Cuban Reactions to New U.S. Anti-Cuba Measures

Naturally the Cuban government and its officials condemned the new U.S. measures. Other Cubans voiced various opinions on this subject.

Cuban Government[1]

“Today, the 17th of April, we celebrate another anniversary of the start of the military aggression at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) in 1961. The decisive response of the Cuban people in defense of the Revolution and socialism resulted in the first military defeat of imperialism in the Americas, in just 72 hours. Oddly enough, it is the date chosen by the current government of the United States to announce the adoption of new aggressive measures against Cuba and to reinforce the application of the Monroe Doctrine.”

“The Revolutionary Government rejects in the most energetic of terms the decision to permit hereinafter that action is taken in US courts against Cuban and foreign entities outside the jurisdiction of the United States, and that of intensifying the impediments for entry into the United States of the executives of companies that legally invest in Cuba and their relatives in properties that were nationalized.  These are actions envisaged in the Helms-Burton Act that were rejected a long time ago by the international community, that the Cuban nation has repudiated from the time when they were enacted and applied in 1996, and whose fundamental aim is to impose colonial protection over our country. Cuba also repudiates the decision to return to limiting the remittances which Cuban residents in the US send to their families and next of kin, to restrict even further travel by American citizens to Cuba and to apply additional financial penalties.”

“It energetically rejects the references that in Cuba attacks have been produced against American diplomats. They would like to justify their actions, as usual, using lies and blackmail. On last 10 April, General of the Army Raúl Castro declared: ‘Cuba is blamed for all evils, using lies in the worst style of Hitlerian propaganda.’To cover up and justify the evident failure of the sinister coup d’ét maneuver of designating, from Washington, a usurper “president” for Venezuela, the government of the United States resorts to slander.”

“It accuses Cuba of being responsible for the soundness and steadfastness shown by the Bolivarian and Chavista government, the people of that country and the civilian-military union which defends the sovereignty of their nation. It brazenly lies when it declares that Cuba keeps thousands of troops and security forces in Venezuela, influencing and determining what is happening in that sister country.”

“It has the cynicism of blaming Cuba for the economic and social situation besetting Venezuela after years of brutal economic penalties, conceived and applied by the United States and a number of allies, precisely to economically suffocate the population and to cause its suffering. Washington has gone to the extremes of pressuring the governments of third countries to attempt to persuade Cuba to withdraw this presumed and unlikely military and security support and even for it to stop providing backing and solidarity to Venezuela. The current US government is known, in its own country and internationally, for its unscrupulous tendency of using lies as a resort in domestic and foreign policy matters.   This is a habit coinciding with the old practices of imperialism.”

“Still fresh in our minds are the images of President George W. Bush, with the support of the current National Security Advisor John Bolton, lying shamelessly about the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a fallacious argument that served as an excuse to invade that country in the Middle East.”

“History also records the blowing up of the battleship “Maine” in Havana and the self-provoked incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, episodes that served as excuses to unleash wars of pillage in Cuba and Vietnam. We should not forget that the United States used fake Cuban insignia painted on the planes that carried out the bombing runs as a prelude to the aggression at the Bay of Pigs, in order to cover up the fact that they were really American planes”

“It must remain clear that US slander rests upon complete and deliberate lies. Its intelligence services possess more than enough proof, surely more than any other State, to know that Cuba has no troops nor does it participate in any operations of a military or security nature in Venezuela, even though it is a sovereign right of two independent countries to decide how they shall cooperate in the sector of defense, something that does not correspond to the United States to question. That accuser keeps over 250,000 soldiers on 800 military bases abroad, some of these in the American hemisphere.”

“Their government also knows that, as Cuba has publicly and repeatedly declared, the nearly 20,000 Cuban collaborators, over 60 % of them women, are in that Latin American nation to fulfill the same tasks that approximately another 11,000 Cuban professionals are fulfilling in 83 nations:   contributing to provide basic social services, fundamentally in the area of health, a fact that is acknowledged by the international community. It must remain absolutely clear that steadfast solidarity with the sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is Cuba’s right as a sovereign State and it is also a right that forms part of the tradition and essential principles of the foreign policy of the Cuban Revolution.”

“No threats of reprisals against Cuba, no ultimatum or blackmail by the current US government is going to divert the internationalist conduct of the Cuban nation, despite the devastating human and economic damages caused our people by the genocidal blockade.”

“It behooves us to remember that Mafioso threats and ultimatums were already being used in the past when Cuba’s internationalist efforts were supporting the liberation movements in Africa while the US was backing the scurrilous regime of apartheid. They would have liked Cuba to renounce its commitments of solidarity with the peoples of Africa in exchange for promises of pardon, as if the Revolution had anything whatsoever that needed to be pardoned by imperialism.”

“At that time, Cuba rejected blackmail, as it rejects it today, with utmost disdain.”

“Last April 10th, General of the Army Raúl Castro recalled: ‘In 60 years of facing aggression and threats, we Cubans have demonstrated the iron-clad will to resist and overcome the most difficult of circumstances. Despite its immense power, imperialism does not have the capacity to crush the dignity of a united people, who are proud of their history, and of the freedom they have attained by the strength of so much sacrifice.’”

“The Government of Cuba calls on all members of the international community and on the citizens of the United States to stop the irrational escalation and the policy of hostility and aggression of the government of Donald Trump. With complete justification, year after year the Member States of the United Nations have called practically unanimously for the end to this economic war.  The peoples and governments of our region must see to it that, for the benefit of all, the principles of the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace prevail.”

“Last April 13th, the President of the Councils of State and Ministers Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez declared: ‘Cuba continues to trust in its strength, its dignity and also in the strength and dignity of other independent and sovereign nations.  But it also continues to believe in the American people, in the Land of Lincoln, that they should be ashamed of those who act on the fringes of universal law on behalf of the entire American nation.’ Once again, Cuba repudiates the lies and threats, and reiterates that its sovereignty, independence and commitment to the cause of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are not negotiable.”

“Two days away from commemorating the 58th anniversary of the Playa Girón Victory, a historical point in national geography where the mercenary forces sent by imperialism tasted the dust of defeat, the Cuban Revolution reiterates its firm determination to face up to and prevail over the escalated aggression of the United States.”

Cuban Government Officials[2]

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel responded defiantly with these tweets: ‘Cubans do not surrender, nor do we accept laws about our destinies that are outside the Constitution. In Cuba we Cubans will not change the attitude towards those who hold the sword against us.’ He added,  ‘No one will rip the (Fatherland) away from us, neither by seduction nor by force, We Cubans do not surrender.’’”

