As noted in previous posts, President Donald Trump in only one year in office has expressed hostility towards Cuba in various ways. Those actions have created opportunities for other countries to increase their connections with Cuba and thereby damage U.S. business relations with the island and potentially U.S. national security.
Opportunities for Russia
The foremost beneficiary of these U.S. changes has been Russia.
On December 16, in Havana Cuba President Raúl Castro and Economy Minister Ricardo Cabrisas met with the head of Russian oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin, for discussions about increasing Cuba’s purchases of oil from Rosneft and modernizing the island’s oil refinery in Cienfuegos. Also participating in the meeting was Mikhail L. Kamynin, Russian ambassador in Cuba.
This May Rosneft started shipping some oil to Cuba, the first significant such sales since the early 1990s. The resumption of this relationship is in response to the U.S. hostility and discouraging U.S. business with the island and to the significant reduction of Venezuela’s shipments of such products to Cuba and the resulting shortages of fuel and electricity for Cubans.
Other Russian beneficiaries are Avtovaz, Russia’s biggest carmaker; KAMAZ, Russia’s largest truck manufacturer; and Sinara, a large locomotive manufacturer. Next month Avtovaz will ship 300 new shiny Lada automobiles to Cuba and hopes to ramp up such exports, thanks to financing from Russian government development bank VEB. Last month Sinara delivered the first of 75 locomotives worth $190 million ordered by Cuba in 2016.
In addition, Russian Railways (RZD) is negotiating to upgrade more than 1000 km of Cuban railroads and to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, in what would be Cuba’s biggest infrastructure project in decades worth $2.26 billion
Aleksandr Bogatyr, Russia’s trade representative in Cuba, said that there Has been a “renaissance” as he forecast bilateral trade could grow to $350 million to $400 million this year, one of its highest levels in nearly two decades, up from $248 million in 2016.
A major obstacle to all of these deals is Cuba’s lack of cash and Russia’s own economic problems. Yet in 2014 Russia forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s $35 billion Soviet-era debt and started providing export financing to Russian companies looking to sell to the cash-strapped island.
An outsider to the Russian connection, Jason Marczak, Director the U.S.-based Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, observed, “Russia sees it as a moment to further its own relationship with Cuba” and “the more the Russian footprint increases in Cuba, the more that will reinforce hardened anti-U.S. attitudes and shut out U.S. businesses from eventually doing greater business in Cuba.”
Challenge to U.S. National Security
All of this also represents a national security challenge to the U.S. This April a group of high-ranking military officers wrote an open letter to the Trump administration urging continuation of the U.S. opening with Cuba. One of the letter’s signatories, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis, said, “If Russia is willing to offset oil supplies from Venezuela and some other things, maybe Cuba doesn’t have much of a choice but to let them re-establish political warfare operations there.”
This general Russian threat to the U.S. is recognized in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America that was released on December 18. At the very start on page 2 it states,, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” This was made specific with respect to Cuba on page 51 with the following statements: “In Venezuela and Cuba, governments cling to anachronistic leftist authoritarian models that continue to fail their people. Competitors have found operating space in the hemisphere. . . . Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens.” (Emphases added.)
The U.S. National Security Strategy reacts to the Russian challenge by saying that the U.S. with Canada and “key countries in the region . . . . will build a stable and peaceful hemisphere that increases economic opportunities for all, improves governance, reduces the power of criminal organizations, and limits the malign influence of non-hemispheric forces. . . . We will catalyze regional efforts to build security and prosperity through strong diplomatic engagement. We will isolate governments that refuse to act as responsible partners in advancing hemispheric peace and prosperity.We look forward to the day when the people of Cuba and Venezuela can enjoy freedom and the benefits of shared prosperity, and we encourage other free states in the hemisphere to support this shared endeavor. (Emphases added.)
But this presidential document fails to acknowledge that this Russian involvement was precipitated, in part, by the Trump Administration’s own hostility towards Cuba and that a continuation of normalization of relations with Cuba would not have provided “operating space” in Cuba for “competitors” like Russia.
Now that Hurricane Irma has left Cuba, greater details have emerged about its impact.
