U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).

U.S. Reactions to the Death of Fidel Castro

The November 25th death of Fidel Castro has prompted comments from President-Elect Donald Trump and his aides, the Obama Administration, U.S. Senators and Representatives, U.S. editorial boards and columnists and U.S. business interests and others. All of this has fueled speculation about the future Trump Administration’s policies regarding Cuba. These topics will be explored in this post along with this blogger’s observations.

President-Elect Trump and His Aides[1]

On Saturday morning after Castro’s death the previous night, Donald Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Later that same day he issued this statement:”Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty. While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence on Saturday voiced a similar reaction in a tweet: “The tyrant Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!”

On November 28, Trump issued another tweet on the subject. He said, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

These comments were corroborated by Trump’s top aides.

On Sunday, November 27, two of the aides said that Trump would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect “absolutely” would reverse Mr. Obama’s policies if he didn’t get what he wanted from Cuba. “We’re not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the [U.S.] without some changes in their government. Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners—these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that’s what president-elect Trump believes, and that’s where he’s going to head.” Similar comments were made the same day by Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway.

On Monday, November 28, Trump spokesman Jason Miller gave this more nuanced statement to reporters: “Clearly, Cuba is a very complex topic, and the president-elect is aware of the nuances and complexities regarding the challenges that the island and the Cuban people face. This has been an important issue, and it will continue to be one. Our priorities are the release of political prisoners, return of fugitives from American law, and also political and religious freedoms for all Cubans living in oppression.”

The Obama Administration[2]

President Barack Obama’s statement extended the U.S. “hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and stated that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” According to the President, Cubans “will recall the past and also look to the future. As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner” in America.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a similar positive statement. He extended “our condolences to the Cuban people today as they mourn the passing of Fidel Castro. Over more than half a century, he played an outsized role in their lives, and he influenced the direction of regional, even global affairs. As our two countries continue to move forward on the process of normalization — restoring the economic, diplomatic and cultural ties severed by a troubled past — we do so in a spirit of friendship and with an earnest desire not to ignore history but to write a new and better future for our two peoples.”

On November 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to several questions about Cuba and Castro’s death. Here are a few of those responses:

  • For the U.S., “I wouldn’t expect any impact [of Castro’s death] on the kind of progress that we’re committed to making on our end to begin to normalize relations with Cuba.”
  • “[W]e have seen . . . greater freedom for American citizens to visit Cuba, to send money to family members in Cuba, to engage in business and seek business opportunities in Cuba.  It also enhanced the ability of the [U.S.] government to maintain an embassy in Cuba where U.S. officials can more effectively not just engage with government officials in Cuba but also those activists in civil society that are fighting for greater freedoms. . . . They also facilitate the kind of people-to-people ties that we believe will be more effective in bringing freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, something that they have long sought and been denied by the Cuban government.  And after five decades of not seeing any results, the President believed it was time to see something different. . . . [We] clearly haven’t seen all the results that we would like to see, but we’re pleased with the progress.”
  • Castro “obviously is a towering figure who had a profound impact on the history of not just his country but the Western Hemisphere.  There certainly is no whitewashing the kinds of activities that he ordered and that his government presided over that go against the very values that . . . our country has long defended.”
  • “[T]here is no doubt that we would like to see the Cuban government do more [on human rights], but this policy has not even been in place for two years.  But we certainly have enjoyed more benefits than was enjoyed under the previous policy that was in place for more than 50 years and didn’t bring about the kinds of benefits or the kinds of progress that we would like to see.”
  • “[T]hose Cuban citizens that do work in industries, like cab drivers or working in restaurants, even Airbnb owners, are benefitting from the enhanced economic activity between Cuban citizens and American citizens who are visiting Cuba.  They are paid at a higher rate, and they’re enjoying more economic activity than they otherwise would because of this policy to normalize relations with Cuba. . . . [T]here is a growing entrepreneurial sector inside of Cuba that is benefitting from greater engagement with the United States.  That’s a good thing, and that is a benefit that is enjoyed by the Cuban people directly.”
  • “[T]here certainly is no denying the kind of violence that occurred in Cuba under the watch of the Castro regime.  There has been no effort to whitewash the history, either the history between the United States and Cuba or the history of what transpired in Cuba while Mr. Castro was leading the country.”
  • “That’s why upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban people actually support this policy and they welcome the greater engagement with the United States.  They welcome the increased remittances that are provided Cuban-Americans to family members in Cuba.  They welcome the increase in travel by American citizens to Cuba.  There’s a lot to offer.  And the Cuban people certainly benefit from that kind of greater engagement.  And that’s why the President has pursued this policy.”
  • The U.S. “relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Latin America, is as strong as it’s been in generations. And all of that would be undone by the reinstitution of a policy that has failed after having been in place for more than five decades.”

The next day, November 28, Press Secretary Ernest announced that the U.S. will not send a formal delegation to Cuba to attend the Castro funeral but instead will dispatch a top White House aide and a principal Cuba-normalization negotiator, Benjamin J. Rhodes, to be joined by , the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.