In another tweet, Diaz-Canel said,  ‘Title III is not worse than the I and II, which are in the portfolio of actions against all the people of Cuba, Cubans do not give up.”

Also initially responding with tweets was Cuba Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. He “called it an attack on international law, Cuban sovereignty and countries that would do business with the island: Aggressive escalation by US against Cuba will fail. Like at Giron, we will be victorious.’”

On state television, Rodriguez said, ‘”We will always be willing to have a dialogue based on absolute respect, but if the U.S. government has chosen a confrontational path we will not hesitate to defend the gains of the revolution at any cost.’” According to Rodríguez, ‘These decisions of Washington are an aggressive escalation of the US against Cuba that ‘will fail.’”

In another tweet, he also repudiated the ‘aggressive discourse, calumnies and measures to intensify the blockade announced by the US National Security Adviser [Bolton that] constitute a new aggression against the people of Cuba, the American people, Cuban emigration and sovereign states.’”

.”’But now there are nefarious interests in the government of that country, an increasingly monopoly, more McCarthyist policy against Our America and against our people, based on true slander.’”

“’We, of course, will not give up one bit of our principles. We will continue our solidarity support to the sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and we will follow the course that our people, now in a free and universal referendum, has confirmed towards an increasingly just, advanced, increasingly inclusive Cuban socialism and the foreign policy of the Revolution Cubans will continue to be the same, as the Constitution confirms. Our principles are unchangeable and invariable.’”

  Other Cubans[3]

The most cogent opinion on these issues was provided by Rafael Rojas, who is one of Cuba’s most distinguished historians with many publications and the holder of university positions around the world. He wrote the following 10 objections to what he calls “the Bolton Doctrine” in Madrid’s El Pais.

  • “1. In the conflict between the United States, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the symbolic dimension weighs heavily. From Washington, Havana, Caracas, Managua and, of course, Miami, these differences are assumed as inertias or continuations of the Cold War. But in most of the world this is not the case: the conflict between communism and anti-communism is marginal on the planetary level. To have announced the new policy in Miami, on the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, is to persist in that local, archaic entanglement that favors Manichaeism and the binary visions of contemporary politics.”
  • “ The announcement of the new measures from Miami, by Bolton, reinforces a double and harmful subordination: that of the policy towards Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba to the sphere of the “national security” of the United States and that of the Washington agenda for those countries to the electoral cycles in the state of Florida.”
  • “ The sanctions against the three regimes adopt a totally unilateral sense at a time when various global institutions and diplomatic initiatives (OAS, UN, Lima Group, International Contact Group of the European Union, Prosur, Uruguayan and Mexican chanceries) try to arrange multilateral actions to face the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan crisis.”
  • “ During the last two decades, the US Department of State has maintained a differentiated policy for Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. It is evident that these regimes act coordinated in a permanent strategy of promoting authoritarian alternatives to democracy in the hemisphere, but, at the same time, the differences between the three political systems, the peculiarities of their respective relations with civil society and society are indisputable [as are] the opposition and nuances of its international commitments and Government priorities.”
  • “The definition of these regimes as “troika of tyrannies” is not only a theoretical simplification, that almost the whole of Latin America and the European Union, plus the UN, China and India, Africa and the Middle East do not share, but an incentive to the deployment of a greater diplomatic and military collaboration of those governments among themselves and with their allies in the world, especially Russia and Iran.”
  • “The application of Titles III and IV of the Helms-Burton Act, passed in 1996, had been postponed by all the governments of the United States until now: the second by Bill Clinton, the two by George W. Bush and the two of Barack Obama [and the two??? by Trump]. The reason was always a mixture of recognition of the global unpopularity of the embargo against Cuba and the complications that could arise in relations with Europe, Canada, Latin America and Asia, in case of demands to companies from those regions that operated in Cuba with confiscated properties. The thousands of cases of Cuban-American citizens that will be presented before the US justice system, in addition to being complicated and burdensome, will generate costs at the international level, as already observed with the European Union’s appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO).”
  • “Restrictions on American tourist trips and remittances from Cuban-Americans from the United States will not only affect the income of Miguel Diaz Canel’s government: they will also damage the small market sphere that attempts to articulate within the island. The new policy towards Cuba returns to the old paradox of the republican right to promote capitalism, closing the external ways by which capitalism can reproduce itself.”
  • “The sanctions against the Central Bank of Venezuela continue the punitive strategy undertaken so far by the Trump administration against the financial networks of the Government of Nicolás Maduro. Who announces that measure in Miami is the same one that recently proposed the sending of 5,000 soldiers to the border between Colombia and Venezuela and the same government that already openly complains about the inability of its ally, President Ivan Duque [Colombia’s current president], to reduce drug trafficking.”
  • “ The measures against the Government of Daniel Ortega also try to affect the sources of income of the Sandinista State, through the freezing of funds from the Corporate Bank of Nicaragua and the official investment and export agency, ProNicaragua, headed by the son of the presidential couple, Laureano Ortega Murillo. So far, this type of personalized sanctions has not yielded results in Cuba or Venezuela, in terms of promoting greater economic and political openness. Daniel Ortega, a leader so discredited by the Latin American left, gains prestige with the Bolton doctrine.”
  • “ The purpose of the unilateral US offensive against Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua is not, apparently, a flexibilization but a breakdown of those regimes. But for that to happen, unlikely scenarios would have to occur: a military uprising in Venezuela, a coup in Nicaragua or a popular uprising in Cuba. In a possible conjuncture of simultaneous economic asphyxia in the three countries should not rule out a greater cohesion against the external enemy, despite the greater or lesser wear and tear of their respective leaders. Not even the collapse of one of those regimes would necessarily mean the collapse of the other two.”

Another article critical of the new U.S. measures in tones similar to those  expressed by the Cuban government and its officials appears in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba.

On the other hand, some Cubans disagreed with the Cuban government’s lengthy and vitriolic attacks on the new U.S. measures. These articles were an editorial in Diario de Cuba and one of its articles by Elias Amor; this Internet periodical is published in Madrid, Spain and says that “the  views expressed are not those of any government, nor of any corporate entity other than K&M Productions, LLC, of Boston, Massachusetts.”

