Examination of the Actions of EchoCuba (a U.S. Nonprofit)

The Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba (ECHO Cuba), a U.S. nonprofit organization, has emerged as one that calls for close examination by U.S. citizens interested in U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation. EchoCuba is active in Cuba, including successful public opposition to a provision of the then proposed new Cuban constitution and commenting on other controversial Cuban issues. It has received significant financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Finally EchoCuba has been used by the State Department as one of only two primary sources for the department’s most recent (and critical) annual report on Cuban religious freedom. These activities have not yet received the serious attention that they deserve. This blog post endeavors to start that examination.

ECHOCuba’s Background [1]

The organization was founded in 1994 by Cuban-American Teo Babún. Soon thereafter it was denounced in the Cuban TV news series “Razones de Cuba” for promoting subversion on the island, with funding from the U.S. government, by publishing counterrevolutionary blogs and printed propaganda and by hosting public events.

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, has reported that Senor Babún and his family before the triumph of the Revolution “owned the second largest sugarmill in the eastern part of [Cuba]; the Diamante construction company; a cement factory; the Sevilla estate; and the Santiago de Cuba ship line.” After 1959, however, he and his family left the island for Miami, where he made connections with the “annexionist” mafia [Cuban exiles], supported the U.S.-organized mercenary invasion of Play Girón [Bay of Pigs in 1961] and a subsequent terrorist attack on the coastal town of Boca de Samá in 1971.

A noted Cuban intellectual and historian, Nestor Garcia Iturbe, added that Senor Babún is (or was) the executive director of Americas Humanitarian Relief Logistics Team, Inc. (ART) , which says that it “provides aid to hurting people in the Americas” and “disaster response assistance throughout the Americas” as well as partnering with the U.S. Navy’s Southern Command and with “USAID and UN/OCHA through the U.N. Humanitarian System.” Indeed, Garcia says this organization also is a recipient of USAID fund. Another organization created by Babún was the Claims Register Assistance to aid persons who wanted to file claims in the 1960s with the U.S. Department of Justice for their Cuban properties that had been expropriated by the Fidel Castro regime.

The current website for EchoCuba states that its mission is “to equip and strengthen the independent evangelical churches of Cuba through theological education and leadership training of their existing and future pastors. . . . Since the early 1990s, . . . [it] has existed to advocate faith and freedoms in Cuba through a vast network of mostly . . . Protestant and Roman Catholic churches who have promoted Christian education, humanitarian aid, and small business initiatives.”

EchoCuba says in 2002 it “cooperated with different foundations and organizations  in distributing humanitarian assistance and training manuals on carrying out social and human services, such as caring for the elderly, disabled, and malnourished children. It also has aided in reaching out to the most marginalized pockets of Cuba’s populations, including the families of those persecuted by the communist regime for their beliefs and ideals.”

“Today [date not specified] we embark on a new chapter . . . [to focus on] the development of effective Christian leadership to promote Biblical truth while transforming communities. . . [and empowering] the in We collaborate with local leaders, seminaries and communities in the island to bring the Gospel to the masses.”

Yet another of its activities is “faith-based advocacy.” It correctly notes that Cuba was an “atheist state” and that during that period Christians suffered. It also claims that freedom of religion today on the island is “not fully available, and persecution of those who publicly profess a creed exists today.” [This statement is true for the period 1959-1992], but misleading on the years since then.]

EchoCuba also participates in the First Frontier Cuba Network, which “serves as a convening platform, which stewards and directs the investment of North American resources, time, energy and manpower wisely to directly respond to the continuing needs of the Cuban Church. [This Network] has been created to provide consultation and leadership to catalyze the right kind of change in Cuba, without harm, confusion, and fragmentation; and to be the voice of Cuban missiology that guides ministry action towards long-term and productive change for the Kingdom of God.”

The final activity listed on its website is “fighting Biblical poverty.” It claims in the last two decades, “Christianity has grown in Cuba in an unprecedented rate. With a population of 11 million, and only 10%-20% of that population being active Christians, the demand for Bibles is unlike any other point in history. For most Christians in Cuba, they feel isolated from the world. The government and its last of freedom restrict the ability of Christians to access the outside world through literature, internet, television even the distribution of Christian material including the Sword of God [the Bible]. In Cuba there are no places to buy or print Bibles on the island. However God always opens doors. Recently, easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba [with President Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba] after fifty years offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to receive bibles from international organizations like EchoCuba. Now, you can help Cubans discover the life and love of Jesus found in God’s Word. EchoCuba has vowed to bring the Gospel any way it can to God’s faithful servants in Cuba.”

The website also claims that “Churches in Cuba are not legally allowed to be constructed, [thereby forcing] God’s people . . . to operate through house churches, which hold no legal recognition from the government. Cuba has over 25,000 house churches on the island. The average house church holds an average of 20 to 40 members, on average only 5-10 bibles are available for the entire congregation. We believe that by providing Church leaders and seminarians with Bible and Scripture resources, even more people will experience the transformative power of God’s love for all of us. Our 2015 goal is to provide 5,000 bibles to Churches in Cuba.”

