Why Did Senator Patrick Leahy and Two Other Senators Make A Trip to Cuba Last Week?

On June 25 three U.S. Senators arrived in Cuba: Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), who have been there before, and Senator Dean Heller (Rep., NV). There has been no recent development that seems to have prompted this trip, which prompts the question: why this trip at this time?[1]

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said they were there to focus “on continued progress towards normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.”

Upon arrival in Havana, Senator Leahy said, “I’m glad to see things are changing between our countries, and the more they change, the faster they change, the better for both countries.”

They met with (i) Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President and heir-apparent to Raul Castro, (ii) Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Director General of the U.S. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and (iii) other Foreign Ministry officials. They discussed relations between Cuba and the United States and the debate currently taking place in the U.S. Congress on the elimination of restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba and the lifting of the U.S. embargo (blockade).They also met with religious leaders, ambassadors and others in Havana and the eastern city of Santiago.

Senators Heller, Leahy & Cardin
Senators Heller, Leahy & Cardin in Havana

At a press conference in Havana on June 27, Senator Leahy asserted, “The embargo has been an error of American policy.” He also said, “I’ve been here three times since the announcements of December 17, and “I see a new, very positive change in Cuba.”

 

Leahy added, “Obviously we still have differences, but I look forward to the United States being able to have a real embassy here. We hope that [the opening of embassies] can be very soon. Some in Congress oppose the opening, but I like to think that they are minority. We must open a full embassy. ​​We have a magnificent ambassador here and the staff and appropriate facilities. I like to think that the U.S. is a great country, and our embassies should reflect that.”

Senator Cardin said the delegation made clear to Cuban officials that the path to normalization must include dealing with thorny issues where the U.S. and Cuba have serious disagreements, such as human rights. “For normal relations to move down a productive path, it’s critically important for Cuba to recognize that it is out of step today with international human rights issues.”

The only Republican in the group, Senator Heller on his first visit to Cuba, said, “When the president is right, I support Obama, and he is right in the case of Cuba. Heller acknowledged that there is still much resistance to change in Congress. One way to overcome this resistance, he said, was for Americans to travel to Cuba to talk to people and see the reality with their own eyes. “That will change minds and hearts as has happened to me.” Heller, by the way, is a member of the Senate Committee on Finance; its Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee; its Committee on Veterans’ Affairs; its Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee; and the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

A number of Cuba initiatives are pending in the Senate, including a bill to remove the travel ban on Americans and a more ambitions bill to rescind the decades-old U.S. economic embargo, but these proposals are opposed by the Republican leadership in control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The three senators in Havana thought there were better prospects for progress on Cuba legislation in their chamber. Senator Heller observed, “I think the Senate can move the House, but the Senate’s going to have to act first.”

The reasons for this Republican resistance to reconciliation were captured by Héctor E. Schamis, Adjunct Associate Professor at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, who said:

  • The Republican Party, “the former pragmatic party of big business, is increasingly a party of ideology and short-term electioneering.Their incentives are to protect their districts–socially homogeneous, culturally and ideologically dogmatic and uniform– attributes that rise to the surface in such varied topics as immigration, gay marriage … or the Cuban transition. Its social base is the pure and simple anti-communism, which is also old. It is a reading of the world backward, not forward. Ignore the demographic change in the Cuban-American community, where the younger they are, the more they support the strategy of Obama. The Republican Party does not know that for these young people, Castro and Napoleon belong to the same place: the history books.”

Conclusion

At the start of this post, I said there has been no recent development that seems to have prompted this trip. That is true and reveals, in my opinion, the reason for this trip at this time. By now many in the U.S. at least were expecting that the two countries would have announced that they were re-establishing diplomatic relations and thus converting their interests sections into embassies. Keys for that anticipated announcement in June were the May 29, 2015, U.S. rescission of its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism;” the Cuban Interests Section establishing a banking relationship with a bank in Florida; and a reported agreement regarding conditions for U.S. diplomats’ travel in Cuba.

