Guilty Judgment in 1989 Murder of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador   

On September 11, 2020, Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, found former Salvadoran Colonel, Inocente Orlando Montano (now 77 years old), guilty of the “terrorist murders” of  five Jesuit priests who were Spaniards, in San Salvador, the Capital of El Salvador, 31 years ago. The court found that Montano took part in the decision to “execute Ignacio Ellacuría as well as anyone in the area – regardless of who they were – so as not to leave behind any witnesses.”

The court then sentenced Montano to 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the five murders for a total of 133 years. However, he will not spend more than 30 years in prison, the judges said. This was after a trial of the only Salvadoran military officer who was extradited to Spain to stand trial under the international legal principle of universal jurisdiction authorizing jurisdiction in a state other than the site of the crime for human rights crimes.[1]

The Spanish NGO that was involved in the case, Guernica Centre for International Justice, published a background of the case, daily reports about the trial and the court’s decision. [2]

Also killed  in the same event were a Salvadoran Jesuit and two Salvadoran women, but those killings were not before the Spanish court.

The path to this legal judgment has been long and complicated.

The Murder of the Jesuit Priests

The murder of the Jesuit priests, one of the most horrendous crimes during the country’s civil war, occurred in the early hours of November 16, 1989, when a group of Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the residences of the Jesuit priests, who were UCA professors and advocates for the poor people of the country, and shot and killed the five Spanish priests–Father Ignacio Ellacuria (UCA’s Rector), Ignacio Martin-Barò (UCA’s Vice Rector), Segundo Montes (Director of UCA’s Human Rights Center), Armando Lòpez and Juan Ramôn Moreno.  The murdered Salvadoran Jesuit was Joaquin Lôpez y Lôpez, and the two murdered Salvadoran women were the priests’ cook and her daughter.[3]

Salvadoran Legal Proceedings Over This Crime

Immediately afterwards high officials of the Salvadoran military engaged in attempting to cover up its involvement in this horrendous crime, but international outrage and pressure caused the country to create a Salvadoran commission that investigated and reported that four officers and five soldiers were responsible for this crime and they along with another officer were brought to trial in that country for this crime in September 1991. A jury decided that the five officers were guilty of various crimes and sentenced them to prison, but acquitted the five soldiers. [4]

In 1992 the Salvadoran legislature enacted a General Amnesty Law that led that year to the release from prison of those convicted of the Jesuit murders.[5] In 2016, however, the Salvadoran Supreme Court held that the General Amnesty Law was unconstitutional, and at least one of those who had been convicted, sentenced and then released under that Law (Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno) was ordered to return to prison after the invalidation of that Law.[6]

The Truth Commission for El Salvador[7]

On January 16, 1992, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN rebels signed the peace agreement to end the civil war. One of its provisions was the creation of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, whose report on March 15, 1993 had detailed findings about the murder of the Jesuits, including the following:

  • “There is substantial evidence that on the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of and in collusion with General Juan Rafael Bustillo, then Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, gave Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides the order to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. For that purpose, Colonel Benavides was given the use of a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion, which two days previously had been sent to search the priest’s residence.”
  • “There is full evidence that:

(a) That same night of 15 November, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the officers at the Military College of the order he had been given for the murder. When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.

(b) The operation was organized by then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and carried out by a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion under the command of Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos.”

Prior Proceedings in Spain’s Case[8]

In November 2008 a U.S. NGO (Center for Justice & Accountability) and a Spanish NGO filed a criminal case over the killing of the Jesuits  against 14 Salvadoran military officers and the country’s former President Cristiani. In January 2009 the Spanish court accepted the case against the military officers and soldiers, but declined to do so with respect to Cristiani although reserving the right to do so later.

On May 30, 2011, the Spanish court issued an indictment and arrest warrants for 20 of the top leaders of El Salvador’s civil war, accusing them of crimes against humanity and state terrorism in meticulously planning and carrying out the killings of the Jesuit priests in November 1989. One was Inocente Orlando Montano, who in 1989 was the vice minister of public safety.

Subsequently in complicated proceedings El Salvador denied extradition of all these requests for those living in the country. Only Montano, who had been living in the U.S. and who had been tried and convicted for lying in U.S. immigration papers, was extradited to Spain by the U.S.

