“What Is a Reformed View of Politics?”

This is the title of the sermon by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, on Reformation Sunday, October 28.[1] Below are photographs of Rev. Hart-Andersen and the Westminster Sanctuary.

 

 

 

As noted in other posts, every Westminster worship service is divided into the following three sections: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word. Here are some of the elements of the first two sections of this service.

Preparing for the Word

The service was opened by the stirring Prelude: “Marche en Rondeu” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and “Trumpet Tune in D Major” by David N. Johnson that were played by Douglas Carlsen (trumpet, Minnesota Orchestra), Jeffrey Gram, timpani; and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Rev. David Shinn, Associate Pastor, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, we confess we keep you at a distance to pursue our own way. We forget your mercy is waiting for us as we close our hearts to you. Whisper the offer of your grace once more to us, and wash away all the things we have done and left undone. Make a new way for us to live in humility, showing love to others and to you. May we be forgiven as we confess our shortcomings, and renewed by your faithfulness, courageous in our pursuit of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

The Scripture Readings

Genesis 17: 1-8 (NRSV):

  • “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;  walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’”

Matthew 1: 1-6a, 17 (NRSV):

  • “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,the son of David, the son of Abraham.
  • Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
  • And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
  • So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”

The Sermon[2]

“Scripture is concerned with history, and we should be, as well.  If we are not, as George Santayana famously observed, we ‘are condemned to repeat it.”

“That warning came to mind yesterday as we heard about the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism has spiked in America; the number of hateful incidents directed at Jews rose last year by 57%. Something is going wrong in our midst.”

“Political discourse hasn’t helped. When Neo-Nazis march and rally and are not clearly and resoundingly denounced by our leaders, that sends signals to those with hate in their hearts. If we forget the long history of bigotry and violence against Jews, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of injustice and violence against indigenous people in this land, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of the enslavement of African people in America and violence directed against them and their descendants, we will repeat it. If we forget the long history of mistreatment and violence against women and immigrants and people of differing sexual orientation and identity we will repeat it. “

“Our faith is rooted in history. Scripture goes out of its way to show the connections from one generation to another, to weave the threads of memory and experience, of joy and lament, through the long years of the human story. Scripture wants us not to forget.”

“When the Bible includes lists of the generations, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel, that precede us, it does so to remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of meaning. We are not alone. We are not the first to struggle with what it means to confront the baser impulses of the human heart, or to live in fractured community, or to seek out a God who can sometimes seem distant.”

“The gospel of Matthew opens with a recitation of the generations that stretch from Abraham through David. Fourteen generations. Then another fourteen up to the time of Babylonian exile. Then fourteen more to the birth of the Messiah.”

“Matthew doesn’t mention women in the genealogy, except when it’s necessary to bridge a gap from one generation to another. A man who cannot produce an heir with the correct lineage has to rely on an outsider woman. Then Matthew includes them, otherwise the entire biblical story would come to an abrupt end. It’s the patriarchy’s grudging way of acknowledging that women matter in the story.”

“What would it look like to extend the telling of the generations, from Jesus on…Paul, Lydia, Origen, Perpetua and Felicity, Monica, the desert mothers and fathers, St. Columba…up to the time of the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.”

“Then Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Waldo, Julian of Norwich, Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila…and on to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Then Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, our Presbyterian ancestor, Beza, Knox. Four of them are enshrined in our windows, once again suggesting there were no women involved. There were. We should have four other windows with Marie Dentiere, Marguerite de Navarre, Argula von Grumbach, and Olympia Morata – ancestors from that era and leaders in the faith.”

“The generations continue with Bartolomé de las Casas, John Winthrop, John Wesley, Chief Joseph, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gene Robinson. Who would you put into that lineage?”

“We’re all linked by the flow of history, passing along the wisdom of the ages, the stories of pain and suffering, the moments of redemption. We’re not making up our faith as we go along. We’ve received it and are carrying it forward, to the generations that follow. We are stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.”

“It’s Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the stream of Christian history in which we stand as Protestants. We open with John Calvin’s hymn and will close with Martin Luther’s. It’s also nine days before an election that has highlighted and heightened tensions among us. We’re anxious in America, and afraid. The divisive rancor is endless and exhausting. Our politics are tearing us apart.

“ In the midst of the chaos in which we find ourselves, our faith, our Protestant, reformed faith, can help us navigate the politics of these times in which we live.”

“”Do Politics Belong in Church?’  the cover of a recent issue of a Christian journal asks. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who conspired against Hitler, has a response. ‘As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle,’ Bonhoeffer says, ‘Nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for their neighbor.’ (Sojourners, p. 19, Feb 2018)”

“If we want religion that doesn’t engage in politics – not partisan politics, but the kind of politics that involves ‘standing up for our neighbors’ on the receiving end of hatred and poverty, prejudice and violence – if that’s what we want to avoid, then we had better find another savior.”

“What’s a reformed, or Presbyterian, view of politics? The response to that question begins with the notion of covenant, which we learned from the Jews. Covenant refers to the bond between God and humanity. God promises never to abandon humankind; that bond becomes the model for all human relationships, including between two people, or in a family, or in the community, or in the relationship between rulers and people, between government and citizens. Politics, in the Presbyterian understanding, is based on God’s call to life in covenantal community.” (Emphasis added.)

“Covenant goes back through our biblical ancestry to Abram. When God establishes a covenant between them, Abram becomes Abraham. He’s given a new name; that’s what happens when someone comes into covenant with God. That’s what was happening in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. When the shooting started they were in the midst of the naming ritual for a new baby, marking the start of that child’s covenantal life with God.”