On the morning of Sunday (September 10) Reuters reported that “waves of up to 36 feet (11 meters) smashed businesses along Havana’s sea-side drive, . . . pummeling famous hotels such as the Copacabana, which were evacuated along with flooded neighborhoods. Although the hurricane “did not hit Havana directly and brought only moderate wind and rain, . . . the storm surge was still driving giant waves over the sea wall.” Associated Press added, “Seawater penetrated as much as 1,600 feet (500 meters) inland in parts of the city. Trees toppled, roofs were torn off, cement water tanks fell from roofs to the ground and electrical lines are down.” As a result, “emergency workers in inflatable boats navigated flooded streets Sunday along Havana’s coastline, where thousands of people left their homes for safer ground before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba.”
Late Sunday afternoon Cuban authorities warned that the floodwaters in Havana could linger for more than a day as waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters) continued to pound the city. The U.S. Embassy astride the Malecon was damaged; its black perimeter fence, exterior panels, windows and doors were damaged. High-end hotels Melia Cohiba and Rivera also were damaged.
72 miles (116 km) east of the capital, Varadero, the country’s most important tourist resort, was whipped by winds, but it appeared to escape the full fury of the storm. The head of civil defense for the province said, “Our preliminary estimate of damage in Varadero is that it was concentrated in metal structures, false ceilings, and some buildings.”
On Sunday morning Raúl Castro as the President of the National Civil Defense Council issued a statement that the hurricane “has strongly impacted electrical infrastructure in practically the entire country, which impedes the concentration of brigades of specialized linemen in a particular zone.”
Early Sunday afternoon that Council’s Advisory No. 6 stated, “Although Irma is gradually moving away from the island, it continues to represent a threat to Cuba. Its outer bands continue to affect the country’s central and western regions, with heavy and locally intense rainfall. Tropical storm strength winds continue to be felt from Sancti Spíritus to Artemisa, as well as storm surges along the northwest coast from Matanzas to Artemisa, the northern coast of the provinces of Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara, and the southern shoreline from Camagüey to Matanzas.”
The Miami Herald has been publishing photographs of the effects of Irma in Cuba.
Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Special Report
On Monday, the Center for Democracy in the Americas issued a special report, which is reprinted here in its entirety.
“Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba over the weekend, leaving 10 dead and causing destruction and flooding across the island. Irma, which made landfall in the country’s northeastern provinces as a Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 85 years, according to Reuters.”
“The hurricane wrought havoc in Cuba’s keys, badly damaging most structures and all but destroying the international Jardines del Rey airport in Cayo Coco. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro released a statement Monday, saying, ‘Given the immensity of [Irma’s] size, practically no region has escaped its effects.’”
“Though Havana avoided a direct hit, the capital city saw extensive flooding, with 36-foot waves rising well over the Malecón (seawall) and seawater reaching one-third of a mile inland, according to Reuters and the Associated Press. The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which is located along the Malecón, saw structural damage to its fence and severe flooding inside the building.”
“According to CubaDebate, 7 of the 10 reported deaths across Cuba occurred in Havana, mostly due to falling structures and live electrical cables lying in the city’s flooded streets. Much of the island remains without power or cell service.”
“Cuba had evacuated over 1 million people, including over 8,000 tourists, prior to the storm’s arrival.”
“Irma has brought consequences for a number of Cuba’s principle economic sectors, including the sugar and tourism industries.”
“According to Granma, 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba suffered some degree of damage from the storm. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.”
“Meanwhile, the extensive damage to the Cuban Keys has left many of the country’s most popular resorts uninhabitable. President Castro stated that damages ‘will be recovered before the start of the high season’ for tourism.”
“In his statement, President Castro said, ‘It is not time to mourn, but rather to rebuild what the winds of Hurricane Irma tried to destroy.’ Countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia have stated their intention to deliver aid to the island.”
“Prior to the storm reaching Cuba, the country sent nearly 800 doctors to affected Caribbean islands, according to Granma.”
President Castro’s Public Statement
The previously mentioned statement on Monday morning, September 11, by President Raúl Castro. said “practically no province was spared [Irma’s] effects,” especially “severe damage to [the island’s] housing, the electrical system, and agriculture.”
“It also struck some of our principal tourist destinations, but damage will be repaired before the beginning of the high season. We have on hand for this the human resources and materials needed, given that this constitutes one of the principal sources of income in the national economy.”
“The days that are coming will be ones of much work, during which the strength and indestructible confidence in the Revolution of Cubans will again be demonstrated. This is not a time to mourn, but to construct again that which the winds of Irma attempted to destroy.”