A surprising opinion on the new U.S. policies was voiced by Antonio Rodiles, a member of the Cuban opposition, when saying he supported the new U.S. restrictions. “”Pressure is needed. In what other way will it be possible to stop a regime like this? I do not see another Possibility.”

Conclusion[4]

 The lengthy declaration by the Cuban Government was to be expected. Criticism of the official position of the Cuban Government on these issues from  Dario de Cuba was also to be expected as it always publishing such pieces and makes one wonder whether it secretly is funded by the U.S. government.

Most persuasive are the 10 reasons advanced by respected historian Rafael Rojas. I agree that the speech by John Bolton seems erroneously anchored in the views of the Cold War, which has been over for some time; that the new measures seem derived from U.S. political concerns about the state of Florida in national politics; that the new measures totally ignore multilateral efforts to solve the many issues in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua; that the new U.S. measures encourage these three countries to seek help from Russia and Iran; that the previous U.S. waiver of enforcement of provisions of the Hale-Burton Act were based on realistic assessments that the related U.S. embargo of Cuba was rejected by virtually every country in the world whereas enforcement of those provisions of the Act would generate costs at the international level, including tension with U.S. allies; that the restriction of U.S. remittances and travel to Cuba will harm emerging Cuban free enterprise; and that the true purpose of these new U.S. measures does not appear to encourage actions consistent with U.S. interests, but instead to cause a breakdown of their regimes.

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[1] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration of the Revolutionary Government of Cuba: The Cuban revolution reiterates its firm determination to face the escalation in aggression by the United States (April 18, 2019).

[2] Solomon, Reichmann & Lee (AP), Trump Cracks Down on Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, Wash. Post (April 17, 2019); DeYoung, Trump administration announces new measures against Cuba, Wash. Post (April 17, 2019); Reuters, Trump’s Cuba Hawks Try to Squeeze Havana Over Venezuela Role, N.Y. Times ( April 17, 2019).

[3] Rojas, Ten Objections to the Bolton doctrine, El Pais (April 18, 2019); Capote, Let’s talk Cuban about the Helms-Burton, Granma (April 17, 2019); Editorial, The Helms-Burton Act and the responsibility of the Cuban regime, Diario de Cuba (April 18, 2019); Amor, Will the Cubans be impoverished by the Helms-Burton Law?, Diario de Cuba (April 20, 2019).

[4] As always corrections and opinions about this post are welcome. Are there any other significant Cuban statements on these new U.S. measures? If so, add them in comments to this post.

Additional State Department Briefing on Helms-Burton Changes

A prior post discussed the changes in U.S. implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act that were announced on April 17 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and discussed by an Assistant Secretary of State. That same day an unidentified senior official of the Department held a briefing for journalists, apparently at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Here are highlights of that briefing.[1]

General Comments on Helms-Burton Act

“[U]nder Title III, Congress gave U.S. nationals with a claim to confiscated property in Cuba the right to file a lawsuit against the people or companies who were trafficking in that property.  But for more than 22 years, U.S. Presidents or Secretaries of State have suspended American’s rights under Title III which Congress authorized when both necessary to U.S. national interests and necessary to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.”

“Now our decision on Title III is fundamentally related to the actions of the Cuban regime.  After suspending Title III for more than 22 years in a row we still have not seen Cuba transition to democracy.  In fact the opposite is true.  Cuba shows no sign that it will achieve democracy in the near future as the repressive political situation in Cuba has persisted.  And even under a new leader in Cuba, nothing has fundamentally changed.  The recent illegitimate constitutional referendum on February 24th simply entrenched the one-party rule in Cuba, and of course the human rights situation in Cuba remains abysmal.”

“But not only has the situation in Cuba worsened, Cuba also actively undermines democracy in the region as a whole.  We’ve seen it export dictatorship, export torture, export arbitrary detentions, and export the harassment and intimidation of dissidents and opposition factors.  And in all of these actions Cuba continues to prop up the former Maduro regime which denies Venezuelans their right to self-determination.”

“So under the Trump administration U.S. policy towards Cuba will reflect reality.  Twenty-two years of suspending Title III has failed to advance the goal set forth by the legislation in the first place.  Secretary Pompeo’s decision today recognizes the truth of that failure and enacts Congress’ common sense policy to starve the Cuban regime of the wealth it needs to hold onto power while simultaneously supporting the people of Cuba.”

“So ending the suspension of Title III sends a strong signal against trafficking in these confiscated properties as well as opens a path for U.S. claimants whose property was confiscated by the Cuban regime to seek compensation.”

“[S]tarting with NSPM5 [National Security Presidential Memorandum], this administration has made clear its intent on holding the Cuban regime accountable for repression on the island and maligned activity overseas, while at the same time supporting the Cuban people.  And this administration will not allow those trafficking in confiscated property off the hook for their complicity in the regime’s malign behavior.”

“The purpose of the legislation as it was originally passed was to ensure that there was justice for those who had their property illegally confiscated by the Cuban regime.  So of course any European company, any American company, any company around the world that traffics in property that was confiscated by the regime does have the possibility of being hit by this legislation.”

“So I wouldn’t be comfortable giving an assessment on how many companies that applies to, but the LIBERTAD Act also does include certain conditions and requirements to bring an action under Title III.  So in that instance we advise potential plaintiffs to consult with legal counsel.”

Impact of U.S. Changes on Europe

“{O]ou relationship with our partners in Europe is very critical to this administration.  We’ve consulted with them numerous times.  We’ve taken into account their considerations and their concerns. . . . we all agree on the broader strategy to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba.  There is some disagreement on the tactics to get there.”

“[W]hether the Europeans would be taking this to the World Trade Organization, I would just defer to them on their response and what their actions will be, and just simply reiterate that we here are implementing the laws passed by Congress.”

“With this . . . implementation of this legislation we are not targeting any specific countries or specific companies.  The Secretary has made very clear that this is a decision not to waive, that has no exceptions.  So there is no direct targeting reflected here.”

“And in terms of the broader message that we’re trying to communicate writ large, it is the administration’s continued focus on holding the Cuban regime accountable for human rights abuses, and again, simultaneously supporting the people of Cuba in their fight for democracy. [No response to question about impact on Russia.]

“[T[his administration is very committed and clear-eyed in its focus on bringing human rights to Cuba.  This decision is part of a long trajectory that started with NSPM5 and continues with the Cuba restricted list with this decision.  I think you will continue to see decisions and announcements from this administration up to and until a moment when we have democracy in Cuba.” [No response to question about possible re-designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.]