Conclusion

After this decision by the Spanish court, UCA requested the Criminal Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to resolve a long-pending appeal by six other former military officers accused of involvement in the Jesuits murders so that their guilt can be adjudicated. UCA’s Rector, Andreu Oliva, said, “”We are confident that the evidence presented at the Spanish hearing will serve to hold a trial here in El Salvador, since it is evident that, given the indications in the sentence, there are other parties involved who are in El Salvador and that there is no reason why they are not judged in our country.” This requires the “urgent” opening of the archives of the country’s Armed Forces. [9]

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[1] Assoc. Press, Spain imprisons ex-colonel for Jesuits slain in El Salvador, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Ex-Salvadoran colonel jailed for 1989 murder of Spanish Jesuits, Guardian (Sept. 11, 2020); Jones, Spanish trial brings hope of justice for victims of Salvadoran death squads, Guardian (Sept. 7, 2020); Marroquin, 133 years in prison for ex-colonel Montano for the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 12, 2020); Spanish court rules in Jesuit massacre case.elsalvadorperspectives (Sept. 11, 2020);

[2] Guernica Centre, Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 18, 2020); (background of case); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial 2020: Daily Trial Briefings: #01 (06/08/20), # 02 (06/10/20), # 03 (06/11/20), # 04 (07/08/20), # 05 (07/09/20), # 06 07/10/20), # 07 (07/13/20), # 08 (07/14/20), # 09 (07/15/20); Guernica Centre, The Jesuit Massacre Trial, guernica37.com (Sept. 11, 2020). This NGO’s name memorializes the April 28, 1937 bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by German Nazi warplanes at the request of Spanish General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The number of casualties originally was estimated to be over 1,700, but now is believed to have been under 300. “Guernica” is also the name of a famous Picasso painting about the bombing on display at the Spanish Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. (Bombing of Guernica, Wikipedia; Guernica (Picasso), Wikipedia.)

[3] See International Criminal Justice: The Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 2, 2011).

[4] International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Military’s Attempted Cover-Up of Its Committing the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Salvadoran Criminal Case Regarding the Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 8, 2011).

[5] International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2011).

[6] Reinstatement of Sentence of Former Salvadoran Military Officer for Participating in Murder of Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2017).

[7]  United Nations, El Salvador Agreements: The Path to Peace  From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador (July 1992); Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Mar. 15, 1993).

[8]  International Criminal Justice: The Spanish Court’s Criminal Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2011); International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of  Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentaries.com (May 31, 201i); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 1, 2017). See generally posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommantaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[9] Marroquin, The UCA asks the Criminal Chamber to resolve the appeal of the Jesuits case, elsalvador.com (Sept. 11, 2011); Calderon, Condemnation of Montano gives hope to prosecute masterminds of Jesuit massacre, says UCA, Laprensa Grafica (Sept. 11, 2020)

Another Reflection on 40th Anniversary of Oscar Romero’s Assassination

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) has been a personal saint for this Protestant (Presbyterian) since 1989, and I was blessed to be able to attend the 20th and 30th anniversary commemorations of his 1980 brutal assassination and lament I was unable to attend the 40th anniversary this March 24th.[1]

A moving reflection on the 40th anniversary has been provided by Carlos Colorado, the author of Eminem Doctrin, a blog about Romero’s teachings, and Super Martyrio, a blog advocating since 2006 for Romero’s canonization that in fact happened in 2018.[2] Here is what Colorado said.

“In March 2000 I was in El Salvador for what was then the 20th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. . . . At a reception in a trendy boarding house in western San Salvador, I brashly suggested to the guests that Romero could become El Salvador’s Socrates—who was forced to drink poison by fervid Athenians, but was later embraced by the city as its most quintessential son. It fell to the late, legendary NCR [National Catholic Reporter] correspondent Gary MacEóin to let me down gently, explaining that the entrenched hostility toward Romero from the powerful meant that he would be persona non grata to the political establishment indefinitely.”

“Of course, MacEóin was right about the elites; Romero is ‘not a saint of their devotion’—as the Salvadoran expression goes—to this day. But many things were already changing by the year 2000 and many more things have changed since, to make Romero’s remarkable rehabilitation possible. While Romero’s memory was suppressed in El Salvador during the 80s and 90s, it was kept alive abroad with glowing biographies and film portrayals, including Oliver Stone’s ‘Salvador’ (1986) and the modest indie pic “Romero” (1989).[3] In 1990, the church opened its sainthood investigation, but it seemed as if, for the rest of the decade, that project was shelved.”

“While Romero’s sainthood file gathered dust at the Vatican, on the streets his image was ascendant, with larger and larger commemorations of his March 24 anniversary each year, not only in San Salvador, but also in London and Rome. Things began to change in official circles in El Salvador in 2004, when Tony Saca, who had been an altar boy for Romero, was elected president. Although a member of the party founded by the man thought to have ordered Romero’s assassination, Saca petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to permit Romero’s sainthood cause to advance. But the real sea change came with the 2009 election of Mauricio Funes, the first left-wing president, who promised to make Romero the moral compass for his government. Funes named a new traffic artery after Romero, renamed the airport after Romero, and installed a heroic painting of Romero in the presidential mansion’s great hall.”