New York Times reporters talk about the problem of rebuilding tourist infrastructure facing many Caribbean islands, including Cuba. They report, “Travel and tourism accounts for a higher share of the Caribbean region’s gross domestic product than it does in any other region in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, supporting more than 2.3 million jobs. . . . In Cuba, the long-term implications could be even worse. The hardest-hit parts of the islands contain a significant share of its tourist infrastructure and bring in precious foreign currency for the communist nation. Without that, the country loses one of its primary sources of income to purchase items on the global market, including the construction materials it will need to repair the damaged infrastructure.”
On Monday, they report, “President Raúl Castro recognized the importance of resorts to the Cuban economy and promised they would be rebuilt before the start of the peak season, which runs from December to April. The target is ambitious, but with Venezuela, the island’s main economic partner, racked by its own crises, Cuba can’t afford to miss it. The Cuban government announced on Monday that 10 people had died as a result of the storm, bringing the death toll in the Caribbean to at least 37.”
Cuba’s sugar industry, another important Cuban industry for employment and export earnings, suffered significant damage. According to Liobel Perez, spokesman for AZCUBA, the state sugar monopoly, “Some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of cane were affected to different degrees” and 40 percent of the country’s mills were also damaged, as were warehouses and other parts of the industry’s infrastructure.
To meet the huge problem of rebuilding Cuba’s housing and infrastructure this blogger suggests that Cuba rescind its new restrictions on cooperatives that engage in construction that were discussed in a prior post. Cuba needs all the help it can get as soon as possible.
On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”
The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.
Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016. A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba also will be discussed before providing my own observations.
“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”
“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”
“The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)
“There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)
“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”
On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.
The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:
The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)
For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)
Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement; Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.
Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).
I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.
Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.
The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.
Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).
I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization. Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.
These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.
I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.
 Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.
 This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”
 The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”
As described in a prior post, on June 16 President Donald Trump announced a ban on U.S. citizens going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel to be effective upon future adoption of regulations and instead requiring such travel to be only in organized groups. Another post then reviewed the anticipated adverse impact of this change upon Cuba’s emerging private enterprise sector (b&bs, restaurants, taxis, tour guides and others) by forcing visiting Americans to travel in buses and hotels owned by the Cuban government (including its military and security forces), which presumably will be banned by future regulations implementing another Trump policy change.
That is still the assessment of the anticipated impact and, therefore, why this blogger advocates the prompt congressional passage of bills granting Americans the freedom to travel to Cuba as discussed in another post.
Indeed, the Associated Press confirms this view with reports of recent cancellations of reservations at b&bs in Havana and Trinidad, a colonial city on the south coast of the island, and by a prospective American traveler for this very reason. “Tour operators ‘should be opening Champagne’ because of the new policy, said John Caulfield, former chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and co-founder of the nonprofit Innovadores Foundation, which seeds innovation in Cuba.”
The Associated Press, however, reports ways for Cuban entrepreneurs to reduce this adverse impact on their business with American travelers. Some small bed-and-breakfast owners plan to create informal associations of neighboring businesses so they can accommodate larger American groups. And at least some tour operators say they already use privately owned villas, casas and eateries, and engage with local guides, entrepreneurs and artists. And presumably the future U.S. regulations banning U.S. businesses from dealing with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security services will prohibit tour operators from having their travelers staying in hotels so owned or controlled and instead booking accommodations at privately owned enterprises.
On Human Rights Day (December 10) the U.S. State Department launched an international campaign calling on 10 governments around the world to free 10 political prisoners. Such Political prisoners, the U.S. said, “should be free to believe. They should be free to be loved. They should be free to be home.”
One of them is Cuban Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, who is ”affiliated with the Cubalex Legal Information Center, an NGO that works to provide citizens with free legal assistance. On September 23, authorities arrested Julio during a raid on the organization’s Havana office, where they also confiscated office equipment and files, and even strip-searched some of the staff. He had a suspended three-year sentence from allegedly falsifying public documents, a charge which civil society groups say is politically motivated. Julio Alfredo’s family didn’t know his whereabouts for several days after the arrest, but he has since been able to communicate with his daughter.”
There also have been recent arrests of other Cuban dissidents.
On December 18, in Santiago de Cuba, the police raided the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in Santiago de Cuba and eight other homes of activists in that city, Havana and Palma Soriano.