Cuba and Venezuela

“We have already begun to undertake a number of actions when it comes to Cuba’s role in Venezuela.  As mentioned, this is based [on] . . . the Cuban regime’s activities, both inside Cuba as well as its actions inside Venezuela.”

So we have been very clear on our intent to ratchet up that pressure.  We’ve also been clear that we’re monitoring the impact, the recent suspensions had on bringing about meaningful reform in Cuba.  And we have seen none of those things”

“{T]his is administration has already come out with a number of sanctions and designations specifically related to Cuba’s, the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela, so that again is an indication that we are willing to ratchet up the pressure with respect to Cuba’s foreign intervention in that country.”{

We would agree, there definitely is military intervention in Venezuela.  It’s not on the part of President Juan Guaido or the United States.  It is uniquely on the part of former regime leader Nicolas Maduro, the Cubans, the Russians, and the Iranians.  It is something that we do not accept.  The Lima Group recently announced that they do not accept this intervention.  It is against all of the principles of non-intervention that are held so dear to the people of the Western Hemisphere.  So we absolutely agree with that assertion.”

“We have no tolerance or patience for the recent landing of Russian military personnel inside Venezuela.  We have no tolerance or patience for the way the Cuban regime treats the people of Venezuela, how it props up the Maduro regime, how it provides repression training and tactics to Sebin and others.  So accordingly we are and will continue to take action.”

“We know that there are Cuban military and intelligence services present in Venezuela.  It is widely known both inside and outside of Venezuela that these officers are deeply entrenched in the Venezuela state.  They are the ones providing physical protection and other support directly to Maduro and to the inner circle.  And Maduro himself has made no secret of his partnership with the Cuban armed forces’

In October 2018 Maduro celebrated the deployment of Cuban Special Forces units which were called the Black Wasps, to the Venezuelan-Colombia border for provocative military exercises, and we’ve seen publicly the provocative actions undertaken by the Russians in recent weeks as well.”

In terms of the next steps that we can do, . . . on April 12th the United States sanctioned four companies for operating in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy and identified nine vessels as blocked properties pursuant to an Executive Order.  Those actions were themselves a follow-on to previous designations and identifications announced earlier in the month which targeted entities and vessels known to be involved in the transportation of crude oil from Venezuela to Cuba.”

All “of these actions are aligned with our broader Venezuela strategy which seeks to hinder the former Maduro regime’s ability to line its pockets with the profits from natural resources that properly belong to the people of Venezuela but that Maduro himself steals.  And it’s also very consistent with our policy approach when it comes to Cuba, which is making sure that we are again holding the regime accountable for its abuses, both inside the country as well as its abuses outside the country.”

Potential Claims for Expropriated Cuban Property

The U.S. “ Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified nearly $2 billion worth of claims.  That doesn’t include possible interest.  The United States did an assessment, . . .in 1996, where we saw that there were over 6,000 certified claims.  However,  . . . [today’s] determination is not specifically focused only on certified claims . . . [and] there could be as many as 200,000 certified claims [and] uncertified claims.  That’s why we can’t give a concrete assessment of exactly how many companies or how much money this would entail.  However it’s possible that it could be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

“Title IV  [of the Helms-Burton Act] was never suspended, and what I can say is that we are going to be ramping up investigations in that space as well.”

Conclusion

Exceedingly important facts are ignored by the U.S. cancelling further waiver of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, by the U.S. current discussion of the claims by U.S. nationals for Cuba’s expropriation of their property on the island, by the above comments by a State Department official as well as Secretary Pompeo’s April 17 announcement of the changes regarding the Act and by the subsequent briefing by Assistant Secretary Breier, as set forth in a prior post.

First, Cuba has consistently recognized that it has an obligation under international law to pay fair compensation for all property that was expropriated in the early years of the Cuba Revolutionary Government. [2]

Second, Cuba has negotiated and paid such expropriation claims by claimants from other countries. [2]

Third, during  the Obama Administration in 2015-2016 held bilateral meetings with Cuba in Washington, D.C. and Havana on many issues that had accumulated during the 50-plus years of U.S.-Cuba estrangement. One such subject was compensation for U.S. claimants for expropriated property. However, there was no resulting agreement on this and many other subjects. I suspect this was due to the complexity of these many issues, potential U.S. political difficulties in approving any such settlement and Cuba’s lack of money to pay such U.S. claims. [2]

Fourth, as a result, this blog has proposed, in an earlier post, that the U.S. and Cuba should agree to an international arbitration over this and other U.S. and Cuba damage claims. (Remember every Fall at the U.N. General Assembly Cuba alleges large amounts of damages from the U.S. embargo when the Assembly overwhelmingly approves Cuba’s resolution condemning that U.S. embargo and this Cuba claim would also be part of the arbitration.) This is a peaceful, responsible way to settle these claims, and frequently in U.S. litigation over large, competing claims, settlements frequently occur after the parties become further educated about the merits and risks of such claims.

The current U.S. bluster over the Helms-Burton Act totally fails to recognize this solution to the issue of compensation of U.S. nationals for expropriation of their property in Cuba.

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[1] U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Telephonic Press Briefing with Senior State Department Official  on the U.S. Policy Towards Cuba (April 17, 2019).

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

 

State Department’s Announcement of New Sanctions Against Cuba

On April 17, the U.S. announced new sanctions against Cuba. The major change was eliminating the waiver of Title III of the Helms-Burton (LIBERTAD) Act allowing U.S. litigation by U.S. owners of Cuban property that was expropriated by the Cuban government in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. This Act also allows the U.S. to deny or revoke U.S. visas to any person or corporate officer “involved in the confiscation of property or trafficking in confiscated property,” as well as their family members.[1]

State Department’s Announcement of Sanctions[2]

The State Department made the official announcement of this change in remarks to the Press by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said the following:

  • “In 1996, Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as Libertad. Until Title III of that act, United States citizens who had their property confiscated by the Castro regime were given the right to file suit against those who traffic in such properties.”
  • “But those citizens’ opportunities for justice have been put out of reach for more than two decades. For now more than 22 years, every president, every secretary of state has suspended Title III in the hope that doing so would put more pressure on the Cuban regime to transition to democracy.”
  • The “Trump administration recognizes reality. We see clearly that the regime’s repression of its own people and its unrepentant exportation of tyranny in the region has only gotten worse because dictators perceive appeasement as weakness, not strength.”
  • “President Obama’s administration’s game of footsy with the Castros’ junta did not deter the regime from continuing to harass and oppress the heroic Ladies in White, a group of women dedicated to peacefully protesting the regime’s human rights abuses.”
  • “More broadly, the regime continues to deprive its own people of the fundamental freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. Indeed, according to NGO reports, Cuban thugs made more than 2,800 arbitrary arrests in 2018 alone. In the run-up to the country’s recent sham constitutional referendum, one that enshrined the Communist Party as the only legal political party in Cuba, the regime harassed, beat, and detained leaders and – opposition leaders and activists. Three hundred and ten people were arbitrarily detained according to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.”
  • “Cuba’s behavior in the Western Hemisphere undermines the security and stability of countries throughout the region, which directly threatens United States national security interests. The Cuban regime has for years exported its tactics of intimidation, repression, and violence. They’ve exported this to Venezuela in direct support of the former Maduro regime. Cuban military intelligence and state security services today keep Maduro in power.”
  • “Sadly, Cuba’s most prominent export these days is not cigars or rum; it’s oppression. Detente with the regime has failed. Cozying up to Cuban dictators will always be a black mark on this great nation’s long record of defending human rights.”
  • “For these reasons, I’m announcing that the Trump administration will no longer suspend Title III. Effective May 2nd, . . . the right to bring an action under Title III of the Libertad Act will be implemented in full. I have already informed Congress of my decision.”
  • “Implementing Title III in full means a chance at justice for Cuban Americans who have long sought relief for Fidel Castro and his lackeys seizing property without compensation. For the first time, claimants will be able to bring lawsuits against persons trafficking in property that was confiscated by the Cuban regime. Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement.”
  • “In addition to being newly vulnerable to lawsuits, they could be abetting the Cuban regime’s abuses of its own people. Those doing business in Cuba should fully investigate whether they are connected to property stolen in service of a failed communist experiment. I encourage our friends and allies alike to likewise follow our lead and stand with the Cuban people.”
  • “As I said throughout my trip to South America this last week, the Trump administration is committed to helping grow the wave of democracy, good governments, and openness, which is steadily building throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. On my trip last week, I saw these positive changes firsthand, and told our friends and allies that we’re with them. We’re on the side of what’s right and what is just.”
  • “Today we are holding the Cuban Government accountable for seizing American assets. We are helping those whom the regime has robbed get compensation for their rightful property. And we’re advancing human rights and democracy on behalf of the Cuban people.”

Immediately after the Secretary’s remarks, Kimberly  Breier, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, responded to journalists’ questions. Here are her significant responses:

  • “[O]bviously we’ve been in very deep and close contact with our allies in Europe and Canada and around the world as we consulted on this decision over the past several months as the Secretary had been shortening the period of suspension with his previous decisions. I think it’s clear if you look in the macro sense we have broad agreement with our allies in Europe and Canada and around the world on the policy objective, which is to promote democracy in Cuba and to free the Cuban people from the tyranny that they live under.”
  • “We are in broad agreement on this. Where we sometimes disagree is on the best way to achieve that. And I think at the end of the day, you’ll need to speak to the European Union and to our allies as to what response they will have, but I would like to emphasize that European companies that are operating in Cuba will have nothing to worry about if they are not operating on property that was stolen from Americans post-revolution. So I think the vast number of European companies will not have any concerns operating in Cuba.”
  • We “took a decision today based on our laws and our sovereign concerns for the property of American citizens and Europeans will respond as they see fit, and we will continue to work closely with them on this policy and on the policy in Venezuela.”
  • The “decision today is part of the trajectory that started with the Trump Administration’s NSPM-5, which was announced in June of 2017.[3]The objective of that was . . . to support the Cuban people and to deny resources to the regime, and in particular to the security services in Cuba. So this is part of a trajectory. We have since published a Cuba restricted list. We have since amended the restricted list several times, and this is part of the trajectory of the administration trying to ensure that we support the people of Cuba and not the regime of Cuba.”
  • The “Secretary’s decision was about the actions of the Cuban regime; certainly, the actions of the Cuban regime in Venezuela are part of the context of the moment in which we are living. And we are very clear, and . . . the Lima Group, which is a group of 12 countries in the Western Hemisphere, for the very first time this week announced its concern over Cuba’s role in Caracas and made public its concern, and called on the Cuban regime to support the transition in Caracas. So I think it’s a very important moment in our relations in the hemisphere as well.”
  • Over “the past two years building off of NSPM-5 and looking at the various tools that we have to implement the President’s vision for how we would conduct this policy. I think you’re going to be seeing quite a bit more from us, and that this is the beginning of a new process on this that recognizes the reality on the ground in Cuba, which is in the past 20-plus years the underlying reality in Cuba has not changed for the average Cuban..[There was no direct response to the question about whether the U.S. was considering t returning Cuba to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.[4]]
  • “There will not be any exemptions [from this new sanction for any U.S. company doing business in Cuba].” (Emphasis added.)
  • The “Foreign Claims Settlement Commission . . . has certified nearly 6,000 claims for property confiscated in Cuba with a total value of approximately 2 billion. With interest, we believe that value is somewhere in the $8 billion range. The most recent estimate we have from 1996, at the time that the law was enacted, that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims that were not certified by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars. But it will depend on, of course, whether claimants decide to pursue legal cases or not.”[5]

The day before the official announcement in an embargoed briefing for journalists, an unidentified senior State Department official said that foreigners who have been trafficking in such properties  have “had over 20 years of profiting from property stolen from American citizens.”

Hints of This and Other Anti-Cuba Measures[6]

For the last several weeks the Administration has been hinting that more anti-Cuba measures were coming.

One such  hint came from Vice President Mike Pence at a U.N. Security council meeting on April 10, when he said, “For decades, Cuba has tried to create client states across our region.  While normal countries export goods, Cuba exports tyranny and strong-arm tactics.  Even now, Cuban military and intelligence services train and support and equip Venezuela’s secret police as they silence opponents, jail and torture members of the opposition.” Pence added, “Last week, the United States took action to sanction ships transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba.  And soon, at President Trump’s direction, the United States will announce additional action to hold Cuba accountable for its malign influence in Venezuela.” (Emphasis added.)