U.S. Senators and Representatives[3]

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, Under Fidel Castro’s brutal and oppressive dictatorship, the Cuban people have suffered politically and economically for decades, and it is my hope that his passing might turn the page toward a better way of life for the many who have dreamed of a better future for their country. Subsequently after meeting with Mr. Trump about a possible appointment as Secretary of State, Corker said Mr. Trump’s “instincts on foreign policy are obviously very, very good.”

The Ranking Member of that committee, Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), said, “The news of Fidel Castro’s death brings with it an opportunity to close the deep divisions that have been suffered by Cuban society and by Cuban Americans in the U.S.  For Castro’s purported goals of social and economic development to be attained, it is now time for a half-century of authoritarian rule to give way to the restoration of democracy and the reform of a system the has denied Cuba’s citizens their basic human rights and individuals freedoms. As the United States awaits a new Administration, we must continue our partnership with the Cuban people as they seek to build a more hopeful future for their country.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and Republican presidential candidate this year, said in a statement: “Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not…The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.” Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., N.J.), a Cuban-American who has opposed Mr. Obama’s policy, issued a similar statement.

Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), who has supported normalization and is the lead author of a Senate bill to end the embargo, merely said, “Fidel Castro’s death follows more than a half century of brutal repression and misery. The Cuban people deserve better in the years ahead.”

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.), the author of a Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of the island, said the following: “Passing my bill with Republican Senator Jeff Flake to lift the trade embargo with Cuba would create jobs and increase exports for American farmers and businesses, and it could create unprecedented opportunity for the Cuban people. For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future. The Cuban and American people are ahead of their governments in terms of wanting to see change. We need to seize this opportunity and lift the trade embargo.”

Minnesota’s other Senator, Al Franken (Dem.) said that, in the wake of Castro’s death, he hopes the Obama administration’s work to repair relations with the island nation is upheld by a new administration. “Over the past few years, we’ve made important strides to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba, and now I urge the country’s leadership to put a strong focus on improving human rights and democracy.”

On the House side, one of Minnesota’s Republican representative and an author of a bill to end the embargo, Tom Emmer, said that Congress should seize the opportunity to “assist in the transition to a democracy and market economy” in Cuba and denounced “isolation and exclusion.” He added, “The passing of Fidel Castro is yet another reminder that a new day is dawning in Cuba. As the remaining vestiges of the Cold War continue to fade, the United States has a chance to help usher in a new Cuba; a Cuba where every citizen has the rights, freedom and opportunity they deserve.”

The statement from the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (Rep., WI), stated, “Now that Fidel Castro is dead, the cruelty and oppression of his regime should die with him. Sadly, much work remains to secure the freedom of the Cuban people, and the United States must be fully committed to that work. Today let us reflect on the memory and sacrifices of all those who have suffered under the Castros.”

U.S. Editorial Boards and Columnists[4]

The New York Times’ editorial opposed any retreat from normalization. It said such a move would be “extremely shortsighted.” The new process of normalization, it says, “has helped establish conditions for ordinary Cubans to have greater autonomy in a society long run as a police state. It has also enabled Cuban-Americans to play a larger role in shaping the nation’s future, primarily by providing capital for the island’s nascent private sector. While the Cuban government and the Obama White House continue to have profound disagreements on issues such as human rights, the two governments have established a robust bilateral agenda that includes cooperation on environmental policy, maritime issues, migration, organized crime and responses to pandemics. These hard-won diplomatic achievements have benefited both sides.”

 If, on the other hand, said the Times, the normalization process is abandoned, U.S.-Cuba “cooperation is likely to wane. That would only embolden hard-liners in the Cuban regime who are leery of mending ties with the United States and are committed to maintaining Cuba as a repressive socialist bulwark. In Mr. Trump, they may find the ideal foil to stoke nationalism among Cubans who are fiercely protective of their nation’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.”

The editorial from the Washington Post, while criticizing some aspects of President Obama’s opening to Cuba, stated U.S. policy should “align itself with the hopes of ordinary Cubans and the legitimate demands of the island’s pro-democracy movements. That does not necessarily mean reversing the renewal of diplomatic relations and relaxed restrictions on the movement of people and goods; most Cubans still want that. But it should mean that official exchanges with the regime, and any concessions that benefit it, should be tied to tangible reforms that benefit the public: greater Internet access, expansion of space for private business and tolerance of critical speech and assembly by such groups as the Ladies in White.”

Conservative columnists and commentators welcomed Fidel’s death. George Will hoped, if not reasonably expected, “to have seen the last of charismatic totalitarians worshiped by political pilgrims from open societies. Experience suggests there will always be tyranny tourists in flight from what they consider the boring banality of bourgeois society and eager for the excitement of sojourns in ‘progressive’ despotisms that they are free to admire and then leave. Carlos Eire, a Cuban exile, author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, suggested a 13-point negative epitaph for Fidel’s tomb. The first point was: ”He turned Cuba into a colony of the Soviet Union and nearly caused a nuclear holocaust.” The last point was this: “He never apologized for any of his crimes and never stood trial for them.”