A total of 115 UNPACU dissidents were arrested. This included their leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer. As of December 20, several were still detained and two, Lisandra Rivera Rodríguez and José Luis Álvarez Chacón, were allegedly charged with alleged “attempted” crimes.
In addition, the police seized UNPACU laptop computers, CDs, cell phones and other equipment used by the dissidents.
Members of another dissident group, Ladies in White, were arrested this past Sunday and prevented from attending mass at a Catholic church, and on December 20 more than 40 such members were detained and prevented from attending a Literary Tea in Central Park in Old Havana.
On June 8, U.S. and Cuba officials met in Havana to conduct their first Counterterrorism Technical Exchange. The U.S. delegation included representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Department of State. The Cuban delegation was from the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office and General Customs of the Republic.
Before the meeting the Department of State said, “Coordination and cooperation on counterterrorism has been one of several important topics discussed in law enforcement dialogues between the United States and Cuba. We welcome the opportunity to bring together technical experts to discuss this topic of common interest.”
Afterwards, the Cuban Foreign Ministry merely said that the meeting was conducted with “respect and professionalism” and that “both parties agreed on the importance of progress in cooperation in this sphere and agreed to continue the meetings of technicians on the topic.”
Outsiders speculated that the meeting may have included discussions about a possible high-profile prisoner swap: U.S.-jailed Cuban spy Ana Belén Montes in exchange for longtime American fugitive in Cuba, Joanne Chesimard (n/k/a Assata Shakur). The State Department, however, has refused to confirm that such an exchange was being discussed. Instead the Department merely stated that the U.S. “continues to seek the return of Cuba of fugitives from US justice” and that the State Department “brings out the cases of fugitives to the Cuban Government to be settled and will continue to do so at every appropriate opportunity.”
Montes on September 21, 2001 (10 days after 9/11), was arrested and subsequently charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for the Cuban government during the 16 years she worked as an analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The charges also stated she had revealed the identities of four U.S. secret agents. Montes eventually pleaded guilty to spying, and in October 2002 she was sentenced to a 25-year prison term followed by five years’ probation. Recently an international campaign has been started to seek her release from U.S. prison.
Chesimard/Shakur, as discussed in a prior post, was convicted in a New Jersey state court for participation in the murder a state trooper in 1973 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but in 1979 broke out of a New Jersey prison and in 1984 fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum and perhaps Cuban citizenship.
On Sunday, September 20, 2015, Pope Francis celebrated mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolutión before a crowd of thousands. In attendance were Cuban President Raúl Castro and other government officials. The Pope also had separate private meetings with Fidel and Raúl Castro and later presided at a vespers service and met with a group of young people.
Celebration of Mass in Plaza de la Revolución
The above photos show the large crowd at the Sunday morning mass at Plaza de la Revolución. In his homily Francis said, “The Gospel shows us Jesus asking a seemingly indiscreet question of his disciples: ‘What were you discussing along the way?’ It is a question he could also ask each of us today: ‘What do you talk about every day? What are your aspirations?’ The Gospel tells us that the disciples ‘did not answer because on the way they had been arguing about who was the most important.’ The disciples were ashamed to tell Jesus what they were talking about. As with the disciples then, we too can be caught up in these same arguments: who is the most important?”
“Jesus does not press the question. He does not force them to tell him what they were talking about on the way. But the question lingers, not only in the minds of the disciples, but also in their hearts.”
“Who is the most important? This is a life-long question to which, at different times, we must give an answer. We cannot escape the question; it is written on our hearts. The history of humanity has been marked by the answer we give to this question.”
“Jesus is not afraid of people’s questions; he is not afraid of our humanity or the different things we are looking for. On the contrary, he knows the ‘twists and turns’ of the human heart, and, as a good teacher, he is always ready to encourage and support us. As usual, he takes up our searching, our aspirations, and he gives them a new horizon. As usual, he somehow finds the answer which can pose a new challenge, setting aside the ‘right answers,’ the standard replies we are expected to give. As usual, Jesus sets before us the ‘logic’ of love. A mindset, an approach to life, which is capable of being lived out by all, because it is meant for all.”
“Far from any kind of elitism, the horizon to which Jesus points is not for those few privileged souls capable of attaining the heights of knowledge or different levels of spirituality. The horizon to which Jesus points always has to do with daily life, also here on ‘our island.’ something which can season our daily lives with eternity.”