“For Abraham the new name as he comes into covenant with God is also a sign that he will be the father of a long line of descendants – the very line that stretches through the Hebrew people to the Messiah, and then on through the early church, and to Roman Catholicism, and to the Reformation and into our time.”

“Covenant theology of the Presbyterians played a key role in the development of democracy in America. H. Richard Niebuhr writes that for Presbyterians,

  • ‘The world has this fundamental moral structure of a covenant society and that what is possible and required in the political realm is the affirmation and reaffirmation of humanity’s responsibility as a promise-maker, promise-keeper, a covenanter in universal community.’ (Quoted in “The Concept of Covenant in 16th and 17th Century Continental and British Reformed Theology” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Donald K. McKim, ed. [Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1992], p. 95)

Three dimensions of covenant have particular relevance for American democracy today.” (Emphasis added.)

“First, covenant life is inclusive. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,’ the Apostle Paul writes,

  • ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the covenant.’(Galatians 3:28-29)” (Emphasis added.)

“America was established with that covenant principle of inclusivity enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, when it states ‘that all men’ – all human beings we would say today – ‘are created equal (and) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ All are included because all have the same rights and are equal before the law.”

“Democracy depends on inclusivity. That principle is under assault today. Some appear to be created more equal than others. The growing gap between those with power and resources and those without such privilege runs counter to the biblical admonition to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Racism destroys the promise of community. Differing treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system betrays the assurance of equal rights. The true measure of the success of a society is not how well those at the top are doing, but how well the most vulnerable are faring.”

“Covenantal politics is inclusive.” (Emphasis added.)

Second, covenant life affirms the full humanity of every person. In the biblical account of creation the earthling is made in the image of God. That assertion means that every human being is of the same value and has something to contribute. That fundamental claim undergirds democracy – that all have equal access to participation in the political process and equal access to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”’ (Emphasis added.)

“When Sojourner Truth in 1851 stood up for her full humanity [and said[:

  • ‘And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’ Delivered 1851; Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio) “

“Democracy depends on seeing the worth of every person. That principle is under assault today. The rise of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims eats away at their full humanity. Immigrants and refugees are treated as unworthy and their full humanity is implicitly questioned. More than three million people who have served their sentences cannot vote because of a felony on their record and their full humanity is not restored to them. This week the government proposed new rules that would deny the full humanity, even the existence, of more than one million people who identify as transgender.”

Covenantal politics affirms the full humanity of every person.” (Emphasis added.)

“Finally, covenant life requires truth-telling. In John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident.’ Democracy requires a shared understanding of the truth. Without it there is no trust and the democratic system cannot function without trust.”

“In 1788, Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia, fresh from helping write the U.S. Constitution, sat down and wrote a set of Principles of Church Order. Among them was this phrase: ‘Truth is in order to goodness,’ meaning truth-telling leads to good behavior.“

“They went on to say, ‘No opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level…We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.’ (F-3.0104 in PCUSA Book of Order)”

“Democracy depends on telling the truth, especially by those in power. That principle is under assault today. Conspiracy theories displace reality, facts become whatever is convenient in the moment, and lies masquerade as truth. When the truth goes missing, people suffer, and trust soon dissipates – and to live in covenant with one another trust is needed.”

Covenantal politics requires truth-telling,” (Emphasis added.)

“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation. Our democracy is fraying. Fear abounds. Violence simmers all around us and occasionally breaks through the surface. Trust has been depleted. Rhetoric works against the values and principles on which our democracy depends.”

“But we are a people rooted in history. We remember other times when the nation was threatened from within. And we overcame. ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all,’ ‘President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address even as the Civil War continued to rage,

  • ‘Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…and…do all which may achieve…a just and lasting peace among ourselves.’”

“Those words express a politics of biblical covenant, where we are bound together and committed to the welfare of one another. If the nation could find its way back from the brink in that perilous and violent time, surely we can work our way out of the current predicament in which we find ourselves.”

“Democracy is a covenantal form of politics, and for it to be healthy requires participation. We need to do our part; we are responsible for one another. Voting is not merely a right; it’s the duty and responsibility of citizens in a democratic nation. Peaceful political engagement expresses and embodies and brings to life the promise of democracy.”

“Let us not forget that we are people of faith, rooted in history, in covenant with God and with one another, carrying on the hope of generations before us, even as we stand ready to hand that hope on to those who follow us.”

“In the end, we can trust that God’s grace and mercy, God’s justice, and God’s love will prevail, and we shall overcome.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

I usually ignore the biblical references to generations and descendents. They seem so boring and useless. This sermon, however, let me see that the previous generations of figures in the Bible plus my own ancestors remind me that I am not alone. As the sermon says, such references “remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are “tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of memory.”

We are “stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.” This is another passage of the sermon that made an impact on me. I had not thought of being a steward for the short time of my life of a belief that was passed on to me so that the belief may be carried forward in time after I am gone.

I also never had thought of being a member of a covenantal community in the U.S. involving everyone who is here right now. Yet I certainly have believed that life in the U.S. is or should be inclusive recognizing the full humanity of everyone.

This also means that democracy “ is a covenantal form of politics” requiring my participation.

Finally I am reminded that retrieving and studying the Scriptures and the sermon and then writing about them provide deeper and more enriching insights. I urge others to do the same.

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[1]  The bulletin for the service is online.