Thus, in my opinion, the reason for this trip at this time was for Senator Leahy to attempt to determine whether there was some unknown reason from the Cubans for the lack of such an announcement and to press them to conclude the agreement for re-establishing diplomatic relations. Leahy also in the private discussions with the Cuban Foreign Ministry officials may have talked about political reasons from the U.S. perspective to have an announced re-establishment of diplomatic relations as soon as possible. After all, in his public comments in Havana, Leahy stressed the desire for a prompt opening of embassies and the need for the U.S. to open a full embassy.

Let us hope that in the next few days or weeks there will be an announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations.

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

[1] This post is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, Leahy Heads US Senate Delegation to Cuba Ahead of Embassies, N.Y. Times (June 26, 2015); Diaz-Canel received US Senators, Granma (June 26, 2015); Miguel Diaz-Canel meets with US Senator Patrick Leahy, Marti (June 26, 2015); Senator Leahy in Havana: The blockade has been an error of US policy, CubaDebate (June 27, 2015); Gomez, Normalization is the right way, say US senators in Havana, Granma (June 27, 2015); Assoc. Press, US Sen. Leahy Sees ‘Positive Change,’ Work to Do in Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 27, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Senators Visit Cuba, Hope Congress Will Ease Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 27, 2015); Schamis, Obama’s Cuba and its discontents, El Pais (June 28, 2015).

 

 

 

U.S. and Cuba Squabble Over U.S. Sanctions Against Certain Venezuelans

The U.S. and Cuba (and indeed most of the rest of Latin America) are in a squabble over recent sanctions imposed against certain Venezuelans by an executive order issued by President Obama. After reviewing immediate events leading up to the imposition of sanctions, this post will discuss the executive order and the reactions thereto from Venezuela, Cuba and the rest of Latin America.

Events Leading Up to the Imposition of Sanctions [1]

In February 2014 there were opposition protests calling for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation that sparked violence killing 43 people. In February of 2015 protesters and security forces clashed sporadically around that anniversary, while a shrinking economy and chronic product shortages have sent Maduro’s popularity tumbling.

In early February 2015, Antonio Ledezma, who is an opposition leader and the Mayor of Caracas, and two other opposition leaders signed a published open letter to President Maduro calling for a “national agreement for a transition.”

On February 10, the government announced a new three-tier currency scheme that amounted to a de facto devaluation of almost 70 percent, spurring outrage among opposition critics. This was a response to tumbling oil prices that have left the country struggling to meet its budget needs amid bulging foreign debt payments.

On February 19, the Venezuelan government announced that Ledezma had been arrested in order to halt an alleged U.S.-backed coup plot. The next day the government said that Ledezma had been indicted on charges of conspiracy against the Venezuelan government and plotting an American-backed coup. His attorney will be asking a judge to dismiss conspiracy charges against him, calling accusations that he participated in a plot to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist government “totally unfounded.”

Also on the 19th Maduro called for the Venezuelan people to defend national peace and be prepared “to deal with any scenario that may occur in Venezuela as a result of U.S. imperial aggression against our country.” That same day the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice issued a statement reminding the U.S. that it had no jurisdiction to apply its laws outside its territory against the sovereignty and institutions of democracy in Venezuela. [2]

On February 20th the White House’s Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, responded to these charges. He said: “The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela, nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government.  In fact, the United States remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner.  The Venezuelan government should stop trying to distract attention from the country’s economic and political problems, and focus on finding real solutions through democratic dialogue among the people of Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government should respect the human rights of its citizens and stop trying to intimidate its political opponents.”

According to the Press Secretary, the U.S. continues “to call on the Venezuelan government to release political prisoners, including dozens of students; opposition leader; and Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma.” The U.S. “Treasury Department and the State Department are obviously closely monitoring this situation and are considering tools that may be available that could better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.  That obviously means that we’re continuing to engage other countries in the region in talking about operating in coordinated fashion as we deal with the situation there.”