Another Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, agreed that Fidel was a terrible dictator, but argued that Mr. Trump “should understand that Fidel Castro loved the embargo more than anyone because, as ever, he could blame the [U.S.] for his failures. For Trump to fall into this same trap [by keeping the embargo] would be a postmortem gift to Castro and breathe new life into a cruel legacy — the dictator’s final triumph over the [U.S.] and the several American presidents who could never quite bury him.”

U.S. Business Interests and Others[5]

Important interests that typically are regarded as important by Republicans are arguing against any retreats from the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalization of Cuba relations

First, many U.S. companies are now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration’s policy. These companies include major airlines, hotel operators and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island. “I think the American business community would be strongly opposed to rolling back President Obama’s changes, and strongly in favor of continuing the path toward normalization of economic and diplomatic relations,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

Second, the U.S. farming industry is strongly supportive of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. For example, Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, does not want the next administration to take any steps that would put U.S. farmers at a further disadvantage in the Cuban market. “Every other country in the world has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, and what we don’t want to do is lose that market share to the European Union, Brazil, Argentina.” Mr. Paap added that U.S. market share in Cuba has decreased in recent years as other countries are able to provide better financing.

But agricultural producers across the country, from rice producers in Louisiana to Northwest apple farmers to Kansas wheat growers have pushed for more, including lifting a ban prohibiting Cuba from buying American agricultural goods with U.S. credit.

Cuba’s wheat consumption is about 50 million barrels a year, said Daniel Heady, director of governmental affairs at the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. Although not a huge market, “it’s right off the coast and it would be extremely easy for us to deliver our product.” “It is something that Kansas farmers are extremely interested in,” Heady said. “In a world of extremely depressed commodity prices, especially wheat, 50 million bushels looks extremely good right now.”

Republican governors from Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere have led trade delegations to Cuba, along with their state farm bureaus and chambers of commerce.

A U.S. journalist with extensive experience with Cuba, Nick Miroff, echoed these thoughts. He said, “A return to more hostile [U.S.-Cuba] relations . . . could also bring a new crackdown in Cuba and further slow the pace of Raúl Castro’s modest liberalization  measures at a time of stalling economic growth. Hard-liners in Cuba’s Communist Party would gladly take the country back to a simpler time, when the antagonism of the United States — not the failure of government policies — was to blame for the island’s problems, and the threat of attack, real or imagined, was used to justify authoritarian political control.’

Moreover, according to a Wall Street Journal report, any U.S. abandonment of normalization with Cuba “could drive a new wedge between Washington and Latin America . . . not only by leftist allies of Cuba like Venezuela and Bolivia but also by conservative governments in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia. It would also likely complicate regional cooperation on a range of issues, from immigration to security and anti-drug efforts.”

In Miami, many of the island’s exiles and their children and grandchildren took to the streets, banging pots and pans, waving American and Cuban flags, and celebrating in Spanish: “He’s dead! He’s dead!”

Meanwhile in faraway Minnesota, even though it has relatively few Cuban exiles, celebrated its Cuban connections. They range from festivals and restaurants in the Twin Cities that preserve and highlight Cuban culture. Its politicians in Washington, D.C. have been leaders in efforts to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, citing the potential for economic and political advancements and job growth. Christian communities in Minnesota also value their religious and moral obligations to Cubans. Cuba’s expanded Mariel Port could carry Minnesota-made goods. Other Minnesota-based companies, including Sun Country Airlines, Radisson Hotels and Cargill, could benefit from lifting the embargo.

Last year the Minnesota Orchestra took a historic trip to Cuba as the first U.S. orchestra to perform there since Obama began negotiations in 2014. Next June, some Orchestra members will perform in Cuba again along with Minnesota Youth Symphonies. They also will be joined by Cuban-American jazz musician, Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, and his wife, who works as an attorney. Herrera grew up during the Cuban Revolution and credits Castro’s leadership for the career opportunities he and his wife have achieved. Indeed, Herrera met Castro in the 1980s while being recognized in a Classic World Piano competition. Castro was humble, Herrera said, and deeply curious about his accomplishments.