“Perhaps the largest transformation occurred in 2015, when Romero was beatified in El Salvador, showing the country how admired he was when hundreds of thousands turned out for the large-scale spectacle.[4] The church made a concerted effort then to educate the population about Romero. Many read his homilies and learned about his actions and actual views for the first time, often refuting what they had heard in official disinformation. There were many who actually believed Romero had materially assisted the guerrillas, supplying arms and openly espousing Marxist propaganda. The publicity campaign and educational effort that accompanied the beatification helped to blunt extreme views.”

“Ultimately, Gary MacEóin was right, though, that Salvadorans would not be ready to buy into Romero’s message. With all of the 40th anniversary commemorations, including an emblematic candlelit street procession, cancelled due to Coronavirus, this anniversary will be very reminiscent of the first ten years when Romero memorials were banned. This year, instead of public memorials, Romero devotees are being asked to light candles at home. Indeed, it appears that in El Salvador, Romero is “hidden in plain sight.” That is, he is everywhere: his name is at the airport, on the roadway artery, and his image is in the presidential state room and in street murals all over the country. But the current generation, including the new millennial president, find the most universal Salvadoran a stranger they do not know.”

“In a sense, the muted Romero commemoration will be the most faithful to the spirit of the man. Just when it seemed he was in danger of becoming “another little wooden saint” (as activists feared he would become), Romero is again associated with austerity, sacrifice and restraint. I suspect he would not want it any other way.”

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[1] Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero (Now Saint Romero),dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 24, 2020)   See also Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2011)(20th anniversary); list of posts in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2] Colorado, Muted 40th Romero anniversary recalls the early days, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 23, 2020).

[3]  See Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 14, 2011).

[4]  See Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Beatified on May 23, 2015, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 13, 2015); The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018).

 

Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero (Now Saint Romero) 

As a result of being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, 1986-2001, I learned about the amazing work of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, and regarded him as my personal saint long before he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.[1]

I, therefore, was in El Salvador on March 24, 2000 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination and on March 24, 2010 for the 30th anniversary.[2]

I lament that I was not there this year for today’s 40th anniversary. But Tim Muth, the creator and operator of the wonderful blog, El Salvador Perspectives, has suggested we honor him today with the following passage from his homily of January 21, 1979:[3]

The present form of the world passes away,

and there remains only the joy of having used this world

to establish God’s rule here.

All pomp, all triumphs, all selfish capitalism,

all the false successes of life will pass

with the world’s form.

 

All of that passes away.

What does not pass away is love.

When one has turned money, property, work in one’s calling

into service of others,

then the joy of sharing

and the feeling that all are one’s family

does not pass away.

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

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[1] See the list of posts in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2] These visits to El Salvador are discussed in Oscar Romero’s Tomb, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 10, 2011).

[3] 40th anniversary of Romero assassination calls for solidarity, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 24, 2020).

U.S. Sanctions 13 Former Salvadoran Military Officers for 1989 Murders of Jesuit Priests

On January 29, 2020, the U.S. State Department sanctioned 13 former Salvadoran military officers for the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests.[1]

Ranging “in rank from general to private, [the following men] were involved in the planning and execution of the extrajudicial killings of six Jesuit priests and two others taking refuge at the Jesuit pastoral center on November 16, 1989 on the campus of Central American University in El Salvador:”  Juan Rafael Bustillo, Juan Orlando Zepeda, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, Francisco Elena Fuentes, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Pérez Vásquez, and José Alberto Sierra Ascencio.”

Under a U.S. statute, these individuals “and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.”

The Department’s statement also said, “The United States condemns all human rights abuses that took place on both sides of the brutal civil war in El Salvador, including those committed by governmental and non-governmental parties.” The statement concluded:

  • “The United States supports the ongoing accountability, reconciliation, and peace efforts in El Salvador.  We value our ongoing working relationship with the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them.  Today’s actions underscore our support for human rights and our commitment to promoting accountability for perpetrators and encouraging reconciliation and a just and lasting peace.”

Comment

Even though the sanction is not that significant, it was appropriate for the U.S. to do this.

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[1] State Dep’t, Public Designation of Thirteen Former Salvadoran Military Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights (Jan. 29, 2020).

 

Request for U.S. Records in Salvadoran Trial Over 1981 El Mozote Massacre

On December 10-12,1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, 978 men, women and children were massacred in the country’s northeastern village of El Mozote, the largest mass killing in Latin America’s modern history. Of those victims, 447 were age 12 and under while 4 were unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs.[1]

Eventually it had become clear that  “the Salvadoran military’s Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the massacre. But details were vague. The commanders of the Battalion remained free. So do the former senior defense officials who allegedly issued orders to the battalion. In the 1990s, the country approved an amnesty that protected war criminals. That law was declared unconstitutional in 2016 by a Salvadoran court, thereby clearing the way for reopening a Salvadoran criminal trial over this massacre.