 Two days later, President Trump issued his Proclamation on Pan American Day and Pan American Week, which said, in part, “Sadly, the people of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua continue to live under tyranny and authoritarianism.  The brutality and corruption of the illegitimate former regime in Venezuela has crippled the country and brought it to ruin.  We must not forget that the struggle is one between dictatorship and democracy, between oppression and freedom, and between continued suffering for millions of Venezuelans and an opportunity for a renewed future of freedom and prosperity.  The community of democracies in our Western Hemisphere must continue to support the people of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua as they fight for the restoration of democracy and liberty. (Emphases added.)

Another tip came from the State Department when it announced that  that the U.S. was adding four companies and nine vessels  to the list of Venezuelan companies  that were sanctioned for transporting oil to Cuba.[7] The Department also said the U.S.“will continue to do all we can to stand up against Cuba’s support for the former Maduro regime and its hostility to the Venezuelan people’s aspiration to a peaceful, prosperous, democratic future. Cuba’s intervention only seeks to delay the inevitable—the peaceful transition back to freedom and democracy that is underway in Venezuela, led by the Venezuelan people, Interim President Juan Guaido, and the National Assembly.”  (Emphasis added.)

Another hint came directly from Secretary Pompeo on April 14 in a speech in Cucata, Colombia, when he said, “ “Cubans must understand too that there will be cost associated with continued support of Nicolas Maduro.”  (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

Later the same day (April 17), U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in a speech in Miami addressed these new sanctions and other santi-Cuba measures that will be discussed in a subsequent post. Another post will review the responses to these new measures from the U.S., Cuba, Europe and Canada.

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

[1]  Baker, Trump to Increase Pressure on Cuba by Lifting Lawsuit Limits, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019); Reuters, In Major Shift, Trump to Allow Lawsuits Against Foreign Firms, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019); Assoc. Press, Trump to Allow Lawsuits Over US Properties Seized in Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019); DeYoung, Trump administration will allow U.S. citizens to sue over property seized after 1959,  Wash. Post (April 16, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Remarks to the Press (April 17, 2019); State Dep’t, Briefing With Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Kimberly Breier (April 17, 2019).

[3] NSPM refers to National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017). See President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[4] See posts listed in the “Cuba: State Sponsor of Terrorism?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[5]  See Resolution of U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2015).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at a Special Session of the United Nations Security Council  on the Crisis in Venezuela/New York, NY (April 10, 2019); White House,  Proclamation on Pan American Day and Pan American Week (April 15, 2019); State Dep’t, The United States Takes Action To End Cuba’s Malign Influence on Venezuela (April 12, 2019).

 

Senator Leahy’s Senate Floor Speech To End Embargo of Cuba

As mentioned in a prior post, on February 7, Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) introduced the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (S.428) with cosponsors Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY)./

On February 15, Senator Leahy delivered a lengthy and persuasive speech on the Senate floor supporting this bill and ending the embargo. Here is the text of that speech.

After commending Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) for introducing this bill and urging other Senators to support the bill,, Senator Leahy said, “This bill is about ending the anachronistic prohibitions in U.S. law that for decades have limited U.S. engagement with Cuba, including preventing American companies from exporting their products to Cuba.  The fact that legislation to do so is even necessary is illustrative of the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Companies from Europe, Russia, China, Mexico, and every other country can sell their products to Cuba, which is just 90 miles from our coast, but American manufacturers and retailers are largely shut out of the Cuban market. . . . This bill would enable American companies to compete, which every believer in a free market should support.”

“It is also important for Senators to know that punitive actions by the Trump Administration last year to further restrict the right of Americans to travel to Cuba have had devastating consequences for Cuba’s fledgling private sector – the very people the White House and supporters of the restrictions profess to want to help.  The fact that they have said nothing about the harm they are causing Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs demonstrates that they care more about continuing their failed policy of sanctions, regardless of who they hurt, than about helping the Cuban people or about protecting the right of Americans to travel freely.” 

“The latest ill-conceived attempt by the White House to punish Cuba would permit Title III of the Helms-Burton Act to go into effect.  This would allow, among others, individuals who were Cuban citizens when their property in Cuba was expropriated half a century ago to sue in U.S. courts any Cuban, foreign, and even American company whose business in Cuba today uses that property.  That could be an airport, port, warehouse, hotel, restaurant, you name it.  Virtually every American and foreign company investing in Cuba would suddenly be liable for treble damages.”

“The purpose, as the law’s authors made clear when it was enacted 23 years ago, is to harm Cuba’s economy by making it completely inhospitable for foreign investment.”

“As my friend in the House, Representative Jim McGovern (Dem., MA), has pointed out –

  • ‘It’s no mystery why Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump blocked Title III from going into effect every six months for the past 23 years.’
  • ‘It is hypocritical – it penalizes companies for doing what American companies do all over the world.’
  • It is contrary to international law, which recognizes the right of expropriation and requires compensation.’
  • ‘It is an extraterritorial sanction that guarantees a response from our trading partners, like Canada, Spain and the EU, including complaints at the World Trade Organization.’
  • ‘And if you care about agriculture, be warned: It will open a new front in the trade war, with all the repercussions that can bring.’
  • ‘It will allow Cuba to claim victim status and rally international support.’
  • ‘It will clog our courts with lawsuits.’
  • ‘It will make it impossible to negotiate compensation for U.S. claims in Cuba, and, in the end, hurt the very Americans who seek compensation for the property they lost.’
  • ‘It will divide us from friends and allies who are now working for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.’
  • ‘And it will guarantee that new investment in Cuba will come from the Russians, Chinese and others who are hostile to the United States, and whose state-owned companies can’t be sued in U.S. courts.’

“I agree with my friend in the other body [Rep. McGovern].  What the White House is considering would trigger an avalanche of unintended consequences that would bring U.S. commerce with Cuba to a halt, harm relations with our allies in this hemisphere and beyond, and make resolving property claims more difficult.  I ask unanimous consent that a piece by William LeoGrande on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act published in the February 13, 2019 issue of OnCubaNews be printed in the Record following my remarks.” [This article will be published in a separate post to this blog.]

Like “many issues, Members of Congress have strong feelings pro and con about U.S. relations with Cuba.  It is no secret that, after more than half a century of a policy of isolation that has achieved none of its objectives and primarily hurt the Cuban people, I, like Senators Klobuchar and Enzi and many others in this body, favor closer relations.”

“Conversely, there are those in Congress and the Trump Administration who believe strongly that we should ratchet up the pressure on the Cuban government in an attempt to achieve those elusive goals.”

“I have often spoken publicly about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in Cuba.  But I also think it is important to try to be objective:  to criticize when called for and to acknowledge positive changes when they occur.”