“Who is the most important? Jesus is straightforward in his reply: ‘Whoever wishes to be the first among you must be the last of all, and the servant of all.’ Whoever wishes to be great must serve others, not be served by others.
“Here lies the great paradox of Jesus. The disciples were arguing about who would have the highest place, who would be chosen for privileges, who would be above the common law, the general norm, in order to stand out in the quest for superiority over others. Who would climb the ladder most quickly to take the jobs that carry certain benefits.”
“Jesus upsets their ‘logic.’ their mindset, simply by telling them that life is lived authentically in a concrete commitment to our neighbor.”
“The call to serve involves something special, to which we must be attentive. Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability. Caring for the vulnerable of our families, our society, our people. Theirs are the suffering, fragile and downcast faces which Jesus tells us specifically to look at and which he asks us to love. With a love that takes shape in our actions and decisions. With a love that finds expression in whatever tasks we, as citizens, are called to perform. People of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty: these are those whom Jesus asks us to protect, to care for, to serve. Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it. That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.”
“There is a kind of ‘service’ that truly ‘serves,’ yet we need to be careful not to be tempted by another kind of service, a ‘service’ that is ‘self-serving/’ There is a way to go about serving which is interested in only helping ‘my people,’ [or] ‘our people.’ This service always leaves ‘your people’ outside, and gives rise to a process of exclusion.”
“All of us are called by virtue of our Christian vocation to that service which truly serves, and to help one another not to be tempted by a ‘service’ that is really ‘self-serving.’ All of us are asked, indeed urged, by Jesus to care for one another out of love. Without looking to one side or the other to see what our neighbor is doing or not doing. Jesus tells us: Whoever would be first among you must be the last, and the servant of all. He does not say: if your neighbor wants to be first, let him be the servant! We have to be careful to avoid judgmental looks and renew our belief in the transforming look to which Jesus invites us.”
“This caring for others out of love is not about being servile. Rather, it means putting our brothers and sisters at the center. Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ in trying to help. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas. We serve people.”
“God’s holy and faithful people in Cuba are a people with a taste for parties, for friendship, for beautiful things. It is a people who marches with songs of praise. It is a people who has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand up with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur. Today I ask you to care for this vocation of yours, to care for these gifts that God has given you, but above all I invite you to care for and be at the service of the frailty of your brothers and sisters. Do not neglect them for plans that can be seductive, but are unconcerned about the face of the person beside you. We know, we are witnesses of the incomparable power of the resurrection, which ‘everywhere calls forth the seeds of a new world.’”
“Let us not forget the Good News we have heard today: the importance of a people, a nation, and the importance of individuals, which is always based on how they seek to serve their vulnerable brothers and sisters. Here we encounter one of the fruits of a true humanity. ‘Whoever does not live to serve, does not ‘serve’ to live.’”
“We have heard in the Gospel how the disciples were afraid to question Jesus when he spoke to them about his passion and death. He frightened them, and they could not grasp the idea of seeing Jesus suffer on the cross. We too are tempted to flee from our own crosses and those of others, to withdraw from those who suffer. In concluding this Holy Mass, in which Jesus has once more given himself to us in his body and blood, let us now lift our gaze to the Virgin Mary, our Mother. We ask her to teach us to stand beside the cross of our brothers and sisters who suffer. To learn to see Jesus in every person bent low on the path of life, in all our brothers and sisters who hunger or thirst, who are naked or in prison or sick. With Mary our Mother, on the cross we can see who is truly “the greatest” and what it means to stand beside the Lord and to share in his glory.”
“Let us learn from Mary to keep our hearts awake and attentive to the needs of others. As the wedding feast of Cana teaches us, let us be concerned for the little details of life, and let us not tire of praying for one another, so that no one will lack the new wine of love, the joy that Jesus brings us.”
“I ask you now to join with me in praying to Mary, that we may place all our concerns and hopes before the heart of Christ. We pray to her in a special way for those who have lost hope and find no reasons to keep fighting, and for those who suffer from injustice, abandonment and loneliness. We pray for the elderly, the infirm, children and young people, for all families experiencing difficulty, that Mary may dry their tears, comfort them with a mother’s love, and restore their hope and joy. Holy Mother, I commend to you your sons and daughters in Cuba. May you never abandon them!”