Early Stages of Salvadoran Trial Over the Massacre[2]

Since that year (2016) a Salvadoran court has been conducting a trial of 16 former Salvadoran military commanders, including a former minister of defense, over this massacre. They are charged with murder, torture, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, forced displacement, acts of terrorism, illegal detention, theft and damages. The evidence implicated the involvement of the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been U.S.-trained, in contradiction of the original Salvadoran and American accounts of the massacre.

U.S. Congressional Decision To Help Salvadoran Trial[3]

In 2019 in establishing the annual budget for international aid, the Congress directed the U.S. Government to cooperate with El Salvador’s investigation of the El Mozote massacre in the following language:

  • “The [House] Committee [on Appropriations] directs the Secretary of State to work with the relevant federal departments and agencies to, as appropriate, assist the judicial authorities of El Salvador in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the El Mozote massacre. [This includes] the identification of and provision of related documents, correspondence, reproductions of Salvadoran documents, and other similar materials from January 1981 to January 1983.”
  • The Senate version stated, “The Secretary of State… shall encourage the Salvadoran Armed Forces to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators, including providing access to archival documents.” The bill also included a mandate for the Department of State to update its report on the current status of the Salvadoran trial.

In response to the Senate’s direction, the State Department on February 5, 2020, sent a letter to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, with a report on the Salvadoran government’s cooperation with the court’s investigation.[4]

Recent Developments in Salvadoran Case[5]

In January 2020, a retired Salvadoran air force general, Juan Rafael Bustillo, testified in the trial that that the Atlacatl Battalion had carried out the massacre, which was the first time a Salvadoran military official had admitted such responsibility. He said he had not taken part in this event, but that it had been conducted on orders by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of that Battalion who died in a 1984 helicopter accident.

After that testimony, the Salvadoran judge, Jorge Guzman Urquilla, concluded that the court did not have an important set of evidence: “U.S. documents that might shed light on how the massacre was planned and executed.”

 Salvadoran Judge’s Letter to U.S.Government[6]

As a result, the judge on January 27, 2020, sent a letter to  U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo with copies to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Robert P. Ashley, Jr. and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The judge’s letter requested “at minimum, any document in the possession of the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other defense or intelligence agencies” relating to the El Mazote massacre. The letter stated the following:

  • “I recognize and am thankful for Congress’ initiative in asking the State Department to look into information that the United States may have on this case. As a judge, I would hope that it would provide me with greater certainty and clarity on these heinous acts that are now part of our country’s history, something we are not proud of, but which the historical record will demand we adjudicate.”
  • “The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of its investigative phase and will soon move to sentencing. Though some expert military testimony is forthcoming, the main phases of the examination portion have been completed. Service members, including several soldiers and a general, have given their accounts of the relevant events, confirming that the massacre took place as well as the role played by various units of the [Salvadoran] Armed Forces. A lack of documents is the last big hurdle. Despite [Salvadoran] President Nayib Bukele’s assurances that he will collaborate, the [Salvadoran] Army has stuck to the position it’s taken since the investigation began in the 1990s: that no relevant documents exist.”
  • “Even if they no longer can be found in El Salvador, it’s still possible that there are copies or records of these files in the United States, a country that was closely involved with and aware of the [Salvadoran] Army’s operations in the 80s as part of its foreign policy agenda.” Though a good deal of documents were already declassified [by President Bill Clinton in 1983], the letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents.”
  • The letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents” and for files on “the operations of the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the Morazán area, including any information on military planning, operational planning, and war planning, and involving any of the military units that I have mentioned,” between 1981 and 1983.
  • The letter specifically solicited information on General José Guillermo García, General Rafael Flores Lima, and 14 others who were charged and remain alive; on Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, Mayor Armando Azmitia, and 14 others who were charged and are now dead; on the municipality of Arambala and the seven sites where the massacre took place; and on the four military units being held responsible: the Atlacatl Battalion, the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the Fourth Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, and the High Command of the Armed Forces.
  • The letter emphasized the need to “move forward with this case in an expeditious manner” and asks Pompeo for a response “within the period of time set forth by the law.”

A journalist for elfaro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, apparently added, “Among the [U.S.] files declassified in 1993, for example, are several diplomatic cables between San Salvador and Washington from January 1981, which make clear that then-U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton was consistently transmitting details about the operation that would ultimately result in the massacre. ‘[I]t is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote. It is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle… Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the number being cited in other reports circulating internationally,’ read an initial cable from Hinton, from January 1981.”

The elfaro journalist also said, “Later, in another communication, [Hinton] . . .  offered a different account of what may have taken place: ‘The estimated population of El Mozote during the massacre was about 300 inhabitants. The Atlacatl Battalion conducted Operation Rescate from December 6 to 17 of 1981. The guerrilla knew of the operation since November 15. The civilians present during the operation and the battles with the guerrilla may have been killed.’” Following Clinton’s declassifications, several agencies have continued providing documents in response to petitions from human rights organizations.

