selling out our friends to appease our adversaries. [We] are no longer sacrificing the interests of the American people to pursue idealistic fantasies—in Havana, Tehran, or anywhere else.”

After reciting the U.S. and allies’ efforts regarding Venezuela, Bolton said when Maduro falls, “we know that Cuba will be next.”

“Let me be clear: The Trump administration will NEVER, EVER abandon you,” Bolton said. “We will need your help in the days ahead. We must all reject the forces of communism and socialism in this hemisphere — and in this country.”

The Ignominious Timing and Location of the Announcement

Bolton intentionally and ignominiously chose the date and location for this announcement. Last week Bolton tweeted, “[I am] Pleased to announce that I will be joining the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association on April 17 in Miami to deliver remarks on the important steps being taken by the Administration to confront security threats related to Cuba, Venezuela, and the democratic crisis in Nicaragua.”

The date, April 17, was the 58th anniversary of the U.S. disastrous invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón). Recall that this failed military invasion of Cuba was undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored paramilitary group Brigade 2506.  The U.S. gravely underestimated the force-power in Cuba and consequently led their troops to their own destruction. The U.S.-sponsored combatants were members of a counter-revolutionary military group (made up of mostly Cuban exiles who had traveled to the U.S. after Castro’s takeover plus some U.S. military personnel).This invading force was defeated within three days by the Cuba Revolutionary Armed Forces under the direct command of Fidel Castro.[3]

The location of Bolton’s remarks was  the Miami gathering of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. In his remarks Bolton paid them homage. He compared the aging Cuban Americans to “the brave men of Bunker Hill, Belleau Wood and Normandy,” and said the new measures were being undertaken to “honor your courage . . . by boldly confronting the evils of socialism and communism in the hemisphere.”

In his remarks, Bolton said, “This is just the beginning. As long as the people of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua stand for freedom, the United States will stand with them. The remarkable story of Brigade 2506 helped inspire President Trump’s hard-hitting Cuba policy. During the 2016 campaign, he visited you here in Miami, he heard your heroic accounts, he saw your stirring pictures and today he is proud to stand by your side.”

“Together, we can finish what began on those beaches, on those famous days in April, 58 years ago today,” Bolton said to rousing applause from the aging brigade members who backed Trump in 2016 when he narrowly won the state.

Conclusion

Bolton’s vigorous embrace of the Monroe Doctrine is outrageous. That Doctrine is a self-proclaimed right to intervene militarily and otherwise in any other country in the Western Hemisphere when a U.S. president deems it appropriate.  From a Latin America perspective it was often seen as a U.S. license to intervene at will in other countries’ internal affairs and is contrary to international law. It, therefore, was entirely appropriate for then Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 to state that “ the Monroe Doctrine is dead once and for all.”[4]

Also inappropriate was Bolton’s criticism of President Obama’s adoption of policies to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations. I thought and still think that was one of his administration’s greatest accomplishments.[5]

Another objection needs to be registered to Bolton’s comments about the Bay of Pigs. The U.S. financed, organized and ineptly assisted the Bay of Pigs invasion, I always have regarded it as horrible stain on U.S. relations with Cuba that repeatedly needs to be denounced.

Future posts will look at reactions to these U.S. policies from Cuba, the U.S. and other countries.

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[1] This post was updated after discovering on April 20 the text of Bolton’s speech on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.  See U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Ambassador Bolton Bay of Pigs Veterans Asociation-Brigade 2506 (April 17, 2019); Gámez Torres, Bolton coming to Miami to discuss U.S. action on Miami to discuss action on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Miami Herald (April 12, 2019); Solomon, Reichmann & Lee (AP), Trump Cracks Down on Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, Wash. Post (April 17, 2019); DeYoung, Trump administration announces new measures against Cuba, Wash. Post (April 17, 2019); Bolton announces new sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Wash. Post  (Jan. 17. 2019 (partial video of Bolton’s remarks); Gámez Torres, U.S. restricts travel, remittances to Cuba as part of a new policy under Trump, Miami Herald (April 17, 2019).

[2] These five entities were added to the Cuba Restricted List on April 24, 2019: State Dep’t, Department of State Updates the Cuba Restricted List (April 24, 2019); State Dep’t, List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated with Cuba as of April 24, 2019 (April 24, 2019). See also these posts to dwkcommentarie.com: New Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Certain Cuban Entities (Nov. 8, 2017); More Cuban Businesses Forbidden to U.S. Visitors (Nov. 16, 2018); U.S. Authorizes U.S. Litigation Against Entities on Cuba Restricted List (Mar. 5, 2019); Cuba Modifies Its Cuba Restricted List (Mar. 13, 2019).

[3] Bay of Pigs Invasion, Wikipedia; Brigade 2506: Official Site of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.

[4] Johnson, Kerry Makes It Official: ‘Era of Monroe Doctrine Is Over,’ W.S.J. (Nov. 18, 2013).

[5] See posts listed in the “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization), 2014,” “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization), 2015,” “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization), 2016,” and “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization), 2017” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

 

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

More Cuban Arrests of Dissidents

On Human Rights Day (December 10) the U.S. State Department launched an international campaign calling on 10 governments around the world to free 10 political prisoners. Such Political prisoners, the U.S. said, “should be free to believe. They should be free to be loved. They should be free to be home.”

One of them is Cuban Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, who is ‎”affiliated with the Cubalex Legal Information Center, an NGO that works to provide citizens with free legal assistance. On September 23, authorities arrested Julio during a raid on the organization’s Havana office, where they also confiscated office equipment and files, and even strip-searched some of the staff. He had a suspended three-year sentence from allegedly falsifying public documents, a charge which civil society groups say is politically motivated. Julio Alfredo’s family didn’t know his whereabouts for several days after the arrest, but he has since been able to communicate with his daughter.”[1]

There also have been recent arrests of other Cuban dissidents.[2]

On December 18, in Santiago de Cuba, the police raided the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in Santiago de Cuba and eight other homes of activists in that city, Havana and Palma Soriano.

A total of 115 UNPACU dissidents were arrested. This included their leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer. As of December 20, several were still detained and two, Lisandra Rivera Rodríguez and José Luis Álvarez Chacón, were allegedly charged with alleged “attempted” crimes.

In addition, the police seized UNPACU laptop computers, CDs, cell phones and other equipment used by the dissidents.

Members of another dissident group, Ladies in White, were arrested this past Sunday and prevented from attending mass at a Catholic church, and on December 20 more than 40 such members were detained and prevented from attending a Literary Tea in Central Park in Old Havana.

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[1] A prior post discussed the raid and arrests at Cubalex.

[2] Ferrer, UNPAC and the homes of several activists, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 18, 2016); The regime breaks its own repressive marks: 115 UNPACU activists were detained on Sunday, DiariodeCuba (Dec. 20, 2016); Some 30 Ladies in White arrested in Havana and Matanzas, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 18, 2016); More than 40 Ladies in White detained in Havana to prevent them from attending a literary tea, DiariodeCuba (Dec. 20, 2016).

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.”