[2] Sermon, What Is a Reformed View of Politics? (Oct. 28, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[3] The opening hymn that sometimes is attributed to John Calvin was “”Greet Thee, Who My sure Redeemer Art.” https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/624

 

The closing hym, “Sing Praise to God Who reigns Above” is not attributed to Luther. https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/645

 

U.S.-Cuba Skirmishes at the Summit of the Americas

The confrontation of Presidents Donald Trump and Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Peru, as anticipated in a prior post, did not happen. Each of them cancelled his trip to the Summit. Instead Cuba sent its Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, while the U.S. sent Vice President Mike Pence, and the two of them exchanged verbal insults. The Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, also leveled criticism at Cuba.

OAS Secretary General[1]

On April 13, the OAS Secretary said the governments at the Summit “cannot allow the Cuban people to continue to be oppressed by an infamous dictatorship, a dictatorship that carries the weight of decades of human rights violations … tortures and executions. We have to be faithful to fundamental ethical values. Indifference in the face of dictatorship is to break the fundamental ethical values of policy.”

Cuba since 1962 has been suspended from the OAS. Nevertheless, “the resolutions of the OAS still apply to Cuba because it is still part of the Inter-American system. A suspension does not spare it from having to meet its responsibilities. That’s why we demand democracy for Cuba and the application of the Inter American Democratic Charter.”

The Secretary General also urged those at the Summit to “continue to put pressure on the regime. Let’s not recognize the [Cuban] rules for succession that the dictatorship wants to impose on its people.” This was an endorsement of the call earlier in the week by about 30 former heads of state and government from Spain and Latin America who urged the governments at the Lima summit to refuse to recognize the new Cuba government that is scheduled to be appointed April 18 or 19.

Almagro also condemned the Cuban delegation in Lima for an outburst of screams and slogans on Thursday that forced him and civil society activists to move a meeting to a closed-off hall. The Cuban delegates shouted “liar” at Almagro and “down with the worms” at the Cuban opposition activists in the room. “Today we had a very clear example of the levels of intolerance and how they want to silence the voice of dissidents in Cuba,” said the OAS secretary general. “They brought intolerance to our system, brought the voice of hatred, the voice that certainly tries to drown other voices. They have tried to dismantle our own democracy, the functioning of the Summit of the Americas. And that we cannot allow,” Almagro said. “And we cannot allow that in Cuba. It would not be ethical.”

Foreign Minster Rodriguez[2]

 On April 14, Cuba Foreign Minister Rodríguez addressed the Summit. “Our America, . . ., united by a common destiny in the search for its second and definitive independence, continues being sacked, intervened and vilified by the North American imperialism that invokes the Monroe Doctrine[3] for exercise of domination and hegemony over our peoples.”

“It is a story of wars of conquest, dispossession of territories, invasions and military occupations, coups d’état and imposition of bloody dictatorships that assassinated, disappeared and tortured in the name of freedom; of rapacious plundering of our resources.

Today there is the danger of a return to the use of force, the indiscriminate imposition of unilateral coercive measures and bloody military coups.”

He continued, “Our America, with its cultures and history, the territory, the population and its resources can develop and contribute to the balance of the world, but it is the region with the most unequal distribution of income on the planet.”

The richest 10 percent amass 71 percent of the wealth and, in two years, one percent of the population would have more than the remaining 99 percent. It lacks equitable access to education, health, employment, sanitation, electricity and drinking water.”

“We will only advance through regional integration and the development of unity within the diversity that led to the creation of CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States].”

“Recent events show that the OAS and its hysterical Secretary General are instruments of the United States.”

“Now, the objective is to reestablish imperialist domination, destroy national sovereignties with unconventional interventions, overthrow popular governments, reverse social conquests and restore, on a continental scale, wild neoliberalism. For this, the fight against corruption is used as a political weapon; prosecutors and judges act as ‘political parties’ and voters are prevented from voting for candidates with strong popular support, as is the case of the President, political prisoner, Luiz Inacio “Lula’ Da Silva whose freedom we demand.”

“It is hidden that corruption prevails among conservative politicians, parliamentarians and politicians and in electoral systems, in corrupt laws and political models, by nature, based on money, on corporate ‘special interests.’”

“People are manipulated from private monopolistic property on media and technological platforms. In electoral campaigns, there are no ethical limits: hate, division, selfishness, slander, racism, xenophobia and lies are promoted; neo-fascist tendencies proliferate and walls are promised, militarization of borders, massive deportations, even of children born in the territory itself.”

“In the hemisphere, massive, flagrant and systematic violations of civil and political human rights are increasing; and economic, social and cultural rights of hundreds of millions of human beings.”

What democracy and values ​​are spoken of here? Of those of President Lincoln or the “dream” of Martin Luther King , that would elevate the American people to whom indissoluble bonds unite us ?, Or of those of Cutting and of the supposed “anti-system” extremist conservative?

“Cuba will not accept threats or blackmail from the government of the United States. We do not want confrontation, but we will not negotiate anything of our internal affairs, nor will we yield a millimeter in our principles. In defense of independence, the Revolution and Socialism, the Cuban people have shed their blood, assumed extraordinary sacrifices and the greatest risks.”

“The progress made in recent years [2014-2016], based on absolute sovereign equality and mutual respect, which are now reversed; They showed tangible results and that civilized coexistence, within the deep differences between governments, is possible and beneficial for both.”

“The [U.S.] blockade [embargo] and financial persecution harden, cause deprivation to our people and violate human rights, but the isolation of the US government throughout the world, in American society itself and in Cuban emigration also grows with respect to that genocidal policy, obsolete and unsuccessful.”

“The international rejection of the occupation of our territory in Guantánamo by the Naval Base and the detention and torture center located in it increases equally. [The U.S.] suffers total discredit [of] the pretext to reduce the staff of the Embassies and affect the right to travel of Cubans and Americans.”