Additional support for U.S. production of such documents comes from an analyst for the U.S. National Security Archive, Kate Doyle, who believes the U.S. has additional relevant documents about the Salvadoran civil war that could and should be declassified.[7]

U.S. Government’s Response to the Judge’s Letter

To date, Secretary Pompeo has not responded to the court’s letter; nor have the three others copied on that letter. The subject came up again at a March 11th Salvadoran court hearing in the case when the judge said, ““This information could be very valuable to us. It could clarify what happened.” A State Department spokesman, however, said, “We do not comment on the Secretary’s correspondence.”

Conclusion

 Given the congressional demand that the U.S. cooperate with the Salvadoran investigation of the El Mozote massacre and the U.S. support of human rights by its recent publication of the  latest annual report about human rights in every country in the world and Secretary Pompeo’s proud creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, there is no excuse for any further delay in providing an affirmative response to the Salvadoran judge’s letter and the requested documents.

This conclusion is buttressed by the following words in the March 11, 2020, State Department’s report about human rights in El Salvador:[8]

  • “In February [2019], in a renewed effort to shield the perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, a group of influential legislators proposed a draft national reconciliation law. Despite Constitutional Court rulings in 2016 and 2018 that expressly prohibited a broad and unconditional amnesty, the proposed bill would have granted amnesty to several high-level officials who enjoyed immunity from prosecution due to their positions in the recent administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Victims’ rights groups, other civil society actors, and the international community successfully campaigned against the proposed bill, and President-elect Bukele stated his strong opposition to an amnesty bill and expressed his support for additional consultation with victims. On May 29, [2019] the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to immediately suspend consideration of the proposed law. The proposed bill eventually lost support among legislators and failed to reach a floor vote.” (Section 2.E)
  • “Despite a June 2018 Constitutional Court order directing it to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense had not produced the requested documentation as of November 12 [2019]. On November 1, President Bukele stated that he was committed to the truth and that he would release the records. Previously, the Ministry of Defense claimed the El Mozote archive records were destroyed in an accidental warehouse fire. Civil society and victims’ groups continued to press for release of these archives.” (Section 2.E)
  • “On April 23, [2019] the judge in the El Mozote prosecution issued an order adding three new charges against the 16 remaining defendants: Torture, forced disappearance, and forced displacement. He also imposed several provisional measures on the defendants, including a prohibition on leaving the country or contacting victims, and a requirement that the defendants physically appear in court biweekly. The defendants appealed these rulings, which were affirmed by an intermediate appellate court. On February 14, [2019] the Legislative Assembly approved a transitory law establishing mechanisms designed to allow family members to be added to the El Mozote victims’ registry.” (Section 2.E)

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[1] See generally list of posts in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADORThe massacre of children and others at El Mozote, El Salvador Perspectives (Dec. 10, 2017); Posts about El Mozote. El Salvador Perspectives.

[2] Zabiah, El Mozote judge asks the United States for confidential documents on the massacre, elfaro (Mar. 5, 2020) (Zabiah #1).

[3] Zabiah # 1, supra; H. Rep., 116th Congress, 1st Sess., Rep. 116-78, State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2020 (May 20, 2019); H. Rep., Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill (May 5, 2019); H. Rep. Comm. on Appropriations. Public Witness Hearing: State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (Mar. 12, 2019).

[4] Letter, State Dep’t to Senator Leahy (enclosing three-page report) (Feb. 5, 2020)(hyperlinked to Zabiah #1, supra).

[5] Zabiah #1, supra; Zabiah, General Bustillo breaks the officers’ script and admits that ‘rudeness’ occurred in El Mozote, elfaro (Jan. 26, 2020); Schwartz, What the El Mozote Massacre Can Teach Us About Trump’s War on the Press, The Intercept (Jan. 28, 2020); El Salvador general admits army carried out El Mozote massacre, Aljazeera (Jan. 25, 2020); Pierce, It’s a Bull Market for Bashing the Press. Under Conservative Governments, It Often Has Been, Esquire (Jan.27, 2020); Renteria, Salvadoran general admits army carried out infamous 1981 massacre, Reuters (Jan. 24, 2020).

[6] Zabiah #1 , supra.

[7] Alvarado, “The attorney general can ask the United States for information about El Mazote,” elfaro (Mar. 23, 2018).

[8] State Dep’t, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador (Mar. 11, 2020).