“I recognize that those who favor maintaining the failed economic embargo have a longstanding, visceral antagonism and resentment toward the Cuban government.  While they rarely, if ever, mention the corrupt and brutal Batista regime that enjoyed unqualified U.S. support until it was overthrown in 1959, they have legitimate reasons to criticize the mistreatment of the Cuban people by the current government and its support for the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime in Venezuela.”

“But they too should acknowledge that threatening and bullying Cuba has not worked.  In fact it has made the situation worse, and provided an excuse for the Cuban government to blame its own failures on us.  They should also acknowledge positive changes in Cuba, but they never do.  Not ever.  It is almost as if they are psychologically, ideologically, or emotionally incapable of saying one positive thing about the Cuban government, no matter what positive things it does.”   

“Perhaps they are afraid that if they did, they would alienate their donors in the Cuban-American community.  Of course, we know that Cuban-Americans are divided about the U.S. embargo.  Some are hardcore believers in the embargo, and they always will be.  But at least as many – and increasing numbers – oppose the embargo, especially those who were born after the Cuban revolution.” 

“I wonder what the pro-embargo isolationists would say if the Cuban government were to stop harassing and abusing dissidents who favor a more democratic system.  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?” 

“What if the Cuban government decided to embrace a free market economy and let private businesses flourish?  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?”

“I doubt it.  I doubt it because no matter what positive reforms occur in Cuba, they will continue to defend the embargo until Cuba is a full-fledged democracy and those who currently hold power either die or are voted out of office.” 

“We all want Cuba to become a democracy, where civil and political rights are respected, and the sooner the better.  But those same defenders of the embargo support billions of dollars in U.S. aid – and weapons sales – to countries that are led by authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt dictatorships and monarchies, some of which have held power for decades or generations.”    

“How do the pro-embargo diehards reconcile that?  They don’t and they can’t.”

“The fact is, Cuba is changing.  Not nearly as fast as we and the Cuban people would like, but it is changing in ways that few would have predicted not very long ago.”

“Last year, Raul Castro’s hand-picked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became President and he promised a government more accessible and responsive to the people’s needs.  How he delivers on that promise remains to be seen.”   

“Since 2010, after the Cuban government recognized that the Internet is essential if Cuba wants to be part of the modern world, Internet access has exploded.  The government has opened hundreds of public Wi-Fi hot spots and cyber cafes in the past five years, and home Internet access became legal and available in 2017.  Today, almost half of the Cuban people have personal cell phones that were illegal just a decade ago.”

“As others have pointed out, these changes have encouraged new forms of communication, networking and organizing via social media.”

“But change does not come easily in Cuba, as it does not in many countries.  Last July, the government announced onerous new regulations on the private sector, covering a wide range of issues:  food safety, labor contracts, procurement, taxation, limits on the size of private businesses.  The new rules were an attempt by hardliners to crack down on the private sector, which was criticized for black marketeering.”

“But private entrepreneurs resisted, and they challenged the regulations as contradictory to the government’s own plans that recognizes the private sector as important to economic growth and employment. They appealed to government officials and spoke publicly about the harm the new rules would have on their businesses.”

“When the final regulations were issued, several that had caused the most resentment were dropped.  According to the Minister of Labor and Social Security, the decision to revise the rules was due to ‘the opinion and experiences of those directly involved.’”

“The government also retreated on a new law – Decree 349 – requiring artists, musicians and performers to register with the state and pay a large commission on their earnings from private engagements, and it banned work with objectionable content and empowered inspectors to shut down any offensive exhibition or performance.  Clearly, an attempt to further limit free expression.”

“Since the 1980s, Cuban artists have had more freedom to be critical of the government than other social sectors, and so it was not surprising that Decree 349 ignited widespread protests.  After social media was used to mobilize opposition within the Cuban arts community and among artists abroad, the government agreed not to enforce the law until implementing regulations are drafted in consultation with the arts community.”

“According to one observer, ‘during [the latter half of last year], nearly 8.9 million Cubans debated the draft of a new constitution in their workplaces, neighborhoods and schools.  Communist Party members were told not to argue with even the most radical proposals for amendments, and the ensuing debates were freewheeling, often lasting past their scheduled time.  Among the main topics: whether the president and state governors should be directly elected by voters; whether the concentration of wealth and property should be allowed; whether term limits and age limits for leaders were a good idea; and whether the Communist Party should be subordinated to the constitution and hence the law.”  Not long ago it would have been unthinkable to openly debate these issues, especially as part of a constitutional reform process.”

“One article that attracted intense debate recognized same-sex marriage, and was promoted by Raul Castro’s daughter, a long-time activist for LGBTQ rights. The proposal sparked strong opposition from evangelical churches supported by the Catholic Church.  Gay rights advocates countered with campaigns of their own.  The chance of a significant ‘no’ vote on the entire constitutional reform led the government to drop the provision from the final draft of the constitution with a pledge to consider it later.”

“This surge in mobilization by well-organized constituencies utilizing social media to resist government policy, from burdensome private sector regulations to gay marriage, is unprecedented in Cuba.  The government’s willingness to not only tolerate these organized challenges but to change policies in response to them, is significant. “   

“As has been noted, none of these issues dealt with the rigid structure of the Cuban system.  Cuba remains a one party state, in which those who challenge the system are treated as criminals.  But the precedent of organized interest groups mounting successful campaigns to challenge and change government policy is now established, which is positive.” 

“None of the longstanding critics of the Cuban government in the U.S. Congress or the Cuban-American community [has] acknowledged any of this, nor are they likely too.  For them, anything less than a wholesale change of government in Cuba is unworthy of mention, even though they apply a very different standard – a double standard – to other authoritarian governments.  In fact, they would ridicule anyone who regards such changes as positive or worthy of recognition.”

“As we know from our own experience, political reform is difficult.  Our own Electoral College, an anachronism designed to protect a slave-holding minority, remains in effect more than two centuries later.  Five times, in the world’s oldest democracy, it has prevented the winner of the most popular votes from being elected president.”  

“The Cuban people want to live better and they want a lot less government control over their lives.  Armed with cell phones and the Internet they are going to make increasing demands of their government.  This is happening at a time when Venezuela’s economy is collapsing and the survival of the Maduro regime, Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere, is in question.  Not surprisingly, the Cuban government is trying to limit the pace of change and to secure other benefactors.  It is turning increasingly to Russia, Algeria, Iran and other countries that welcome the chance to challenge U.S. influence in this hemisphere.” 