Although the Pope had no direct remarks regarding political issues facing Cuba, he did mention the ongoing peace negotiations in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. He said, “I feel bound to direct my thoughts to the beloved land of Colombia, ‘conscious of the crucial importance of the present moment when, with renewed effort and inspired by hope, its sons and daughters are seeking to build a peaceful society.’ May the blood shed by thousands of innocent people during long decades of armed conflict, united to that of the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, sustain all the efforts being made, including those on this beautiful island, to achieve definitive reconciliation. Thus the long night of pain and violence can, with the support of all Colombians, become an unending day of concord, justice, fraternity and love, in respect for institutions and for national and international law, so that there may be lasting peace. Please, we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.” He also added a word of gratitude to President Raul Castro for his efforts to assist the negotiations.
Meeting with Fidel Castro
In the early afternoon Francis met with Fidel Castro for about a half-hour at the former Cuban leader’s home. The conversation was reported to be informal and took place in the presence of Castro’s children and grandchildren.
In the Pope’s gifts for Fidel were a collection of sermons by Castro’s former Jesuit teacher, the Rev. Amando Llorente, and two CD recordings of the priest, who was forced to leave Cuba soon after Fidel took power in 1959 and who died in Miami in 2010. Other papal gifts were two books by an Italian priest, Alessandro Pronzato, and copies of Francis’ papal encyclical “Praise Be” and his book, “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Francis’ biographer, Austen Invereigh, thinks the Llorente materials were sending a subtle message to Fidel, whose rule was marked by conflict with the Catholic Church and other groups.
Castro gave Francis a collection of his own conversations about religion with Brazilian priest Frei Betto: “Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and religion with Frei Betto” (1988),
Meeting with Raúl Castro
Later in the afternoon the Pope met with President Raúl Castro and other government officials at the Palace de la Revolutión as shown in the above photographs. The President showed Francis what appear to be official gifts for the Pontiff on display inside the Palace: a huge crucifix made of oars and a painting of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
Before their private meeting at the Palace, Pope Francis was heard saying to Castro: “In the first place I want to thank you for the warmth of the reception, the fact that in your speech you’ve cited things that really send a signal of (inaudible) and warmth. I also want to thank you for the pardons [of 3,522 prisoners].”
That evening Francis presided over a vespers service in Havana’s 18th century Immaculate Conception and San Cristobal Cathedral.
He did not read his prepared homily, but instead spoke extemporaneously on the importance of poverty to the Roman Catholic Church. “Our dear mother church is poor. God wants it poor, as he wanted our Holy Mother Mary to be poor. The spirit of the world does not follow the path of the son of God who emptied himself and became poor to be like us.”
He also warned of the dangers of falling prey to the temptations of wealth. “When possessions enter the heart and guide your life, you have already lost, you are no longer like Jesus. He quoted St. Ignatius when he said that poverty was the mother and also the wall of consecrated life. Pope Francis summoned the spirit of dispossession, to leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus.
Meeting with Young People
Francis finished his busy day with a meeting with hundreds of young people at the Félix Varela Cultural Center, which is the former San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary and which is not far from the Cathedral.
The young people presented him for blessing a cross that will accompany them during World Youth Day in 2016, and one of them said, “Our great strength lies in maintaining solidarity at all costs to help us to overcome any obstacle.” Their representative then welcomed the Pope to Cuba, saying “the Cuban youth love you.”
In his message to the young people, Francis cited the words of a Latin American writer: “People have two eyes, one of flesh and the other made of glass, with the one of flesh we see what we are looking at, with the one made of glass we see what we dream.” The ability to dream must be included within the objectivity of life. “He who cannot dream is not young.” Dream that the world may be different, if you give the best of yourselves you will help to have a different world. “ Do not forget to dream,” he insisted.
A family is destroyed by enmity, a country destroyed by enmity, the world is destroyed by enmity. And the biggest enmity is war,” the Pope stated. We all must have respect for differences and work together for the common good. Let’s negotiate, but not kill the world anymore. We are killing the ability to unite, to create social friendship.”
“To you, young Cubans, although you have different views, I want you to be accompanied, seeking the future and the dignity of your homeland together. At the end something even better awaits you, the sweet hope of the motherland we want to achieve. I will pray for you and ask you to pray for me, and if one cannot pray because he is not a believer, at least, wish me good things. May God bless you all.”
Once again I am impressed and moved by the words and actions of Pope Francis. He has a constant message of humility, love and forgiveness for individuals and nations. I give thanks to God for Francis!