Concluding Observations

This blog consistently has applauded the U.S. pursuing normalization with Cuba. The death of Fidel Castro does not change that opinion and advocacy. Fundamentally I agree with President Obama that the 50-plus years of U.S. hostility towards Cuba has not worked—it has not persuaded or forced Cuba to change its ways and it has interfered with our having friendly relations with countries throughout the world, especially in Latin America.[6]

Indeed, the countries of the Western Hemisphere in their Summits of the Americas have made it clear to fellow member the U.S. that they would no longer reluctantly acquiesce in the U.S. desire to exclude Cuba from such Summits, and at the last such gathering in 2015, after the announcement of U.S.-Cuba normalization they praised both countries for this move.[7]

The broader world disapproval of the U.S. hostility towards Cuba is shown by the annual overwhelming approvals of resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo of the island by the U.N. General Assembly. Nor should the U.S. continue to ignore its very large contingent liability to Cuba for its alleged damages from the embargo. (The U.S., of course, disputes this contingent liability, but prudence for any nation or entity facing such a large contingent liability dictates cutting off that risk by stopping the behavior that allegedly triggers the risk.)[8]

Opponents of normalization usually point to Cuban deficiencies on human rights and democracy. But such opposition fails to recognize or admit that the U.S. does not have a perfect record on these issues, including this year’s U.S. election and efforts at voter suppression and the U.S. indirect election of the president and vice president via the Electoral College. Moreover, such opponents also fail to recognize or admit that at least some Cuban limits on dissent and demonstrations undoubtedly are triggered by their fear or suspicion that the U.S. via its so-called covert or undercover “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba is financing or otherwise supporting these efforts at regime change on the island. Finally as part of the efforts at normalization the U.S. and Cuba have been having respectful dialogues about human rights issues.[9]

Another issue sometimes raised by opponents of normalization is Cuba’s failure to provide financial compensation to U.S. persons for Cuba’s expropriation of their property in the early years of the Revolution. But such criticism fails to recognize that Cuba has paid compensation to persons from other countries for such expropriation, that it is in Cuba’s interest to do the same for U.S. persons, that the two countries have been respectfully discussing this issue as well, and there is no reason to expect that this issue cannot be resolved peacefully.[10]

Opponents of normalization also seem to believe or assume that only the U.S. and Cuba are involved in these issues. That, however, is not true. Perhaps precipitated by the December 2014 announcement that Cuba and the U.S. had agreed to seek normalization and reconciliation, other countries, especially the members of the European Union, have been accelerating their efforts to resolve differences with Cuba so that the U.S. will not beat them to gain competitive advantages with the island. China also is another competitor.[11]

Finally Cuba’s current major ally, Venezuela, obviously is near collapse and being forced to reduce its support of Cuba, thereby threatening Cuba’s stability and viability. The U.S. does not want to see Cuba become a failed state 90 miles away from the U.S. Such a situation is even more dire today according to Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He asserts at page 270 that it “may even be more difficult [for inhabitants of a failed state to reconstitute itself] in the age of accelerations. The lifelong learning opportunities you need to provide to your population, the infrastructure you need to take advantage of the global flows [of information], and the pace of innovation you need to maintain a growing economy have all become harder to achieve. . . . Catching up is going to be very, very difficult.”

For the U.S., once again, to act like an arrogant bully towards Cuba will not achieve any good result. All U.S. citizens interested in Cuba’s welfare and having good relations with the U.S. need to resist any efforts by the new Administration to undo the progress of the last two years.

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[1] Assoc. Press, Trump Slams Recount Push as ‘a Scam,’ Says Election Is Over, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Reuters, Trump Says He Will do All He Can to Help Cuban People, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Vice-President-Elect Pence Says ‘New Hope Dawns’ for Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Trump Aides Say Cuban Government Will Have to Change, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2016); Flaherty, Trump aides say Cuban government will have to change, StarTrib. (Nov. 27, 2016); Schwartz & Lee, Death of Fidel Castro May Pressure Donald Trump on Cuba Promises, W.S.J. (Nov. 27, 2016); Mazzei, Trump pledges to ‘terminate’ opening to Cuba absent ‘better deal,’ Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2016); Cave, Ahmed & Davis, Donald Trump’s Threat to Close Door Reopens Old Wounds in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2016).

[2]   White House, Statement by the President on the Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Kerry: The Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/28/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/29/16; Harris, Obama to Send Aide to Fidel Castro’s Funeral, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016).

[3] Sen. For. Rel. Comm., Corker Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Griffiths, Corker praises Trump as State Department speculation continues, Politico (Nov. 29, 2016; Sen. For. Rel. Comm, Cardin Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: History Will Remember Fidel Castro as an Evil, Murderous Dictator (Nov. 26, 2016); Menendez, Senator Menendez on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Flake, Flake Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Ryan, Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016);The latest: US House Leader Urges Remembering Castro Cruelty, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Klobuchar, Klobuchar Statement on Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Emmer, Emmer Statement on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Threatening Cuba Will Backfire, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016); Editorial,Editorial, Fidel Castro’s terrible legacy, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Fidel Castro’s demise can’t guarantee freedom for the people of Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Will, Fidel Castro and dead utopianism, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Eire, Farewell to Cuba’s brutal Big Brother, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Parker, Don’t give Fidel Castro the last laugh, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016). Eire is the author of Learning To Die in Miami: Confessions of A Refugee Boy (2010) and Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003).