“Next April 19, in the year 150 of our independence fights, with the constitution of a new National Assembly of the Popular Power will culminate the general elections. Cubans and Cubans, especially the youngest, closely linked to the Party of the nation, founded by Martí and Fidel; together with Raúl, we will commemorate the victory against the mercenary aggression of Playa Girón [Bay of Pigs], firm, confident and optimistic.”

Vice President Pence[4]

 On April 14, as the last scheduled speaker at the Summit, Vice President Mike Pence touched on many issues. He said the following about Cuba.

A ”tired communist regime continues to impoverish its people and deny their most fundamental rights in Cuba.  The Castro regime has systematically sapped the wealth of a great nation and stolen the lives of a proud people.  Our administration has taken decisive action to stand with the Cuban people, and stand up to their oppressors.”

“No longer will the United States fund Cuba’s military, security and intelligence services — the core of that despotic regime.  And the United States will continue to support the Cuban people as they stand and call for freedom.”

“But Cuba’s dictatorship has not only beset its own people, as we all well know — with few exceptions in this room acknowledging that.  Cuba’s dictators have also sought to export their failed ideology across the wider region.  And as we speak, they are aiding and abetting the corrupt dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Earlier Vice President Pence met with  Rosa María Payá, daughter of the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who told him about Cuba Decide, a movement that promotes political change in Cuba through peaceful mobilization and the holding of a binding plebiscite whereby the Cuban people would decide their political system. Payá said, “What the Cuban people want is freedom, what the Cuban people want is to decide on another system.” Pence told her that he admires “enormously the courage” that her father had, “his commitment to freedom in Cuba” and her “courage” with her current “important work. ‘We are with you for the freedom of the Cuban people,’

Reply by Cuba Foreign Minister[5]

Invoking the right of reply, Cuba Foreign Minister Rodríguez had these additional comments on April 14.

“The Vice President of the [U.S.] seems ill-informed, ignores reality, hides the truth. I want to ask Mr. Pence directly if the Monroe Doctrine guides his government or not, in his policy toward Latin America. I want to respond with words from Bolívar: ‘The United States seems destined by Providence to plague America with miseries in the name of freedom.’ I want to quote Marti: ‘What I did up to now, and I will do, is to prevent the United States from spreading through the Antilles and falling with that force more on the lands of America.’”

“I reject the insulting references to Cuba and Venezuela and the humiliating attitude for Latin America and the Caribbean that [the U.S.] has assumed. The moral vacuum of the government of the [U.S.] cannot be, it is not a reference for Latin America and the Caribbean.”

“In the last 100 years they bear the responsibility for the most brutal abuses against human rights and human dignity. All the despotic governments in the region, all without exception, have been imposed or have received support from the government of the [U.S.], including the most cruel military dictatorships. Shameful acts like Operation Condor[6] or the bloody coup d’état in Chile[7] are about the conscience of North American governments.”

“Mr. Pence’s country has been the first and the only one to use the nuclear weapon against innocent civilians. It is responsible for criminal wars and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of deaths, massacres of civilians, including children, women and the elderly, which they call collateral damage. It is responsible for acts of torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and kidnappings.”

“The government of the [U.S.] is the author of massive, flagrant and systematic violations of the human rights of its own African-American citizens, of Hispanics, of migrants and of minorities. It is a shame for humanity that in this country of extreme wealth there are tens and tens of millions of poor people. They have a differentiated racial pattern in their prisons and the application of the death penalty is where most judicial errors associated with the execution of people occur; It is where students are killed by guns, whose lives were sacrificed to the imperative of political lobbying, particularly in Florida”

“The government of the [U.S.] has received tens and tens of millions of dollars from the arms lobby, and a Miami senator [Marco Rubio] has received no less than 3 million for the same concept. Miami is where the political mafias are, where confessed international terrorists take refuge and is also the place of the famous electoral fraud of the year 2000.”

“Mr. Pence has not said, when he talks about corruption, that his country is the center of the laundering of financial assets of drug trafficking and the smuggling of arms to the south that destabilizes entire countries. The electoral system that has elected him and the legislature, in which he has served for a long time, is corrupt by nature, because it is supported in an unusually legal way in corporate financial contributions and the so-called Political Action Committees.”

“It is the [U.S.] government that imposes a fierce protectionism, which does not take into account that it will ruin industry, agriculture and employment throughout our region. It is where the political lobby has imposed the idea that climate change is an anti-American invention. It is the political and electoral system where there has been scandalous traffic with the private data of tens of millions of its citizens.”

“If [the U.S.] government were interested in the well-being, human rights and self-determination of Cubans, it could lift the blockade, collaborate with our international cooperation, instead of sabotaging it, and give funds to Cuban medical collaboration programs in the world and literacy programs.”

Mr. Pence “has referred insultingly to Cuba. I respond with the text of the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, signed in Havana by the Heads of State of Latin America and the Caribbean in 2014, whose principles include the inalienable right of peoples and States to freely give their own political, economic, social and cultural system.”  I also respond with a paragraph of the historical document signed at the time of this event, at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, by His Holiness Pope Francis and by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill . . .:’Our fraternal encounter has taken place in Cuba, at the crossroads between North and South, East and West. From this island, symbol of the hopes of the New World and of the dramatic events of 20th century history … ‘”

“We are a few hours away from the 57th anniversary of the [Bay of Pigs] bombing of US planes at airports in Cuba, in which Cubans died in defense of our independence and sovereignty, in whose farewell to duel the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution was proclaimed, and It is surprising that, f[after] so many decades, Vice President Pence has come here to use the same language that led governments of that time to carry out this terrible event.”