The same day a Department of State spokesperson stated: The Venezuelan accusations “are false and baseless. And our view continues to be that political transitions must be democratic, constitutional, peaceful, and legal. We do not support a political transition in Venezuela by non-constitutional means. We’re not promoting unrest in Venezuela, nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government. And this is a continued effort . . . of the Venezuelan Government to try to distract attention from the country’s economic and political problems and focus and try to distract and make these false accusations.”

In addition, the State Department official stated the U.S. had reports that the Venezuelan intelligence service had detained the Caracas metropolitan mayor and searched his office [and] . . . that military intelligence officials plan to move opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez from his prison cell and transfer him to an unknown location. We are deeply concerned by what appears to be the Venezuelan Government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents by rounding up these prominent leaders of the opposition. Venezuela’s problems cannot be solved by criminalizing dissent.”

President Obama’s Executive Order [3]

 On March 9th President Obama issued an executive order that blocked any U.S. assets of seven named Venezuelans and others who might be named by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, that barred these individuals from entering the U.S. and that prohibited U.S. persons from doing business with them.

These individuals were determined by the U.S. to be “responsible for the erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protesters, as well as significant corruption.”

The executive order was not directed at the people or economy of Venezuela.

The disputes over this executive order, however, are not over these provisions, but instead to its preamble, which states:

  • [T]he situation in Venezuela, including the Government of Venezuela’s erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protestors, as well as the exacerbating presence of significant public corruption, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and [the President] hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” (Emphasis added.)

 Venezuela’s Response to the Executive Order [4]

On March 10 President Maduro requested the Venezuelan legislature to enact an Anti-Imperialist Enabling Law granting him power to enact laws by his decree for the rest of this year in order to “defend the peace, sovereignty and full development of Venezuela in the face of threats from the United States empire.” Maduro said “no one in the world could believe the assertion [that Venezuela posed a national security threat to the U.S.] since the Venezuelan people are known as ‘peaceful, democratic, humanist and have a foreign policy directed toward understanding and peace . . . leaders in the struggle for integration and unity.’”

On March 14, upon Maduro’s order, Venezuela conducted a military exercise to counter an alleged U.S. threat by deploying Venezuelan soldiers and partisans across the country to march, man shoulder-fired missiles and defend an oil refinery from a simulated attack. Venezuela’s navy also performed exercises in the Caribbean Sea.

On Sunday (March 15) Venezuela’s legislature granted the requested presidential decree powers, which Maduro says are necessary to defend the country from the U.S. and which his opponents say are to justify repression and distract Venezuelans from economic problems, including acute shortages. Indeed, the country is suffering the highest inflation in the Americas, long lines for food and medicine, and shortages of many basic products.

President Maduro immediately responded to the legislature’s action. He insisted that Venezuela was ready to talk, “one on one, face to face, with respect, without arrogance or hubris” with the U.S. The first item on the agenda for such a meeting, he said, would be the immediate rescission of President Obama’s executive order.

 Cuba’s Response to the Executive Order [5]

Since Venezuela is a major ally of Cuba and the supplier of oil to Cuba, it is not surprising that the Cuban press recently has been full of Cuba’s support of Venezuela, both before and after the issuance of the executive order. Here are some of those expressions of support:

  • On March 5, Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper, issued a laudatory article about Venezuela’s former President, Hugo Chávez. It said he was “remembered . . . for his charisma, his arousing speech, his sincerity, his constant anguish to deliver for his people. Those who knew him say he often felt as though he were plowing the sea with that desire, so characteristic of him, to remain loyal to the people.” Now, “two years after his departure, . . . Chávez will be awakened together with Bolívar, to continue guiding Venezuela and Latin America.”
  • On March 6, Cuban First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers (and the presumptive successor to Raúl Castro as President of Cuba), Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, was in Caracas to participate in the commemoration of the second anniversary of death of Chávez, and Díaz-Canel declared that Cuba always will be a true friend of the Bolivarian Revolution.
  • On March 9, immediately after the issuance of the executive order, the Cuban government reiterated “its unconditional support and that of our people for the Bolivarian Revolution, the legitimate government of President Nicolás Maduro Moros and the heroic sister nation of Venezuela.” The Cuban government stated, “Nobody has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign State or to declare it, without grounds, a threat to its national security.” Venezuela does not have the resources or officials to threaten the United States, and the executive order “reaffirms . . . the interventionist nature of U.S. foreign policy.”
  • On March 10, Fidel Castro in a letter to President Maduro said, “I congratulate you on your brilliant and courageous speech against the brutal plans of the U.S. government. Your words go down in history as proof that humanity can and must know the truth.”
  • On March 13 Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said that any attack on Venezuela was also an attack on Cuba and that the U.S. “has provoked serious damage to the environment in the hemisphere on the eve of the Summit of the Americas.” He added, “I hope that the U.S. government understands that it can’t handle Cuba with a carrot and Venezuela with a garrote.”
  • On March 15 thousands of Cubans attended a concert in support of Venezuela at the University of Havana. One of the Cuban Five and a Hero of the Republic of Cuba, René González, addressed the crowd, saying, “We all had in mind the warning of Che that imperialism cannot be trusted,” and that warning was confirmed by the March 9th executive order.

Other Latin American Countries’ Reactions [6]

On March 14, at Venezuela’s request, the 12-nation Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) reaffirmed “their commitment to the full observance of international law, the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes and the principle of nonintervention” and reiterated their “call for governments to refrain from applying unilateral coercive measures that violate international law.” It, therefore, called on the U.S. “to evaluate and implement alternatives for dialogue with the government of Venezuela, under the principles of respect for sovereignty and self-determination of peoples.’ As a result, it requested “the repeal of that Executive Order.”

On March 17 the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), at the request of Venezuela, will meet in Caracas to declare solidarity with Venezuela in its disputes with the U.S.

Conclusion

Although I am not a close follower of events in Venezuela, I do know that the recent huge declines in world oil prices have devastated its economy, that it is suffering horrendous inflation forcing it to devalue its currency, that there are shortages of all sorts of consumer products and that its government has imprisoned dissidents, including the Mayor of Caracas.

I also believe that the U.S. government must have had good cause to impose sanctions on the seven individuals named in the executive order.

Therefore, the protests of Venezuela, Cuba and the other Latin American nations, in my opinion, are not justified. The U.S. hopes for a cordial Summit of the Americas next month in Panama to celebrate a U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, however, appear to have been scuttled.

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

[1] Pons & Ellsworth, Update 3-Venezuela announces new currency system, large devaluation seen, Bloomberg (Feb. 10, 2015); Reuters, Venezuela Arrests Opposition Mayor Accused of Coup Plot, N.Y. Times (Feb. 19, 2015);  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, 2/20/15 (Feb. 20, 2015); U.S. Dep’t State, Daily Press Briefing (Feb. 20, 2015); Assoc. Press, Lawyer: Jailed Caracas Mayor to Fight Conspiracy Charges, N. Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2015); Gupta, Venezuela Mayor Is Accused of U.S.-Backed Coup Plot, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2015),

[2] Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma, parrotted the Venezuelan government’s version of events. (E.g.Venezuela faces a stroke of continued fate, Granma (Feb. 20, 2015); Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cuba, Granma (Feb. 20, 2015).)

[3] White House, Executive Order—Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015); White House, Fact Sheet: Venezuela Executive Order (Mar. 9, 2015); White House, Letter [to Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives]—Declaration of a National Emergency with respect to Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015); White House, Statement by the Press Secretary on Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015);DeYoung & Miroff, White House steps up sanctions against Venezuelans, Wash. Post (Mar. 9, 2015). The executive order was issued under (a) the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and (b) the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014. In section 2 of that latter statute, Congress found, among other things, that the Central Bank of Venezuela and the National Statistical Institute of Venezuela had determined that the annual inflation rate in Venezuela in 2013 was 56.30, the highest level of inflation in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest level in the world; that Venezuela’s currency controls have become the most problematic factor for doing business in the country; and that HumanRights Watch has reported the government intimidates,censors and prosecutes its critics.