[5] DeYoung, Trump’s threat to terminate opening to Cuba may draw opposition from business, Republican states, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016); Miroff, Cuba faces renewed tensions with U.S., but without Fidel Castro, its field marshal, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Dube & Johnson, Donald Trump’s Line on Cuba Unsettles Latin America, W.S.J. (Nov. 28, 2016); Klobuchar, Minnesota Artists, Leaders Reflect on Castro’s Legacy (Nov. 26, 2016);  Miroff & Booth, In wake of Castro’s death, his legacy is debated, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016).

[6] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[7] Previous posts have discussed the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April 2015. https://dwkcommentaries.com/?s=Summit+of+the+Americas.

[8] Previous posts have discussed the U.N. General Assembly resolutions on the embargo in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and the suggested international arbitration to resolve the disputes about Cuba’s damage claims resulting from the embargo. (See posts listed in “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[9] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba,” “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2014-2015” and “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2015-2016” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[10] See posts listed in “U.S. & Cuba Damage Claims” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[11] See list of posts in “Cuba & Other Countries” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians

arc_tw_graphic_1027152-b39f6fe5On January 3, 2016, a group of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra played a beautiful and successful concert to benefit Syrians displaced in their own country.[1] Here is a poster for the concert with photographs of (a) Erin Keefe, the Orchestra’s Concertmaster, with Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra’s Music Director; and (b) Beth Rapier and Tony Ross, Cellists with the Orchestra and the originators of the idea for the concert.

The concert raised over $75,000 for the Minneapolis-headquartered American Refugee Committee (ARC) to support its efforts to help the 7.6 million Syrians who have been forced to relocate within their own country because of the war.[2] There ARC with the aid of heroic Syrians works to:

  • help improve the physical conditions of make-shift shelters where people have fled;
  • build and repair water and sanitation infrastructure, helping to prevent disease;
  • provide youth mentoring and support services;
  • reconnect orphaned children with family members;
  • counsel victims of abuse and trauma; and
  • provide children the opportunity to play and have fun.

Other contributions for this cause would be appreciated; just go to ARC’s website [http://www.arcrelief.org/site/PageServer] and do so.

The concert was opened by the Minnesota Orchestra Brass Quintet. They played several numbers, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” the Broadway musical. The Quintet members were Douglas Wright, trombone; Robert Doerr and Charles Lazarus, trumpet; Steven Campbell, tuba; and Michael Gast, horn.

Then Osmo Vänskä, an accomplished clarinetist in addition to being a great conductor, played the clarinet in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s beautiful Clarinet Concerto in A Major (K 622), which was composed shortly before Mozart’s death in 1791. Vänskä was backed by 18 members of the Orchestra.[3]

Osmo and Tony

audience DSC02485

 

 

 

 

Above are photographs of Vänskä playing the concerto and of the audience of over 900 in the beautiful and modern sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, Minnesota.

The program ended with Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s difficult String Sextet in D minor (Op.70). It was titled “Souvenir de Florence” because the composer sketched one of the work’s principal themes while visiting Florence, Italy in 1890. The violinists were Erin Keefe and Cecilia Belcher; violaists, Tom Turner and Sabrina Thatcher; and cellists, Ross and Rapier. Ross thought the piece might be Tchaikovsky’s greatest.

The concert had principal support from St. John’s Episcopal Church of Minneapolis and Our Lady of Grace along with 24 other Christian, Jewish and Islamic congregations from the Twin Cities.

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[1] Royce,  Minnesota Orchestra musicians unite for concert to aid Syrian refugees, StarTribune (Dec. 23, 2015); Program, Chamber Music Concert for Refugees Inside Syria (Jan. 3, 2016).

[2] ARC, Syria Relief.  As explained in a prior post, one of the international legal requirements for refugee status is an individual’s being outside his or her home country. Therefore, the beneficiaries of this concert, Syrians who have not left their own country, are technically not “refugees,” but rather “internally displaced people” or “IDP’s” in international relief jargon. But they are just as deserving of our compassion as those Syrians who have fled their country, perhaps more so because those who stay are trying to live in the midst of the war.

[3] A prior post described Vânskä’s playing the clarinet in a Havana music club after the Orchestra’s second concert in Cuba last May. Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba trip Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week!

MN OrchestraAs discussed in a prior post, this February the Minnesota Orchestra announced that it would be playing two concerts in Havana, Cuba on May 15 and 16. At the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra will play Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Cuban National Choir and Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez as well as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. In addition, on the 15th they will play Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” and on the 16th Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

According to a recent article in Minnesota’s StarTribune newspaper, [1] this past January the Orchestra’s president, Kevin Smith, thought it would be great if the Orchestra could be the first U.S. ensemble to go to Cuba after the December 17th announcement of rapprochement between the U.S. and the island nation. Smith immediately called Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and asked for help in pursing this idea. She, of course, said yes with this comment: “This trip is an example of the type of relationship we want to continue building between our people. Cubans are looking forward to more opportunities to interact with Americans.” [2]

Smith then asked the Orchestra’s musicians if they would give up a scheduled week of vacation in May in order to go to Cuba. They too said yes with enthusiasm. An Orchestra violinist, Aaron Janse, who was in a small advance group that went to Cuba in April, said, “We absolutely feel that we represent the state, the United States. We have a responsibility to be a bridge between the two countries. For us, as a community, to get this all together speaks volumes to where the Minnesota Orchestra is.”

