Whatever Became of “Grace Alone”?

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church celebrated “Coming Together Sunday” and the start of a new church year on September 10, 2017. In recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, our Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, commenced a series of at four sermons on the great themes of the Reformation.  The first, this day, was grace alone (sola gratia). The others will be on sola fide (faith alone); sola scriptura (scripture alone) and where do we go from here?.[1] Below are photographs of  the church’s refurbished Nicollet Mall main entrance and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, whose face is hidden from us by our sin, and whose mercy we forget in the blindness of our hearts: Cleanse us from all our offenses, and deliver us from proud thoughts and vain desires, that with reverent and humble hearts we may draw near to you, confessing our faults, confiding in your grace, and finding in you our refuge and strength; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 43:1-7, 14-21  (NRSV):

“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

“Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-10 (NRSV):

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

 Sermon (Extracts):

“Author Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years the Christian Church holds a giant rummage sale. It throws out what it no longer needs or wants – doctrines, creeds, assumptions, structures – and replaces them with new things.”[2]

“To make her 500-year cycle argument, Tickle points out that roughly 500 years after Jesus, the Church entered a time of chaos when the Roman Empire collapsed and the western world entered an era we used to call the ‘Dark Ages.’ The Church survived those centuries of crisis through the rise of monasticism, even as more formal ecclesiastical structures were in ruins.”

“Another 500 years passed and the Great Schism between East and West took place. Then the Protestant breakaway from Rome half a millennium later. And here we are today, with the Church experiencing another time of upheaval and renewal of our time.”

“The ancient prophet Isaiah suggested that God is involved in such transitions, in times of transformation: ‘Do not remember the former things,’ God says through the prophet, ‘Or consider the things of old.’ It’s as if God were saying, ‘Don’t be afraid. This is a great, divine rummage sale. Let go of the old and prepare for the new. I am about to do a new thing,’ God says. ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:18-19)”

“God assumes – correctly – that we’ll have trouble finding our way through the transition and turmoil. Where’s the church headed? How does it stay vigorous and vital? How do we navigate the shifting cultural sands all around us?”

“Author Diana Butler Bass has written about ‘the end of church’ and ‘Christianity after religion.”’[3] Those of us who toil in the ecclesiastical vineyard know that virtually everything is in flux, changing around us, as the new thing emerges among us. It is challenging, but the prophet reminds us that God will not abandon us: ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ (Isaiah 43- 19)”

“That was true for the church in the 16th century. God was doing a new thing then, at work when that cantankerous, strong-willed, beer-loving, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther decided to take a stand against the practices of Rome. He was not the only one to protest, nor was he the first. Inklings of reform had stirred centuries earlier in Italy, England, and Bohemia. But Luther’s rebellion was the tipping point of this pent-up frustration for reform in the Christian Church.”

“[Contemporary views on the Reformation were covered in a recent survey by The Pew Research Center.] The good news is that the memory of the religious wars fought in the centuries following the rebellion against Rome has faded. The Pew survey shows an emerging consensus among Catholics and Protestants that they have more similarities than differences. That will not come as a surprise to this congregation in this city.”

“The bad news – at least from a Presbyterian preacher’s perspective – is that most Protestants have little grasp of the theological premises that drove the Reformation in the first place. The Pew survey shows that more than half of us no longer know or care about the distinct themes for which our forebears fought and died.”

“Frankly, many Protestants today have no clue about the foundations upon which their stream of Christian faith is based. Some may see no problem with that, but there are consequences of embracing a version of Christianity that has let go of the core convictions of those who protested in the 16th century.”

“What did that 16th century church rummage sale look like?”

“Luther’s ire was directed at the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. All 95 of those theses he wrote [in 1517], in one way or another, were protesting the selling of indulgences, that is, the Church’s means of controlling access to the grace of God by requiring believers to buy it. To gain God’s approval or forgiveness one had to go through the Church and, through the priests and the bishops and the prince of Rome, literally, purchase it. God’s mercy was for sale.”

“Luther and other Protestants rejected what they called ‘works righteousness,’ the idea that one must do something – something inevitably determined by the Church – to gain favor with the Almighty. Protestants declared that God’s grace was all one needed, and it was freely given. No one could earn it – not by purchasing indulgences, or saying prayers, or repenting, or doing good deeds, or accepting the Church’s doctrine.”