Spanish Court Upcoming Trial Over 1989 Murders of Salvadoran Jesuit Priests

On June 8, 2020, the Spanish National Court in Madrid will commence a trial over the November 16, 1989, murders in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The sole defendant will be Inocente Orlando Montano, who at the time was a Colonel and the Vice-Minister of Public Security in that country and who on November 19, 2017, was extradited from the U.S., where he had been living, to Spain to stand trial.[1]

On May 20, 2011, the Spanish court had issued the equivalent of an indictment of 20 Salvadoran military officers, including Montano, for this horrible crime and thereafter requested El Salvador to extradite 15 of them still living in that country to Spain to stand trial, but the Salvadoran courts refused to do so. (As of November 2017, one of the four others had died, two were cooperating with the prosecution and one had been tried, convicted and imprisoned for this crime in El Salvador.) [2]

The law, including universal jurisdiction, facts and circumstances leading up to this trial have been discussed in many previous posts. [3]

The prosecution will be lead by attorneys from The Guernica Centre for International Justice and Spanish co-counsel Oilé & Sesé Abogadas. According to the Centre,

  • “The trial for the murder of the Jesuits and the two women they employed is extremely significant. This trial has the potential to reopen the discussion in Spain about the necessity and importance of an effective universal jurisdiction law. It also supports the ongoing realization that countries like Spain need to ensure that victims of human rights violations can find redress when legal avenues have been foreclosed in other jurisdictions due to restrictive legislation, corrupt judiciaries, impunity, or political opposition. This trial also comes at a time when Salvadoran civil society is struggling to push forward investigations and prosecutions in El Salvador following the Supreme Court’s repeal of the Amnesty Law in 2016, while simultaneously political sectors in El Salvador threaten to enact legislation that once again could shield those most responsible from prosecution and criminal sanctions.”

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[1] Bernabéu, Email: Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 17, 2020); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (December 1, 2017).

[2] Update on Status of Extradition of Defendants in Spain’s Criminal Case Regarding the 1989 Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentareies.com (Aug. 22, 2016); Spain Ready to Proceed with Case Over the 1989 Killing of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador, dwkcommenaries.com (Nov. 19, 2017).

[3] See the posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical:  EL SALVADOR.

Pope Francis Approves Beatification of Padre Rutilio Grande

On February 21, Pope Francis approved the beatification of Padre Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit priest who was murdered on March 12, 1977, by a Salvadoran death squad for his advocacy for people who were persecuted by the country’s military and death squads.[1]

His ministry and slaying inspired then Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) to become an  outspoken critic of the country’s military and advocate for El Salvador’s oppressed.[2]

Pope Francis has long expressed his intense admiration for both Grande and Romero. At the entrance to his room at the Vatican hotel where the Pope lives is a piece of cloth with Romero’s blood on it and notes from a catechism teaching Grande delivered. Last year during a visit to Panama, the Pope said,“I was a devotee of Rutilio even before coming to know Romero better. When I was [a priest] in Argentina, his life influenced me, his death touched me. He said what he had to say, but it was his testimony, his martyrdom, that eventually moved Romero. This was the grace.”

The official Vatican News stated the news of this beatification as follows:

  • “The Pope also recognized the martyrdom of the Servants of God Rutilio Grande García, a Jesuit priest, and his 2 lay companions, who were killed in hatred of the faith in El Salvador on March 12, 1977.”
  • “Murdered before the start of the Salvadoran civil war, Father Grande, who was a close friend of fellow Salvadoran and martyr, Saint Oscar Romero, became an icon for human rights in rural Latin America.”
  • “Known for his vigorous defence of poor, the Jesuit priest, an elderly man and a teenager were shot by a right-wing death squad as they were travelling in a car outside the village where he was born.”
  • “The horror that the assassination of Fr. Grande generated led Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador to take up the Jesuit’s mantle as a defender of the poor.  Three years later, Romero would succumb to the assassins’ bullets for his outspoken criticism of the military and work on behalf of El Salvador’s oppressed.”
  • “The decree on the martyrdom of Fr. Grande and his two companions does away with the need for a miracle through their intercession to qualify for beatification, the final step before sainthood, for which a miracle would be required.  The beatification date will be declared at a later date.”

In March 2003, this blogger was in El Salvador and attended a memorial mass for Father Grande at the church in the village of El Paisnal, where he had served as the parish priest, and stopped to pay my respects at Grande’s memorial on the road to the village where he had been murdered.[3]

=============================

[1] Gomes, Indian martyr, Devasahayam, cleared for sainthood, Vatican News  (Feb. 22, 2020); Reuters, Pope Moves Slain Salvadoran Priest, Icon for Poor, Closer to Sainthood, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2020); Assoc. Press, Pope Oks Beatification for Rutilio Grande, Salvadoran Martyr, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2020).

[2] See posts listed in the “ Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: El Salvador.

[3] See Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2011) (includes photos of the sanctuary during the memorial mass and of the Grande memorial).