“The events that have taken place in recent years [2014-2016] show that coexistence between the United States and Cuba is possible, productive and can be civilized. For that, do not wait for him, nor the delegation that now occupies the seat that he has just left, for Cuba to give up one millimeter of its principles, nor cease in its efforts to build socialism.”

Conclusion

Unfortunately these verbal skirmishes are to be expected in the Age of Trump at gatherings like the Summit. Now we all will see whether this week’s election of Cuba’s new President of the Council of State will lead to any changes in at least the rhetoric between the two countries. Also unfortunately most observers, including this blogger, do not anticipate any immediate changes.

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[1] Torres, OAS secretary general: ‘We cannot allow the Cuban people to continue to be oppressed,’ Miami Herald (April 13, 2018).

[2] Bruno Rodríguez at Summit of the Americas: “Cuba will not accept threats or blackmail from the United States, CubaDebate (April 14, 2018).

[3]  Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on February 1,  2018, in response to a professor’s question said that U.S. citizens had “forgotten about the importance of the Monroe Doctrine and what it meant to this hemisphere and maintaining those shared values. So I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” (See Secretary Tillerson’s Provocative Comments About Latin America, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 7, 2018).)

[4] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at First Plenary Session of the Summit of the Americas (April 15, 2018); Mike Pence to Rosa María Payá: ‘We are with you for the freedom of the Cuba people,’ Diario de Cuba (April 14, 2018).

[5] Cuban foreign Minister: the US government cannot be a reference for Latin America, CubaDebate (April 15, 2018); The Cuban regime repeats its script in Lima: it says that “it will not negotiate anything or yield a millimeter, Diario de Cuba (April 14, 2018).

[6] Operation Condor was  campaign of political repression and state terror in Latin American countries involving intelligence operations and assassination of opponents, mainly civilians, originally planned by the CIA in 1968 and officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone region of South America.(Operation Condor, Wikipedia.)

[7] In 1973 Chili’s military deposed its President Salvador Allende and his government. In 2000 the U.S. Intelligence Community released a report that stated, “Although CIA did not instigate the coup that ended Allende’s government on 11 September 1973, it was aware of coup-plotting by the military, had ongoing intelligence collection relationships with some plotters, and—because CIA did not discourage the takeover and had sought to instigate a coup in 1970—probably appeared to condone it.” (1973 Chilean coup d’état, Wikipedia.)

 

President Obama’s Eloquent Speech to the Cuban People

On March 22, U,s, President Barack Obama addressed the past and future of U.S.-Cuba relations in a lengthy and eloquent speech at Havana’s Alicia Alonso Grand Theater. The in-person audience of 1,000 included Cuban President Raúl Castro and other officials and U.S. officials and business people. By live television, the audience also included the Cuban people. {1]  Below are photographs of the exterior of the Theater and of President Castro and other Cuban officials in a balcony at the Theater for the speech.

Theater exterior

Castro + @ speech

 

 

 

 

Here we will examine the speech itself, and a subsequent post will look at the reactions to the speech in Cuba and the U.S.

Summary of the Speech

Obama recognized that the two countries shared many things, including being colonized by Europeans and helped by slaves from Africa as well as patriotism and pride, love of family and hope for our children.

The last 50 years, however, have caused many disruptions in our countries’ connections. We are like two brothers who have been estranged for years even as we share the same blood.

The December 17, 2014, joint announcement of our two governments seeking restoration of normal relations was prompted by the U.S. recognition that its policies, including the embargo, were not working and needed to change and that the U.S. needed to help the Cuban people. Obama was in Cuba to end the last remnant of the Cold War and to declare that Cuba need not fear the U.S.

Even though the U.S. was not seeking to force change on Cuba, Obama stated that there were important universal rights that were as important for Cubans as they were for U.S. citizens: equality before the law; right to education, food and housing; freedom from arbitrary arrests; rights to practice their religious faith, assemble, organize, protest peacefully, criticize the government and elect their government leaders. Here is a photograph of President Obama giving the speech.

Obama speech

Text of the Speech

Here then is the actual text of his speech with an opening quotation from a poem by Cuba’s revered national poet, Jose Marti, that offered friendship and peace to both his friend and his enemy, “’Cultivo una rosa blanca’ [I plant a white rose]. Today, as the President of the United States of America, I offer the Cuban people el saludo de paz [the greeting of peace].”

“Havana is only 90 miles from Florida, but to get here we had to travel a great distance — over barriers of history and ideology; barriers of pain and separation.  The blue waters beneath Air Force One once carried American battleships to this island — to liberate, but also to exert control over Cuba.  Those waters also carried generations of Cuban revolutionaries to the United States, where they built support for their cause.  And that short distance has been crossed by hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles — on planes and makeshift rafts — who came to America in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, sometimes leaving behind everything they owned and every person that they loved.”

“Like so many people in both of our countries, my lifetime has spanned a time of isolation between us.  The Cuban Revolution took place the same year that my father came to the United States from Kenya.  The Bay of Pigs took place the year that I was born. The next year, the entire world held its breath, watching our two countries, as humanity came as close as we ever have to the horror of nuclear war.  As the decades rolled by, our governments settled into a seemingly endless confrontation, fighting battles through proxies.  In a world that remade itself time and again, one constant was the conflict between the United States and Cuba.”

“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

“I want to be clear:  The differences between our governments over these many years are real and they are important.  I’m sure President Castro would say the same thing — I know, because I’ve heard him address those differences at length.  But before I discuss those issues, we also need to recognize how much we share.  Because in many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood.”