“’I would remind you, brothers and sisters,’ the Apostle Paul writes, ‘Of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved.’ (I Corinthians 15:1)”

“The good news Paul passed on and that we have received from our Protestant forebears is that God’s love is not subject to the whims of any person or institution, not even the Church, but, rather, is freely offered. This may seem inconsequential today, but Luther represented a major challenge to the dominance of Rome. The ‘Protestors’ had to be stopped; ecclesiastical authority was at risk. If the Church could not control the dispensing of God’s grace it would lose the basis of its power.”

“These are not merely 16th century issues. The same questions continue to roil the Church today. Ten days ago, a group of prominent Protestant leaders released what they call the Nashville Statement. It’s a declaration against the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons on the basis of a particular reading of scripture and tradition.” [4]

“Having read the statement, it seems to me that by the standard of common human decency alone the statement is offensive. But it also distorts the Christian gospel, especially as Protestants have understood it. The document illustrates how the basic Protestant tenet of sola gratia, God’s grace alone, has been cast aside in a rush to condemn.”

“In Article 10 of the Nashville Statement the writers declare that support of LGBT persons “constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness.” They are trying to hold God’s grace hostage by limiting it to those they deem acceptable. That is what provoked Luther and precisely why the Reformation was needed, because that was happening in the Church.”

“Back then we Protestants rejected the idea that the Church could assume God’s prerogative. Instead, we surrendered to the notion that God’s grace alone is sufficient for our souls. We do not need the approbation of anyone, or the acceptance of certain biblical interpretations, to earn God’s favor. We do not need to prove ourselves worthy. Indeed, we could never do that.”

“Whatever became of ‘grace alone?’”

“One way to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to recover the theological clarity of the reformers. We are Protestants; we protest when the church’s control of God’s grace becomes a tool for exclusion.”

“Our task today, in the midst of the ferment of our time, is to build thriving communities where Christianity is taught and shared and practiced anew. That’s essentially what Luther was after, as well as Zwingli, Calvin, and other early Protestants: creating a personal, authentic, genuine experience of Christian faith, of God’s love, not mediated by the Church.”

“They were done with the old ways, the former things. And so are we. Done with church power games. Done with merely going through ecclesiastical motions and reciting old formulas.”

“They were hungering after a genuine, powerful experience of God’s grace in their lives, and so are we. God’s grace: it alone liberates us. It alone gives us hope. It alone introduces us to the unconditional love of the Creator in whose image we all are made.”

“God is doing a new thing. An old thing, in new ways.”

“The 16th century Protestants were protesting, and those of us who continue to do so today remain in that same line. ‘This is the good news in which we stand,’ Paul says.”

“Our Protestant theological genes bear the imprint of a version of Christianity that instinctively rejects any system that does not grant to all the same access.”

“The racism of white supremacy is another expression of the power of those in control of the narrative of acceptability. From a Protestant Christian viewpoint, American racism tries to restrict the grace of God and limit it only to those of European descent. It’s a grave theological error. “

“This is not arcane church language and theological detail; what we hold to be true determines how we see the world. Our faith shapes how we live, and we are Protestants. Our deep conviction is that God’s grace is not withheld from anyone. It is all sufficient.”

“What impact does that 16th century theological claim have in our time? For starters, we declare that the wide-open affirmation of grace alone rejects the narrow and bigoted assertion of race alone as the sole determinant of who is acceptable and valued in our world.”

“Not only the Church needs a new reformation; our entire nation does. Its embedded racial distinctions have given rise to privilege for some and left others in despair – and that is a theological error, in our judgment as Protestant Christians.”

“Grace alone is the theological equivalent of the political claim that ‘all people are created equal.’”

“These are the animating issues for our life today at Westminster. Our Open Doors Open Futures is not simply about a beautiful building. . . .  It’s also, and fundamentally, about rediscovering the heart of Christian faith: the open, no-holds-barred, unconditional, no-strings-attached, love of God onto which we pin the theological word ‘grace.’”[5]

“Nothing we do can earn it. No indulgences we might pay. No creed we might recite. No baptism we might undergo. No particular circumstances or human condition, neither the color of our skin nor the person we love.”