Both concerts will be broadcast live by Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music stations (99.5 FM in the Twin Cities) on May 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. (CDT). Tune in.

The Orchestra also will visit a musical school and arts university and hold a joint rehearsal with a Cuban youth orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra members will give small “Minnesota Orchestra” pins to people they meet. Presumably they will be wearing “Minnesota Twins” baseball caps as they travel around Havana. As former Minnesota Twins Cuban-American baseball player, Tony Oliva, has said, Cubans know about the Twins and their cap.

Accompanying the Orchestra on a chartered direct flight from the Twin Cities to Havana will be a group of board members and community supporters as “cultural ambassadors.” They will be led by board member, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and her husband, Glen Nelson, who are paying for the trip. As a co-owner and former chairman of Carlson Companies, a global hotel company, Carlson Nelson is interested in business opportunities in Cuba for her company.

On a historical note, the Orchestra (then called the Minneapolis Symphony) in 1929 and 1930 performed in Havana, and one of its pieces on the first trip was Beethoven’s “Third Symphony,” which will be played again this weekend by the Orchestra. MPR News has a 1929 photograph of some of the Symphony members getting ready to board a ship in Havana after their first trip.

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[1] In addition to the StarTribune article, check out information about the trip on the Orchestra’s website and in a MPR News article.

[2] As discussed in prior posts, Senator Klobuchar is a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. She is the author of the pending Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. She was a member of a U.S. Senate delegation that visited Cuba this February. She endorsed the formation of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba that is being lead by Minnesota’s Cargill Incorporated.

Minnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba

Minnesota continues to be a national leader in promoting our country’s reconciliation with Cuba. The latest participant in this campaign is the Minnesota Orchestra, which will play two concerts at Havana’s Teatro Nacional on Plaza de la Revolucion [1] on May 15 and 16.

Plaza de la Revolucion
Plaza de la Revolucion
Teatro Nacional
Teatro Nacional

At the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra will play Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Cuban National Choir and Cuban pianist Frank Fernandez. The also will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica, and other numbers to be announced.

Minnesota Orchestra
Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska
Frank Fernandez
Frank Fernandez

These concerts will be part of the 19th annual Cubadisco Festival, which also encompasses one of the most important recording competitions in Cuba. The focus this season is symphonic and choral music. The Orchestra also will participate in community engagement activities.

The Orchestra will be the first U.S. orchestra to visit the island nation since President Obama’s December 17th announcement of steps to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The Orchestra’s Concertmaster Erin Keefe said, “We are humbled to be a part of the exciting process of reestablishing America’s cultural ties with the nation of Cuba. This tour represents a unique chance to bring two cultures together through music, and we could not be more grateful for the opportunity.”

Now I will solicit the Orchestra members to participate in Minnesotans for U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation.

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[1] The Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world; it measures 72,000 square meters (774,936 square feet) and has been the site for crowds of 1 million for major speeches by Fidel Castro and for a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

What Happens When Jesus Calls?

 

Westminster Sanctury
Westminster Sanctuary
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Rev. Dr. Timothy   Hart-Andersen

The subject of vocation returned to Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on February 9th. A prior post examined the service’s music on the subject while another set forth the Scriptures for the day: Psalm 27 and Matthew 4:12-23.[1]

The sermon that day was “What Happens When Jesus Calls?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor.Here are excerpts from that sermon.

“If the question is what happens when Jesus calls, the answer may be that when Jesus calls we take a good, long, hard, deep look at what we perceive to be the purpose of our lives. That may suggest a job change, or not; perhaps a shift in careers, or not; it may mean finally discovering our life’s vocation.

The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee have that kind of experience with Jesus when he comes calling. His goal is not that they abandon their chosen vocation arbitrarily, but, rather, to rethink it. He never asks them to stop fishing; he asks them to rethink how and why they are doing it. In fact, Jesus even says to them that they’ll continue in the same line of work – only now they’ll be ‘fishing for people.’ He wants them to ponder who they are and what their focus ought to be in life.

 When Jesus calls, it occasions an examination of our purpose in life, no matter what work we’re engaged in. In the story of Jesus calling the fishermen at least two things happen.

First, Jesus comes looking for them. The call is his idea, not theirs. They were minding their own business when he shows up and invites them to rethink their lives. We don’t have to take the first step toward Jesus; he comes for us, if we’re ready. This is what the psalmist refers to in writing, ‘Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Wait for the Lord.’

So often we think the business of faith depends on us; but it’s a gift from God, not an achievement we attain through hard work and hours of effort. Jesus comes looking for us.

Second, Jesus meets them right where they are. He looks for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. Those four fishermen had no apparent special gifts that made them uniquely attractive candidates to become disciples.