Former Cuban Judge Criticizes Cuban Legal System   

On January 13,  Edel González Jiménez, a former high-ranking Cuban judge who left the island in 2018 and now lives in Peru, told a press conference in Madrid, Spain about the many problems in Cuba’s legal system. Other details were added by Javier Larrondo, the president of Prisoners Defenders and a longtime anti- Castro activist.[1]

González Jiménez’s Comments

Based upon recently released Cuban government secret documents, González said the Cuban government is holding thousands of inmates on dubious charges and has the highest incarceration rate in the world. These records show that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. (Previously the Cuban government had only publicly released the figure once, in 2012, when it claimed that 57,000 people were jailed.)

“What is important is what is behind those numbers,” Mr. González said. “People are in prison for stealing flour, because they are pizza makers and the government has set up a system where the only way to get flour is by buying in the black market from someone who stole it from the state.”

González said that Cuba’s judiciary was often controlled by state security forces that can manufacture cases against political opponents. “What happens, for example, when an issue has a political nature? Well then there is fear [by the judges of losing their jobs]. And that fear . . .can have a negative impact on justice” by “judges, fearful of losing their jobs, go along with evidence that is often flagrantly concocted.”

In ordinary criminal cases, however, judges are independent and free of government influence. González added, “I never received, in 17 years, any interference from either the [Communist Party of Cuba] or the Government.”

“The repression that I am seeing against some of my people is not what I want for my people. I have a lot of fear about the future. Every day Cubans face more fear. I don’t want blood on the streets of Cuba, I don’t want these imprisonments.”

González Jiménez also said that the majority of the Cuban people “unconditionally had accepted the system implemented by Havana more than 60 years ago.” Therefore, “the only thing we are asking for is that in the field of human rights, whether through mercy, it is understood that we have to work on the issue and that we have to take steps forward.” Indeed, “there are countless government officials who have a high sensitivity, who know that these human rights issues are hitting them and are delegitimizing even the country’s own image.” Such officials, however, are held back by their “own internal fear.”

González also raised a proposal for “national internal inclusive dialogue” between the State, opponents, dissidents and social sectors for the regulation of fundamental rights in the Cuban legal system.

Still, Mr. González insisted that there was time for Cuba to resolve its problems internally, and he warned against any outside interference. “We will not allow anybody to impose anything, that should be clear to all countries. Cubans can manage this alone without any kind of interference,” he said. This process “must be “sovereign, free and transparent.”

Mr. González also cautioned against coming to the conclusion that the high number of prisoners in Cuba was proof of a failed society and judiciary. Other countries, he said, had fewer prisoners, but that reflected a high level of “impunity” and failure to prosecute common and violent crime, while Cuba instead “maintains social order.”

Javier Larrondo’s Comments

Another participant in the press conference was Javier Larrondo, who runs an organization called Prisoners Defenders in Madrid, and who publicly announced his call for the Cuban government to respect civil rights.

“This [press conference] is an important blow to the regime,” Mr. Larrondo said.

Mr. Larrondo released Cuban court documents showing that dozens of men received sentences between two and four years in prison for offenses falling broadly under the category of “antisocial” — a phrase that can be applied to people who are unemployed, who do not belong to civic organizations associated with the state, who behave disorderly and harass tourists, and who associate with similarly “antisocial” people. In case after case, the description of the crime is identical, said Larrondo, suggesting that the police cut and pasted the language in the investigative report.

Cuban Prisoners Defenders and Civil Right Defenders reported that more than 90,000 people were in prison on the Island , where about 99% of the citizens tried are found guilty. In addition, Larrondo and Erik Jennische, director for Latin America of Civil Rights Defenders, said that in Cuba there are 37,458 people “in other situations of judicial and police control,” which gives a total of 127,458 convicted. That  is an imposing number of people who, as their “first criminal sanction, are being deprived of liberty, something of extreme rigor, and really unusual in most criminal systems” and who are less likely go obtain early release.

This analysis of the data showed that Cuba is “the first country for (number of) persons deprived of liberty in the world”, taking into account its population of 11 million inhabitants. The Island would be ahead of the U.S., El Salvador and Turkmenistan, whose data has been published by the World Prison Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research.

In the files of prisoners obtained and published by the organizations (with the identity of the condemned hidden) elements are repeated such as lack of labor ties with the so-called mass organizations (controlled by the regime), being “prone to crime” for associating with “similar people,” practicing the “siege of tourism” and altering public order, as arguments to condemn citizens to sentences of up to three years in prison for an alleged “danger index. “This formula, known as “pre-criminal social danger,” frequently has been applied to opponents and other critical citizens of the Government to remove them from the streets.

This accusatory procedure “is frequently used for its speed and efficiency against dissidents, entrepreneurs and any type of person who is considered an urgent danger to the regime, which entails not only preventive detention, but very summary processes that prevent the proper exercise of the defense.”

The previously mentioned documents, according to the New York Times, showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being “antisocial” or “dangerous,” terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having a committed a crime.