EchoCuba also is a member, since November 2007, of EFCA, which “provides accreditation to leading Christian nonprofit organizations that faithfully demonstrate compliance with established standards for financial accountability.”

EchoCuba’s Financial Support by USAID [2]

Although it is not mentioned on EchoCuba’s website, USAID, for fiscal 2009-2017, paid $2,302,464 to EchoCuba. Of this total, $1,033,582 was “for a three-year program entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society by Strengthening Economic Independence.’” Another $1,179,066 was for the Cuba Humanitarian Support Network, which was “aimed at providing “humanitarian aid to Cuba’s vulnerable religious leaders” and creating a “humanitarian network for the sustainable delivery of essential food and health supplies to marginalized Cubans and their family members.” In addition, EchoCuba to date has received at least $1,003,674 from USAID during the Trump presidency.

ECHOCuba’s Recent Activities in Cuba [3]

In late 2018, some Cuban evangelical churches, encouraged by EchoCuba and other U.S. conservative evangelical churches and organizations, registered strong objections to a provision of the proposed new Cuban Constitution that would have legalized same-sex marriage. According to Andrew Chestnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, ““Both the moral and financial support of U.S. Evangelical denominations and agencies has been crucial to backing Cuban Evangelicals in their campaign to oppose gay marriage on the island.”

In response, in December 2018, the Cuban government withdrew that provision before the new constitution was approved in a national referendum.

This year, Cuban evangelical churches and groups, with the support of similar groups in the U.S., objected to Cuba’s version of a gay pride parade in May, resulting in its cancelation by the organizers of the event.

In July 2019, EchoCuba was involved in the creation of the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches  as separate from the longstanding Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) on the ground that the latter did not represent their beliefs, including opposition to same-sex marriage. According to Elaine Saralegui Caraballo, a lesbian pastor and founder of a Cuban division of the Metropolitan Community Church, said, “The creation of this Alliance fosters a space of unity, from which the whole economic, spiritual, religious, and political force of the Christian fundamentalist churches will be deployed” and that the Alliance’s goal was to promote “Christian supremacy” with the guidance of the U.S. far right, in a similar manner as has occurred in other Latin American countries.”

EchoCuba as Source for State Department on Cuban Religious Freedom [4]

The latest State Department’s report on international religious freedom that was released in June 2019 contained many adverse allegations about that freedom in Cuba with only two principal stated sources, one of which was EchoCuba (without any disclosure about its funding by USAID).

That report contained the following statements about the evangelical or apostolic churches:

  • “There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International.  According to some Christian leaders, there is a marked growth of evangelical Protestant groups in the country.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the ORA [Communist Party’s’ Office of Religious Affairs] approved some registration applications, but it took as many as two to three years from the date of the application.  Other applications received no response or were denied without explanation, while some groups continued to wait for up to 25 years for a response.  EchoCuba said Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing these churches to operate without legal status.”
  • “In October leaders of Apostolic churches including Bernardo de Quesada, Alain Toledanos, and Marco Antonio Perdomo, issued an official statement on behalf of non-registered groups, which they said are ‘in practice discriminated against,’ urging the government to establish a new statute formally defining and granting the right to, and laying out procedures for, legal registration of religious organizations by the MOJ [Ministry of Justice].  The ORA and the MOJ did not announce any progress on revising the law on associations, announced in August 2017.”
  • “In March the New Apostolic Church, not affiliated with the many loosely affiliated Apostolic churches, registered with the MOJ.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not.  Similarly, the government continued to reward religious leaders who were cooperative with the government and threatened revocation of those rights for noncooperative religious leaders.  EchoCuba reported that, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits other non-member churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad.  EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to single out religious groups critical of the government, such as the unregistered Apostolic Movement, for particularly severe persecution, destroying their churches, confiscating properties, and banning travel of their pastors.  In contrast, the government allowed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also unregistered, to operate with little intervention because the Church continued to maintain a close relationship with the government and did not question the country’s laws.  Some religious leaders said the government continued to grant permits to buy properties for use as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there.  Other religious groups said securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish.  A decree continued to place restrictions on internal movement and migration, making it difficult, if not impossible, for pastors and their families to register their new place of residence if they transferred to a church that lost its pastor due to death or retirement.  To engage with even the smallest of bureaucratic details, pastors refused the right to reregister needed to travel to wherever they were officially registered and submit the paperwork there.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.  According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities.  Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from travelling within the country to attend special events or meetings.  Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from travelling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.”

As pointed out in a prior post, this State Department report made only the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): ““Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

Criticism of U.S. Report on Cuban Religious Freedom [5]

This report’s ever so brief reference to the CIC, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.

Relevant here is CIC’s statement (on or about July 17, 2019) in response to the announced intent to create the previously mentioned Evangelical Alliance if Cuban Churches. “We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto ‘United to Serve‘ which states:

  • ‘We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
  • ‘Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.’
  • ‘Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church.’
  • ‘The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers.’