[4] Editorial, In Venezuela, Punishing Scapegoats, N.Y. Times (Mar. 5, 2015); Toro & Kronicks, Venezuela’s Currency Circus, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2015); Miroff & DeYoung, New U.S. sanctions lost in Venezuelan translation, Wash. Post (Mar. 11, 2015); Reuters, Mind Your Manners, Venezuela Tells U.S. Official, Jacobson, N.Y. times (Mar. 11, 2015); Neuman, Obama Hands Venezuelan Leader a Cause to Stir Support, N. Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2015); Editorial, A Failing Relationship with Venezuela, N. Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2015); Assoc. Press, Venezuela Conducts Military Exercises, Claims US Threat, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2015); Reuters, Venezuela Stages Military Exercises to Counter U.S. ‘Threat,’ N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 2015); Buitrago & Cawthorne, Elected officials grant Venezuela leader broad powers, Wash. Post (Mar. 15, 2015).

[5] Statement from the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Cuba, Granma (Mar. 10, 2015); Letter from Fidel to Maduro, Granma (Mar. 10, 2015); Pasiero, Venezuela is sacred and to be respected, Granma (Mar. 10, 2015); Pasiero, Cuba reiterates its unconditional support of Venezuela, Granma (Mar. 6, 2015); Chávez, forever present, Granma (Mar. 5, 2015); Pasiero, Mature relationships requires respect for the United States, Granma (Mar. 16, 2015); Venezuela Are All, Granma (Mar. 16, 2015); Prada & Rodriguez, Voices for solidarity with Venezuela, Granma (Mar. 16, 2015).

[6] UNASUR, Press Union of South American Nations Executive Decree of The Government of the Unites States of Venezuela (Mar. 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, South American Bloc Demands US Revoke Venezuela Order, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2015). UNASUR members are Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. ALBA members are Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines and Venezuela.

 

 

Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders

Díaz-Canel Bermúdez
Díaz-Canel Bermúdez

Granma, Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, and the Cuban News Agency have reported that Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the First Vice President of the Cuban Councils of State and Ministers and a member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee (Political Bureau),[1] recently met with Cuban evangelical and protestant leaders from the Cuban Council of Churches. [2] The meeting’s purpose was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first meeting between Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro and leaders of the Council and to discuss current challenges facing the organization.

After the first meeting in 1984, considered to be milestone in relations between the church and State, a practice developed of holding periodic meetings between all religions and the leadership of the country to promote work and dialogue.

The Recent Meeting

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico
Rev. Joel               Ortega Dopico

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, the President of the Cuban Council of Churches and a pastor of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba, highlighted the importance of sustaining the churches’ relations with the government and of the role the Council has played, at crucial moments, for the Revolution, such as the Council’s “staunch opposition to the U.S. blockade against the Cuban economy, fighting for the return of Elián [Gonzalez to Cuba from the U.S.] and the release of our five anti-terrorist brothers from the unjust incarceration they have been subjected to in the U.S.”

Rev. Raúl Suárez
Rev. Raúl Suárez

 

Rev. Raúl Suárez, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, recalled Fidel’s comments at the first of these meetings in 1984 about the need for mutual understanding between Cuban religious organizations and State institutions and Cuban society.

Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal
Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal

Rev. Pablo Odén Ma­ri­chal, Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba, stated that “protestant churches have been a means of cultural penetration in Cuban society” and given this reality he urged for “a greater strengthening of the ethical and behavioral work of the faith toward the community of believers and society, based on human and patriotic values.”

Marichal emphasized greater participation of the inter-faith movement and churches in the search for solutions to problems facing Cuban society, such as an aging population. He stated, “We must revive Fidel’s idea of a strategic alliance between revolutionary Christians and Marxists, for which permanent dialogue is necessary.”