“We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans.  Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa.  Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners.  We’ve welcomed both immigrants who came a great distance to start new lives in the Americas.”

“Over the years, our cultures have blended together. Dr. Carlos Finlay’s work in Cuba paved the way for generations of doctors, including Walter Reed, who drew on Dr. Finlay’s work to help combat Yellow Fever.  Just as Marti wrote some of his most famous words in New York, Ernest Hemingway made a home in Cuba, and found inspiration in the waters of these shores.  We share a national past-time — La Pelota [baseball]– and later today our players will compete on the same Havana field that Jackie Robinson played on before he made his Major League debut. And it’s said that our greatest boxer, Muhammad Ali, once paid tribute to a Cuban that he could never fight — saying that he would only be able to reach a draw with the great Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson.”

“So even as our governments became adversaries, our people continued to share these common passions, particularly as so many Cubans came to America.  In Miami or Havana, you can find places to dance the Cha-Cha-Cha or the Salsa, and eat ropa vieja [shredded pork or beef].  People in both of our countries have sung along with Celia Cruz or Gloria Estefan, and now listen to reggaeton or Pitbull. Millions of our people share a common religion — a faith that I paid tribute to at the Shrine of our Lady of Charity in Miami, a peace that Cubans find in La Cachita.”

“For all of our differences, the Cuban and American people share common values in their own lives.  A sense of patriotism and a sense of pride — a lot of pride.  A profound love of family.  A passion for our children, a commitment to their education.  And that’s why I believe our grandchildren will look back on this period of isolation as an aberration, as just one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship.”

“But we cannot, and should not, ignore the very real differences that we have — about how we organize our governments, our economies, and our societies.  Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy.  Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market.  Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual.”

“Despite these differences, on December 17th 2014, President Castro and I announced that the United States and Cuba would begin a process to normalize relations between our countries. Since then, we have established diplomatic relations and opened embassies.  We’ve begun initiatives to cooperate on health and agriculture, education and law enforcement.  We’ve reached agreements to restore direct flights and mail service.  We’ve expanded commercial ties, and increased the capacity of Americans to travel and do business in Cuba.”

“And these changes have been welcomed, even though there are still opponents to these policies.  But still, many people on both sides of this debate have asked:  Why now?  Why now?”

“There is one simple answer:  What the United States was doing was not working.  We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth.  A policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century.  The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them.  And I’ve always believed in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ — we should not fear change, we should embrace it.”

“That leads me to a bigger and more important reason for these changes:  Creo en el pueblo Cubano.  I believe in the Cuban people. This is not just a policy of normalizing relations with the Cuban government.  The United States of America is normalizing relations with the Cuban people.”

“And today, I want to share with you my vision of what our future can be.  I want the Cuban people — especially the young people — to understand why I believe that you should look to the future with hope; not the false promise which insists that things are better than they really are, or the blind optimism that says all your problems can go away tomorrow.  Hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country.”

“I’m hopeful because I believe that the Cuban people are as innovative as any people in the world.”

“In a global economy, powered by ideas and information, a country’s greatest asset is its people.  In the United States, we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami.  Here in Havana, we see that same talent in cuentapropistas [self-employed workers], cooperatives and old cars that still run.  El Cubano inventa del aire. [Cubans invented the air.]”

“Cuba has an extraordinary resource — a system of education which values every boy and every girl. And in recent years, the Cuban government has begun to open up to the world, and to open up more space for that talent to thrive.  In just a few years, we’ve seen how cuentapropistas  can succeed while sustaining a distinctly Cuban spirit.  Being self-employed is not about becoming more like America, it’s about being yourself.”

“Look at Sandra Lidice Aldama, who chose to start a small business.  Cubans, she said, can ‘innovate and adapt without losing our identity…our secret is in not copying or imitating but simply being ourselves.’”

“Look at Papito Valladeres, a barber, whose success allowed him to improve conditions in his neighborhood.  ‘I realize I’m not going to solve all of the world’s problems,’ he said.  ‘But if I can solve problems in the little piece of the world where I live, it can ripple across Havana.’”

“That’s where hope begins — with the ability to earn your own living, and to build something you can be proud of.  That’s why our policies focus on supporting Cubans, instead of hurting them.  That’s why we got rid of limits on remittances — so ordinary Cubans have more resources.  That’s why we’re encouraging travel — which will build bridges between our people, and bring more revenue to those Cuban small businesses. That’s why we’ve opened up space for commerce and exchanges — so that Americans and Cubans can work together to find cures for diseases, and create jobs, and open the door to more opportunity for the Cuban people.”

“As President of the United States, I’ve called on our Congress to lift the embargo. It is an outdated burden on the Cuban people.  It’s a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba.  It’s time to lift the embargo.  But even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba. It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba.  A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba.  Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries that Cubans can earn.  The Internet should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the wider world and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.”

“There’s no limitation from the United States on the ability of Cuba to take these steps.  It’s up to you.  And I can tell you as a friend that sustainable prosperity in the 21st century depends upon education, health care, and environmental protection.  But it also depends on the free and open exchange of ideas.  If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential.  And over time, the youth will lose hope.”

“I know these issues are sensitive, especially coming from an American President.  Before 1959, some Americans saw Cuba as something to exploit, ignored poverty, enabled corruption. And since 1959, we’ve been shadow-boxers in this battle of geopolitics and personalities. I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.  What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people.  We will not impose our political or economic system on you.  We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model.  But having removed the shadow of history from our relationship, I must speak honestly about the things that I believe — the things that we, as Americans, believe.  As Marti said, ‘Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.’”