“This is a time for the United States to be actively and visibly engaged in Cuba, for Americans to be traveling to Cuba, for expanding educational, cultural, and professional exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, and for American companies to be competing in Cuba.  It is not a time to return to a failed policy of threats and ultimatums, driven by domestic politics rather than by what is in our national interests.”

“That is why I am cosponsoring the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act.  And it is why I intend to support other bipartisan legislation to replace our failed Cuba policy with one that serves America’s interests, not the interests of a shrinking minority, and not the interests of Russia and other countries that are reaping the economic benefits of our self-defeating policy of isolation.”

Reaction

I concur in the rationale and conclusion of this speech: end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

While I believe there is valid documentation of the Senator’s assertion that Cuba has limits on free speech and assembly, he views this in isolation from Cuba’s situation. Cuba is a small country facing the vastly larger and more powerful  U.S., which for many years has had various hostile policies and actions against Cuba, including secret and undercover so-called “democracy promotion” programs on the island. In that context, it should be easy to understand why Cuba is concerned about dissidents and free speech and assembly.  Accordingly reliable U.S. assertions about the abolition of so called “democracy promotion” programs on the island should be a precondition to improving Cuban freedoms of speech and assembly.

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

Senator Leahy,  Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019). 

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

Fear of Change Driving U.S. and European Clamor Over Immigration

New York Times journalists Amanda Taub and Max Fisher have trenchant insights about the current conflicts over immigration in the U.S. and Europe.[1]

First, they assert that these conflicts “often . . .have more do with race and ethnic identity — or with simple politics.” There is anger amongst the people,, but it “stems less from migration specifically than from a broader anxiety over social change. When people feel a sense of threat or a loss of control, they sometimes become more attached to ethnic and national identities.”

“For some people, the antipathy is explicitly racial. But for many others, the mere fact of cultural change itself can be unsettling. Immigration, unauthorized or otherwise, is just one of the changes that bring about a feeling of the loss of control. Economic dislocation, changes in social hierarchies and demographic change can all produce the same effect.”

In this context, “migrants and asylum seekers have become, for many voters, a symbol of the political establishment’s failure to protect them and their interests.”

Second, in the U.S. “most voters are growing more tolerant of immigration, but a committed minority is increasingly demanding limits on immigration in all forms. Because that minority makes the issue a top priority, it holds considerable power over policy.”

“The two-party American system means that the issue has polarized voters. Both sides see the United States’ core character as at risk of being destroyed. That feeling of existential, zero-sum conflict can make people feel that extreme action is justified to prevent victory for the other side, undermining democratic norms.”

Conclusion

A prior post emphasized this blogger’s opinion that the U.S. needs more immigration to provide (a) skilled and unskilled workers for the American economy, (b) younger people to counterbalance an aging population, (c) financial contributions for the social welfare needs of increasing numbers of retirees and (d) help to rescue small towns from collapse. At the same time, the post said it should be easy to understand why many people fear the  accompanying demographic changes.[2]

Taub and Fisher rightly emphasize why this fear of immigration by many Americans makes them put a top priority on limiting immigration

This current controversy over immigration makes me recall that in American history the once dominant northern European, Protestant population feared new immigrants from southern Europe (Italians and Greeks, for example), Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and others from Eastern Europe (Poland, for example) and from Asia. Now for most Americans the descendants of these newer immigrant groups have been subsumed into the “white” category of the population along with the elimination of the disparaging epithets previously used for such people.

Yet the American Anthropological Association has concluded that race is not a scientific concept. As the Association declared in a 1998 statement:[3]

  • It “has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. . . . [Thus,] any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations [is] both arbitrary and subjective.”

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[1]  Taub & Fisher, In U.S. and Europe, Migration Conflict Points to Deeper Political Problems, N.Y. Times (June 29, 2018).

[2] More Immigrants Needed in U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (June 23, 2018); White Anxiety and Fearing Immigration, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2018).

[3] Anthropologists’ Opinion That Race Is Not a Scientific Concept, dwkcommentaries.com (June 7, 2016); Anthropologists’ Statement Regarding the Historical and Cultural Background to the Concept of Race, dwkcommentaries.com (June 8, 2016); Highlights of American Anthropological Association’s exhibit on Race, dwkcommentaries.com (June 27,  2016).

Impact of Declining, Aging, Rural Populations

 “The shift from global population growth toward population decline is emerging as one of the least appreciated forces that is, along with urbanization and digital disruption, upending the political and economic status quo.” A major factor in such decline is “all of East Asia, all of Europe, and all of North America are experiencing birthrates that are below replacement level — which means, simply, were it not for immigration and longer life spans, all of these regions would be experiencing year-to-year population decline.” (Emphases in original.) So say Philip Auerswald, associate professor at George Mason University, and Joan Yun, the president of Palo Alto Investors.[1]

“In the world’s largest cities, where populations are densely concentrated and growing, economies are generally thriving and cosmopolitanism is embraced. Where populations are sparse or shrinking, usually in rural places and small cities, economies are often stagnant, and populism sells.”

The appeal of populism, they say, is caused by “Nativist, nationalist rhetoric — “Make America (or Whatever Other Country) Great Again” — [which] appeals because it promises to restore the rightful economic and cultural stature of ‘common people’ in relation to a decadent urban intelligentsia.” This especially is true in “rural, remote places [that] have been disproportionately losing not just jobs and opportunities, but people, elementary schools and confidence in the future.”

The Russian Federation is “in the vanguard of both demographic decline and the political exploitation of the frustrations it engenders,. . . , it is a country whose population began to shrink 15 years before Japan’s; a country whose leader declared in a 2006 address to the nation that the demographic crisis was “the most acute problem” facing his land; a country in which the battle between the rural “narod” (the common people) and the urban intelligentsia was a defining feature of political life for most of a violent century.”

Other blog posts have discussed various aspects of this problem in the U.S. and the resulting need, in this blogger’s opinion, for increasing , not decreasing, immigration.[2]

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[1]  Auerswald & Yun, As Population Growth Slows, Populism Surges, N.Y. Times (May 22, 2018)

[2]  See The World Faces Demographic Challenges (April 3, 2018); U.S. Needs More Immigrants (April 14, 2018); Other Factors Favoring U.S. Immigration (May 17, 2018); Wall Street Journal: U.S. Immigration Debate Disconnected from Economic Realities (May 21, 2018).