The Church will be built not of princes and priests and power brokers, but of common people who are just like anyone else. Those fishermen went from their boats to become the inner circle of Jesus and later to lead the early Church. Nothing about them suggested that they would be suited for this work. Jesus meets us right where we are.

The call Jesus extends to the fishermen changes them. We who want to follow Jesus without making much in the way of change in our lives, be it in how we conduct our business, or how we spend our time, or how we use our resources, are missing the whole point of Christianity. Faith transforms us. The old life is gone; a new life has begun.

Understanding what it means to be called, to have a vocation, is at the heart of the Presbyterian way of Christianity. Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin said.

  •  ‘The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his (or her) calling. For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once.’

 Calvin may be giving us a peek inside his own personality and psychological make-up when he names the ‘great restlessness’ of human nature. But many of us know precisely what Calvin refers to when he laments the way we flit about from one scheme to another as we seek to find what we’re supposed to be doing in life. Especially today, it’s difficult to know what direction to pursue when our vocation in ten years – or even in one year – may not even exist right now.

‘Therefore,’ Calvin goes on to say, ‘Each individual has his (or her) own kind of living assigned to him (or her) by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he (or she) may not heedlessly wander throughout life.’ (John Calvin; Institutes, III.x.6.)

‘Our own kind of living assigned to us so that we might not heedlessly wander throughout life.’

These days the average person will hold between 10 and 15 jobs in a lifetime. I was heading in that direction myself until I finally gave into the nagging sense of call to serve the church. I started seminary at age 27; by that time I had made several exploratory attempts – at least three – to test one career or another, None of them was right. I was having a hard time finding the ‘kind of living assigned to me.’ I was wandering.

Finding my vocation, my calling, depended on my feeling at home in what I was doing. I resisted accepting the call to ministry as long as I could, but in each vocation I tested – teacher, academic scholar, social service worker– I felt as if I were a stranger, as if were not quite at home. Frankly, it also had to do with needing to be sure it was my call and not something I was doing to please someone else – my parents, in particular. [2]

When I was in my mid-20’s, some 15 years later, with my life in a time of upheaval, I began, finally, to consider what I had avoided all those years: whether or not I was called into ministry. I wrestled hard with the decision– for nine months, in a kind of gestating process, I prayed and listened.

And one September Saturday morning, as I was in the bath tub, it came to me that I needed to go to seminary. The water was making a deep connection, I realized later, between baptism and vocation.

Ordained ministry was the one possibility that didn’t leave me feeling as if I were a stranger. It felt like home.

I was finding my vocation, not what my parents wanted me to do, but what I felt called to do.

Think back on your own employment history; you may be surprised how many different jobs you’ve held or careers you’ve tried, but that may or may not have anything to do with the ‘heedless wandering’ Calvin was concerned about. Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less about what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives, and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever work we do.

Nothing more thrills a pastor than to see changes happening in the lives of parishioners. I’ve seen hard-charging business leaders switch to non-profit careers because they feel called to serve the community in a new way. I’ve seen teachers give themselves over utterly to their students because they sense a call to live like that. I’ve watched retired people discover new ways to serve and follow Jesus in their later years. I’ve seen young adults light up as they discover their vocation and pursue it with determination.

When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination; that’s what those fishermen learned that day. Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.

The occasion of a memorial service – any memorial service, not only that of a much-loved public figure [like Joan Mondale][3] – invites us to reflect not only on the life of the one who has died, but also on the life you and I lead.

Someday it will be we about whom they will be speaking. What will they say? What will be the summary of the highest priorities of our lives? What will they say was the central theme of our lives?

Thanks be to God.”


[1] The bulletin, a copy of the sermon and an audio and video recording of the service are available online as are the ones for the January 26th service about vocation. Prior posts have discussed that service’s (a) Prayer of Confession; (b) an anthem beginning with the words “God be in my head;” (c) passages from the Bible’s book of Acts and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments concerning the vocations of Tabitha, Peter, Lydia and Paul; (d) a passage from Paul’s epistle from a Roman prison and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments about the preacher’s and her people’s vocations; (e) a hymn, “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord;” (f) another hymn, “Give Thanks, O Christian People;” and (g) an anthem, “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go.” Clicking on “Westminster Presbyterian Church” in the Tag Cloud at the top right of the blog will give you all of the posts about the church in reverse chronological order of posting.

[2] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s father–Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen–was an esteemed Presbyterian minister, who died last year.

[3] The prior day Rev. Dr. Hart-Andersen had presided at the memorial service at Westminster for long-time member and former Second Lady Joan Mondale, with remembrances from friends and acquaintances, including Vice President Joe Biden and former President Jimmy Carter. Included in the 1,000 people at the service were her husband and former Vice President Walter Mondale, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (who is a Westminster member), two U.S. Senators, half the Minnesota congressional delegation, several mayors, brass and strings from the  Minnesota Orchestra, the Macalester College Choir and Pipe Band, gospel musicians, and a Japanese solo vocalist Another 5,000 people, including this blogger, attended via the live-stream video, which is available online.