“So let me tell you what I believe.  I can’t force you to agree, but you should know what I think.  I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

“Not everybody agrees with me on this.  Not everybody agrees with the American people on this.  But I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they are the rights of the American people, the Cuban people, and people around the world.”

“Now, there’s no secret that our governments disagree on many of these issues.  I’ve had frank conversations with President Castro.  For many years, he has pointed out the flaws in the American system — economic inequality; the death penalty; racial discrimination; wars abroad.  That’s just a sample.  He has a much longer list. But here’s what the Cuban people need to understand:  I welcome this open debate and dialogue. It’s good.  It’s healthy.  I’m not afraid of it.”

“We do have too much money in American politics.  But, in America, it’s still possible for somebody like me — a child who was raised by a single mom, a child of mixed race who did not have a lot of money — to pursue and achieve the highest office in the land.  That’s what’s possible in America.”

“We do have challenges with racial bias — in our communities, in our criminal justice system, in our society — the legacy of slavery and segregation.  But the fact that we have open debates within America’s own democracy is what allows us to get better.  In 1959, the year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states.  When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South.  But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials.  And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States.  That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”

“I’m not saying this is easy. There’s still enormous problems in our society.  But democracy is the way that we solve them.  That’s how we got health care for more of our people.  That’s how we made enormous gains in women’s rights and gay rights.  That’s how we address the inequality that concentrates so much wealth at the top of our society.  Because workers can organize and ordinary people have a voice, American democracy has given our people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and enjoy a high standard of living.”

“Now, there are still some tough fights.  It isn’t always pretty, the process of democracy.   It’s often frustrating.  You can see that in the election going on back home.  But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now.  You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959?  That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.”

“So here’s my message to the Cuban government and the Cuban people:  The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution — America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world — those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy.  Not because American democracy is perfect, but precisely because we’re not.  And we — like every country — need the space that democracy gives us to change.  It gives individuals the capacity to be catalysts to think in new ways, and to reimagine how our society should be, and to make them better.”

“There’s already an evolution taking place inside of Cuba, a generational change.  Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down — but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.  El futuro  de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo Cubano. [The future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people.]”

English “And to President Castro — who I appreciate being here today — I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.  And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people — and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.  In fact, I’m hopeful for the future because I trust that the Cuban people will make the right decisions.”

“And as you do, I’m also confident that Cuba can continue to play an important role in the hemisphere and around the globe — and my hope is, is that you can do so as a partner with the United States.”

“We’ve played very different roles in the world.  But no one should deny the service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering. Last year, American health care workers — and the U.S. military — worked side-by-side with Cubans to save lives and stamp out Ebola in West Africa.  I believe that we should continue that kind of cooperation in other countries.”

“We’ve been on the different side of so many conflicts in the Americas.  But today, Americans and Cubans are sitting together at the negotiating table, and we are helping the Colombian people resolve a civil war that’s dragged on for decades. That kind of cooperation is good for everybody.  It gives everyone in this hemisphere hope.”

“We took different journeys to our support for the people of South Africa in ending apartheid.  But President Castro and I could both be there in Johannesburg to pay tribute to the legacy of the great Nelson Mandela. And in examining his life and his words, I’m sure we both realize we have more work to do to promote equality in our own countries — to reduce discrimination based on race in our own countries.  And in Cuba, we want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent, who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.”

“We’ve been a part of different blocs of nations in the hemisphere, and we will continue to have profound differences about how to promote peace, security, opportunity, and human rights.  But as we normalize our relations, I believe it can help foster a greater sense of unity in the Americas — todos somos Americanos [we are all Americans].”

“From the beginning of my time in office, I’ve urged the people of the Americas to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.  We are in a new era.  I know that many of the issues that I’ve talked about lack the drama of the past.  And I know that part of Cuba’s identity is its pride in being a small island nation that could stand up for its rights, and shake the world. But I also know that Cuba will always stand out because of the talent, hard work, and pride of the Cuban people.  That’s your strength. Cuba doesn’t have to be defined by being against the United States, any more than the United States should be defined by being against Cuba.  I’m hopeful for the future because of the reconciliation that’s taking place among the Cuban people.”

“I know that for some Cubans on the island, there may be a sense that those who left somehow supported the old order in Cuba.  I’m sure there’s a narrative that lingers here which suggests that Cuban exiles ignored the problems of pre-Revolutionary Cuba, and rejected the struggle to build a new future.  But I can tell you today that so many Cuban exiles carry a memory of painful — and sometimes violent — separation.  They love Cuba.  A part of them still considers this their true home. That’s why their passion is so strong.  That’s why their heartache is so great.  And for the Cuban-American community that I’ve come to know and respect, this is not just about politics. This is about family — the memory of a home that was lost; the desire to rebuild a broken bond; the hope for a better future the hope for return and reconciliation.”

“For all of the politics, people are people, and Cubans are Cubans.  And I’ve come here — I’ve traveled this distance — on a bridge that was built by Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.  I first got to know the talent and passion of the Cuban people in America.  And I know how they have suffered more than the pain of exile — they also know what it’s like to be an outsider, and to struggle, and to work harder to make sure their children can reach higher in America.”

“So the reconciliation of the Cuban people — the children and grandchildren of revolution, and the children and grandchildren of exile — that is fundamental to Cuba’s future.”

“You see it in Gloria Gonzalez, who traveled here in 2013 for the first time after 61 years of separation, and was met by her sister, Llorca.  ‘You recognized me, but I didn’t recognize you,’ Gloria said after she embraced her sibling.  Imagine that, after 61 years.”