Conclusion

Last year, Mr. González’s former boss, Rubén Remigio Ferro, president of the Cuban Supreme Court, told the state newspaper, Granma that although the administration of justice on the island is improving, “deficiencies” still exist, such as trial delays, misguided decisions and a lack of professionalism. More recently President Miguel Díaz-Canel told judges while inaugurating the new judicial calendar that the courts must “remain a system that is distinguished first and foremost by its ethics, its transparency and the honest behavior of its members.”

From this blogger’s U.S. perspective, González’s career as a judge and his professed support for the Cuban Revolution should give these criticisms greater weight for Cuban officials. On the other hand, it was surprising there was no mention of at least a partial explanation of Cuban prosecution of individuals for “antisocial” behavior. Cuba knows that the much more powerful U.S. has a long history of hostility towards Cuba and has recruited some Cubans to engage in activities critical of the Cuban regime. Therefore, it arguably could be a matter of self-defense for the regime to arrest at least some of these individuals.

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[1] Robles, Ex-Judge Reveals Secrets of How Cuba Suppresses Dissent, N.Y. times (Jan. 13,   2020); 8,400 Cubans Serve Time for “Pre-Criminal Social Dangerousness,” Civil Rights Defenders (Jan. 13, 2020); In Cuba ‘the fear’ of judges threatens justice, says a lawyer, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 14, 2020); Cuba’s police state exposed:’an important blow to the regime,’ Democracy Digest (Jan. 14, 2020);  González: “Many high-ranking officials of the Cuban government are hurt by repression against dissent,” Archyde (Jan. 13, 2020). González also gave an extensive interview to ABC International, but the English translation is difficult to follow. (Gavińa, Edel González: “Many high-ranking officials of the Cuban government are hurt by repression against dissent,” ABC International (Jan. 14, 2020).)

 

 

U.S.  Sets 18,000 Quota for New Refugee Admissions to U.S.

On November 1, President Trump set 18,000 as the quota for refugee admissions into the U.S. for Fiscal 2020 (October 1, 2019—September 30, 2020).[1] These admissions shall be allocated among refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States in accordance with the following allocations:

Number Category
5,000 Refugees who:have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion
4,000 Iraqi refugees
1,500 Refugees who are nationals or habitual residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras:
7,500 Other refugees
18,000 TOTAL

The President also specified that for Fiscal Year 2020, the following persons may, if otherwise qualified, be considered refugees for the purpose of admission to the United States within their countries of nationality or habitual residence: (a.) persons in Cuba; (b.) persons in Eurasia and the Baltics; (c ) persons in Iraq; (d)  persons in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador; and (e) in exceptional circumstances, persons identified by a United States Embassy in any location.

Moreover, President Trump added another potential barrier to refugee entrants with an executive order requiring state and local governments to provide written consent to refugee resettlements.

Reactions [2]

This quota is the lowest since the introduction of the U.S. refugee program in 1980. In Fiscal 2017, the last full year of the Obama Administration, the quota was 85,000 while the Trump Administration’s first two years (Fiscal 2018 and 2019) set the quotas at 53,000 and 30,000.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said, “At a time of record forced displacement in the world, lower admissions constrain UNHCR’s ability to deliver on its refugee protection mandate and diminish our humanitarian negotiating power at the global level. As the agency mandated by the UN General Assembly to lead and coordinate the international response to refugees, UNHCR is naturally troubled by this trend in the United States and elsewhere.”

Similar negative reactions came from international non-governmental organizations concerned with refugees.

The International Rescue Committee said the U.S. decision broke with 40 years or precedent. “This measure completely ignores the welcome that communities have provided to refugees, as well as the important contributions resettled refugees have made to these communities all across the country,” Jennifer Sime, its senior vice president, said.

Church World Service, a resettlement agency, said through Its president, Rev. John L. Mccullough,  “With one final blow, the Trump administration has snuffed out Lady Liberty’s torch and ended our nation’s legacy of compassion and welcome.”

Betsy Fisher, the director of strategy for the International Refugee Assistance Project, said,“The shockingly low refugee admissions goal and the executive order will all but ensure that people in need of safety will be left in dangerous conditions and separated from their families. These policies will prevent refugees from being resettled, even though communities across the nation stand ready to welcome them.”

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[1] White House, Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2020 (Nov. 1, 2019); State Dep’t, Presidential  Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 2, 2019); Assoc. Press, Trump Approves Plan to Cap Refugees at 18,000 in 2020, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2019); Shear & Kanno-Youngs, Trump Slashes Refugee Cap to 18,000, Curtailing U.S. Role as Haven, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2019).

[2] UNHCR, UNHCR troubled by latest U.S. refugee resettlement cut, UNHCR (Nov. 2, 2019); Reuters, UN ‘troubled’ by Donald Trump’s cut to refugee numbers, Newshub (Nov. 3, 2019).

 

                                                                                                                                 

 

 

 

 

 

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); 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)

[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).