Díaz-Canel, the government Minister, commented on the importance of transmitting this historic occasion to the current generation in order to strengthen dialogue and unity among Cubans. He described the meeting as an encounter of faith, friendship and memories. He said, “It is touching to remember all those moments – lack of understanding at times which was later overcome through respectful dialogue.”

He also expressed the desire to address concerns about Cuba’s social and economic order, as well as challenges being faced in the struggle to strengthen and promote social values “in order to prevent the establishment of a base of neocolonial and neoliberal capitalist reconstruction. This is the struggle we must assume, strip away all the pseudo culture, all the banality and selfishness and individualism,” he concluded.

The First Meeting in 1984

Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana
Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana

In 2007 I heard directly from Rev. Raúl Suárez  about the circumstances surrounding the first meeting between Cuba’s Revolutionary government and the Cuban churches. This happened when I was with a group of Westminster Presbyterian Church members from Minneapolis that visited Havana’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, which is affiliated with the adjacent Baptist Church, where Rev. Suárez was the pastor.

Suárez told us that in 1984 he learned that Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President that year, was coming to Cuba. Jackson said that Fidel Castro had invited him to discuss the status of 22 U.S. citizens then being held by the Cuban Government. Jackson said that he also wanted an invitation from a Cuban church so that he could participate in a religious service in Cuba. Jackson asked Suárez, then Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Director of International Relations of the Cuban Baptist Church, if that would be possible. Jackson also gave Suárez a letter to provide to Castro on this issue.

Suárez  then contacted Fidel, who responded that it would not be a problem even though atheism was the established “religion” in the Cuban constitution at the time.

Jackson made his trip to Cuba in June 1984 and gave a speech to 4,000 students at the University of Havana with Castro in attendance. Afterwards the two of them and their aides walked a few blocks to the nearby Methodist Church where Jackson would be preaching. As they neared the church, Suárez heard a Castro aide say to Fidel, “Take off your hat, you are close to a church.” Fidel took off his hat. Suárez was surprised by this comment and Fidel’s response. Suárez told Fidel that the people in the Plaza de Revolution (supporters of the Revolution) and the people in the church were one and welcomed Fidel to the church. Fidel said, do not ask me to preach.

There were 700 to 800 people in the church that day, including 35 church leaders and the Roman Catholic Archbishop (in 2007, a Cardinal). When Castro entered the church, the choir extemporaneously cried, “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.” Castro did make a short speech from the pulpit with a cross behind him. (Another Cuban pastor who was present told me that Castro obviously felt uncomfortable with the Bible on the lectern and awkwardly put his hands behind his back.) Castro praised Dr. King and Jackson and said there was a need for more exchanges between the churches and the government.

Later that same day Suárez was invited to a dinner with Fidel and Jackson. This was the first time he had ever shaken Fidel’s hand, and Fidel asked him to come to the airport the next day to say goodbye to Jackson.

Soon thereafter Suárez asked for a meeting of religious leaders with Fidel and submitted to Fidel a document of concern about the official policy of atheism’s limiting the space for religion.

This resulted in a four-hour meeting between Fidel and about 14 Protestant leaders and the College of the Roman Catholic Bishops. Fidel expressed surprise at the Protestants, saying that when he was a boy in Jesuit schools, Roman Catholics disparaged Protestants. At the end of the meeting Castro made a covenant with these leaders: the churches will made an effort to understand “us” while Fidel and the Cuban Communist Party will make an effort to understand the churches. This agreement, said Fidel, should be easier for the churches than for the Party.

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

[1] Díaz-Canel often is seen as a potential successor to Raúl Castro as President of Cuba.

[2] The Council was founded in 1941 as “a fellowship of churches, ecumenical groups, and other ecumenical organizations which confess Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to respond to their common calling, to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It gives “unity to the Christian Churches of Cuba” to facilitate cooperation with other churches around the world. Its purposes include encouraging “dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. [The Council] also promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.” Its membership now includes 22 churches, 12 ecumenical groups and centers, 3 observers and 7 fraternal associates.