Therefore, the CIC statement continued, “It is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.” It then added the following:

  • “In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”
  • “On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”
  • “God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”
  • “The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Personal Testimony [6]

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which for the last 17 years has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I have been on three mission trips to the island to visit our partner and other churches and the office of the CIC. I also have welcomed Cuban visitors to our church in Minneapolis, have discussed other members’ trips to the island, have read widely about many aspects of Cuban-U.S. history and have written many blog posts criticizing hostile U.S. policies and actions against Cuba and encouraging reconciliation and normalization of relations. As a result I now have many Cuban-Presbyterian friends and can testify that these churches and members as well as the CIC enjoy many aspects of religious freedom and embrace a warm and loving Christian faith.

Therefore, it is totally illegitimate for the State Department virtually to ignore the faith and work of these churches and members and of the CIC. It also is illegitimate for the Department and others in the U.S. government implicitly to assume that some U.S. notions of religious freedom should apply to Cuba without considering the vast differences in economic circumstances. This especially is true with respect to building new church buildings. Like the U.S., construction permits are needed in Cuba for new buildings, religious and otherwise. That does not make such construction illegal, as is claimed in the previously mentioned State Department report. Moreover, the granting of such permits in Cuba is inhibited by limitations on the island’s financial resources.

Although I did not visit Cuba during the period of its close relationship with the Soviet Union, until 1992, it is true that Christians and other religious people were discriminated against. However, Cuba did not assassinate or disappear religious opponents of the regime as was done by the right-wing government of El Salvador in the 1980’s. On one of my trips to our partner church on the island, one of the members told me that she had not been brave enough to have been a Christian during those prior years. Another member told me that he had been in seminary with the pastor of our partner, but he had left the Cuban church in order to become a public school teacher. Now that he was retired, he again freely could attend church.

After the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba adopted a more conciliatory position towards religion and lessened its promotion of atheism. In November 1991 the Communist Party began to allow believers into its ranks, and in July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism–Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Another important change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased acceptance of religion in Cuba, several Protestant pastors became members of the National Assembly, two of whom I have met: Rev. Sergio Arce, a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, and Rev. Raúl Suarez, a Baptist pastor.[ii]

In 2004 the first Greek Orthodox Cathedral opened in Havana; shortly thereafter I visited the island and saw flags welcoming Greek Orthodox Archbishop Bartholomew to the city while my Presbyterian delegation delivered an icon to the new Cathedral from a Minneapolis’ Greek Orthodox Church. Four years later, in 2008, the first Russian Orthodox Church was opened in Havana during an official ceremony attended by then President Raúl Castro. Three Popes have visited the island: Pope John Paul II (1998), Pope Benedict XVI (2012) and Pope Francis (2015).[iii]

Nevertheless, it must be noted that upon the recent appointment of Monsignor Juan de la Caridad as the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba lamented that the Catholic Church on the island does not have schools, universities, newspapers, radio stations or welfare centers while less than 3% of the population attends Sunday Mass even though at least half confess being of that faith.[iv]

The recent State Department report on Cuban religious freedom also blindly accepts assertions by EchoCuba and Christian Solidarity Worldwide about alleged Cuban discrimination and persecution of various evangelical churches, especially when at least EchoCuba receives USAID funds. The U.S. government should not forget or ignore that the State Department and USAID over the years have helped finance so-called U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts on the island that in reality were efforts at “regime change.” As a result, it is reasonable for Cuba to exercise close surveillance of the activities of such organizations.

Conclusion [7]

As someone who strives to follow Jesus as a member of a Presbyterian Church, I am glad to see the U.S. emphasizing the importance of religious freedom around the world. However, given the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election and the support for Trump in the last election by many U.S. evangelical leaders and groups, one has to wonder whether current U.S. hostility towards Cuba and the Trump Administration programs like the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and the first two of promised annual Ministerials on International Religious Freedom are really designed to solidify that U.S. domestic political support for the re-election of Donald Trump.

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[1] EchoCuba; Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba? Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011).

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019;); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019)

[4] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019); State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019); U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom, dwkcommenaries.com (July 18, 2019).

[5] Background on the Cuban Council of Churches; World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Joint Statement of the Cuban Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (Apr. 25, 2019); Larkman, Cuba contingent hopes to further partnership between U.S., Cuban churches (Nov. 13, 2017); Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba, Wikipedia

[6] E.g., Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation, dwkcommentareis.com (Dec. 22, 2014); The Cuban Revolution and Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 30, 2011); posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” section of List of Post to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA; Bishops lament that the Catholic church lacks a ‘massive social presence in Cuba,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 3, 2019).

[7] See posts  to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights; U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentries.com  (July 7, 2019); U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom , dwkcommentaries.com(July 21, 2019); Realpolitik Analysis of U.S. Ministerial To Advance Religious Liberty and U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 23, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba?, Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011); EchoCuba, About US; ECFA, ECHOCuba.

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019).