“You see it in Melinda Lopez, who came to her family’s old home.  And as she was walking the streets, an elderly woman recognized her as her mother’s daughter, and began to cry.  She took her into her home and showed her a pile of photos that included Melinda’s baby picture, which her mother had sent 50 years ago.  Melinda later said, ‘So many of us are now getting so much back.’”

“You see it in Cristian Miguel Soler, a young man who became the first of his family to travel here after 50 years.  And meeting relatives for the first time, he said, ‘I realized that family is family no matter the distance between us.’”

“Sometimes the most important changes start in small places. The tides of history can leave people in conflict and exile and poverty.  It takes time for those circumstances to change.  But the recognition of a common humanity, the reconciliation of people bound by blood and a belief in one another — that’s where progress begins.  Understanding, and listening, and forgiveness. And if the Cuban people face the future together, it will be more likely that the young people of today will be able to live with dignity and achieve their dreams right here in Cuba.”

“The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation.  It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind.  It is time for us to look forward to the future together — un future de esperanza [a future of hope].  And it won’t be easy, and there will be setbacks.  It will take time.  But my time here in Cuba renews my hope and my confidence in what the Cuban people will do.  We can make this journey as friends, and as neighbors, and as family — together.  Si se puede.  Muchas gracias. [Yes we can. Many thanks.]”

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

[1] White House, Remarks by President Obama to the People of Cuba (March 22, 2016); Agence France-Press, President’s Full Speech in Cuba, N.Y. times (Mar. 22, 2016) (complete video of speech); Davis, Obama in Havana Speech, Says Cuba Has Nothing To Fear from U.S., N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Reuters, Obama Challenges Communist-Led Cuba With Call for Democracy, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Assoc. Press, In Cuba, Obama Calls for Burying ‘Last Remnant of Cold War,’ N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Eliperin & DeYoung, Obama addresses the Cuban nation: “It is time now for us to leave the past behind,’ Wash. Post (Mar. 22, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom

Dr. Reinerio Arce
Seminary Chapel, Matanzas, Cuba

 

Dr. Reinerio Arce, a Presbyterian pastor and President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, recently commented on various issues in Cuba, including religious freedom.

He advised this blogger that the recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accurately described improvements in Cuban church-state relations in 2011, when it stated:

  • Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2011. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba‘s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Additionally, there were fewer reports of illegal house churches being fined, confiscated, or evicted.”
  • “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continue to improve, although the government maintains strict oversight of, and restrictions on, church activities. Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been instrumental in negotiating the release of political prisoners and intervening to stop officials from preventing the Ladies in White from attending mass in Havana. March 2012 marks the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba‘s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Cuba starting on March 26 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he will be received by Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue, La Mambisa, has toured the island, drawing large crowds.”

Arce emphasized the rapprochement between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church that was marked by the recent visit to the island by Pope Benedict XVI. Work was suspended so Cuban people could attend the papal Mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion, and the government granted the Pope’s request to make Good Friday a national holiday. Before this visit, Arce noted, there was nearly a month-long pilgrimage of the statue of the Virgin of Cobre, the patron saint of charity and of Cuba, all over the island and in hospitals, prisons and other public places.

According to Arce, however, the Commission engaged in manipulating half truths and bringing together things that are not related when it talked about some Cuban religious leaders and followers having been arrested and held for short periods of time and reports by some church leaders about increased government surveillance and interference with church activities.

Even more astounding to Arce and to this blogger is the failure and refusal of the Commission to appreciate that the positive developments in Cuba outweighed any negatives and to remove Cuba from its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] threshold, but require close monitoring.” (Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.)

Cuba is going through significant economic changes with more opportunities for Cuban private business ventures. Simultaneously, Arce pointed out,”the government has withdrawn from many of the subsidized [industries] to make room for the private businesses. Now, many people are [becoming] unemployed because [government jobs] are going to this private sector. It has been a great challenge in Cuban society–especially for the churches because many [Cubans] do not know how to rearrange their work [to be in the private sector]. Many of them are coming to the church to ask for help, which is a big challenge for all of the churches in Cuba.”

In response to this challenge, the Matanzas seminary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center (in Havana) are planning a joint course focusing on business administration and related subjects. The seminary and the MLK Center have agreed this program will not promote small, private businesses, but instead cooperatives. Arce said, “We think it is more within the Christian understanding of economy.”

Arce gave thanks for recent changes in U.S. policies regarding travel to Cuba. Now it is easier for U.S. church groups to obtain U.S. Treasury Department licenses to go to Cuba to be with their Christian brothers and sisters. These are important “bridges between our people; [after] all these years of confrontation between our countries, the churches have maintained a strong relationship between the people.”

Another recent change in U.S. policies was commended by Arce. Many Cuban churches–Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist–were once parts of their corresponding U.S. churches, and the Cuban pastors earned U.S. pension benefits. Until recently, however, the U.S. government prevented the U.S. churches from paying the Cubans their earned pensions. Earlier this year the U.S. government ended the freeze, and the pensions will soon be paid. The Cuban pastors have been in a very difficult financial situation caused by the freeze. This blogger has personal experience with this issue because the Cuban pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s partner church in Matanzas, Cuba was one of those who could not receive his pension benefits from the U.S. church. I join Arce in shouting a big “Hallelujah”

Many U.S. and Cuban church members have been involved in people-to-people exchanges in recent years. In the process they have experienced the joy of love and solidarity. The Promised Land of more general friendship and respect and solidarity between our peoples is our goal. Praise the Lord!

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