Save the Minnesota Orchestra!

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska
Minnesota Orchestra @ Orchestra Hall
Minnesota Orchestra @ Orchestra Hall

 

Under the baton of Maestro Osmo Vanska in recent years, the Minnesota Orchestra has played beautifully. When they performed at Carnegie Hall in March 2010, a New Yorker reviewer said, “The Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” As Minnesotans, we loved the music produced by the Orchestra and the praise from New York City.

Alas, the Orchestra’s entire 2012-2013 season has been cancelled due to an unresolved dispute over the musicians’ compensation. As a result, some key members of the Orchestra have left for positions elsewhere.

Even more ominous, on April 30, 2013, Maestro Vanska in a letter to the Orchestra’s Board of Directors said, our “musical policy of excellence in symphonic music programming . . . is now under critical threat.” After noting the need to prepare for scheduled recording sessions in September and Carnegie Hall concerts in November (“one of the most significant goals of my entire Minnesota Orchestra tenure”), Vanska said that if those concerts were cancelled, “I will be forced to resign.”

The dispute started last September when the Board proposed a new contract with the musicians that called for an average annual salary of $89,000 with a minimum of a 10-weeks annual paid vacation, a comprehensive medical plan and defined benefit pension plan. This represented a huge decrease from their compensation under the prior contract and was necessitated, according to the Board, by the immediate need to stop additional significant draws on the Orchestra’s endowment.

According to public information, the Musicians rejected this proposal, but have never made a counteroffer on compensation. Instead, they have proposed a review of the Orchestra’s finances and binding arbitration. Such a financial review has been undertaken, but not without apparent disputes regarding some of its details. The Board rejected binding arbitration as inconsistent with their fiduciary duty to guard the endowment.

Most recently the Board proposed submitting the dispute to mediation next week (the week of May 20th), but the Musicians apparently have not yet responded to this proposal.

We are obviously saddened by the ongoing dispute between the Orchestra’s Board and the Musicians. We also have empathy with the Musicians on being presented with a proposal last Fall for a large reduction in compensation. No one wants to be subjected to such a jolt.

Early last December I sent an email to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton saying the “Orchestra’s cancellation of many concerts has left a major void in the cultural life of the Twin Cities and thus has caused a major negative impact on the quality of life here and in the State as a whole.” After noting that “over the years Dayton family members have been strong supporters of the Orchestra . . . [and] the cancellations have to be particularly sad for you and your family,” I implored the Governor “to become involved in this matter. Publicly invite both sides to meet with you at your office to explore how this dispute could be resolved. If there are any mediation services the State can offer, perhaps that could be offered as well. I also wonder whether there is any State funds that could be provided to help pay for the renovation of Orchestra Hall so that the gifts for same could be re-directed to the endowment to help pay the musicians.”

I received no response from the Governor, and there have been no public reports of his being involved in any way to try to resolve this dispute. I, therefore, reiterate my plea for his help.

On May 5th the Musicians had a full-page ad in the StarTribune that, among other things, called for the Board leaders “to step aside so that truly civic-minded and globally aspirational leadership can step forward” to resolve the dispute. This was a totally unfounded and unwise move by the Musicians, in my opinion. The Board members, some of whom are friends of mine, are all honorable citizen unpaid volunteers who have given of their own time and financial resources to help the Orchestra. Therefore, on May 10th I sent an email to the Musicians that said the following:

  1. “As we understand, the Musicians have never made a counteroffer on compensation. As a retired lawyer, I have been involved in many negotiations to settle legal disputes. The normal process in such negotiations is offer and counteroffer, often with many iterations. A similar phenomenon often occurs in buying a house. Wake up. Engage in the process.
  2. The Musicians must recognize that the national financial collapse of several years ago has caused damage to the finances of many corporations, organizations and individuals and made it more difficult for non-profit organizations to raise charitable contributions. In addition, the low interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve System have made it very difficult for all persons to obtain significant income on their endowments and savings. As a retiree, I am very aware of this phenomenon. So too the Musicians have to be aware of these facts.
  3. The financial problems of our Orchestra are not unique in the U.S. The Musicians obviously are aware of this.
  4. To respond to these facts, as the Musicians have done, with calls for binding arbitration, financial studies, no further negotiations unless the lock-out is ended and resignation of the honorable, unpaid volunteers on the Orchestra’s Board is unreasonable and irresponsible.
  5. In our opinion, the Musicians have known enough from the first day of this dispute to make a counteroffer of reduced compensation, undoubtedly as an initial position by the Musicians the reduction would be modest. But it would facilitate the negotiation process.”

The Orchestra’s website has information about the dispute as does the website for the musicians. The dispute has received extensive coverage in the Minnesota media along with full-page ads by the Board and the Musicians. And the New York Times had an extensive article about the dispute.

End the dispute! Save the Minnesota Orchestra!