“’By the grace of God, I am what I am,’ the Apostle Paul says, having persecuted Christians and been blinded by the grace of God one day. ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.’ (I Corinthians 15:10)”

“Those first Protestants 500 years ago didn’t get everything right, but they did launch a new movement that invites people into the Christian faith, based solely on the individual experience of God’s love. We call it grace.”

“Grace alone. It still stirs the soul. It still saves the soul. And it still compels the church.”

Responding to the Word

Affirmation of Faith (from A Brief Statement of Faith—Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)): “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve. With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[6]

Conclusion

This sermon was a good reminder of my belief that God alone through his and her grace extends love to every human being on the planet in the past, today and in the future and that no human institution can interfere with that grace.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of this sermon are on the church’s website. There are many sources on Martin Luther; one is Wikipedia.

[2] Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books 2012)  Ms. Tickle is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, the international journal of the book industry and the author of over 30 book in religion and spirituality.

[3] Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Harper Collins, 2013).   Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Coalition for Biblical Sexuality, Nashville Statement, CBMW.org; https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/ The Nashville Statement was drafted in late August 2017, during the annual conference of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been signed by more than 150 influential conservative evangelical leaders. The Statement says that only heterosexuality is permissible, calls people born with intersex conditions “disordered,” derides transgender identities as “transgenderism” and makes clear that anyone who is an L.G.B.T. person is immoral. (Cruz, The Nashville Statement Is an Attack on L.G.B.T. Christians, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017); Nashville Statement, Wikipedia.

[5] Open Doors Open Futures is Westminster’s multi-pronged campaign to increase support for local and global needs, to expand its historic building on Nicollet Mall with an inspiring new wing designed by James Dayton Design, and to develop significant new green space surrounding the church.

[6] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Brief Statement of Faith (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983) in   Book of Confessions, pp. 307-18.

Reactions to Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies and Other Issues Regarding U.S.-Cuba Normalization

As discussed in an earlier post, on the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event. Another post, that afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; yet another post, recent comments about Cuba by the White House Press Secretary.

Now we look at the reactions to the significant issues raised by these events: (1) restoration of diplomatic relations; (2) future changes in Cuba; (3) future changes in Cuban human rights; (4) ending the U.S. embargo (or blockade) of Cuba; (5) altering or terminating Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.; (6) ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti; (7) ending USAID and other covert U.S. “democracy” programs in Cuba; (8) Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives; and (9) nominating and confirming the appointment of an U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

1. Restoration of U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations?

There has been substantial U.S. approval of the restoration of diplomatic relations.

According to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), for instance, 12 public opinion polls conducted and released since January 1 show that “public support for the Cuba opening is strong, growing, and pervasive. Support for the new policy is bipartisan. It is significantly high among segments of voters — such as Hispanics — that candidates running for office increasingly care about. Most of all, the latest research shows that public support is rising. For example, support for ending the embargo was measured in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at 67%, and earlier this year by Gallup at 59% and by the Associated Press at 60%.”[1]

Moreover, CDA sees “evidence that public support for America’s new Cuba policy is exerting its force on policymakers in the U.S. Congress.” It points to last week’s action of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s approving amendments eliminating House measures that would impede normalization in various ways[2] and to Republican legislators—Senator Dean Heller (NV) and Representative Bradley Byrne (AL)–who recently joined the ranks of supporters of normalization.

Despite the vigorous opposition to normalization repeatedly expressed by Cuban-Americans in Congress—Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL) [3]—there has been little organized opposition to normalization in the Cuban-American community, especially in Florida.[4]

This assessment has been confirmed by prominent Cubans in the U.S. and on the island. Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born Miami lawyer with a national law firm representing several U.S. and foreign clients seeking to do business in Cuba and a former hardliner himself, said, “It’s over and done in Miami. It died with a whimper.” Indeed, he added that President Obama’s new policy was now widely accepted by South Florida’s 1.5 million Cuban exiles. Similar views were expressed in the Miami Herald by Mike Fernandez, a healthcare millionaire and Bush supporter, who said, “Cuban-Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba’s isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy. It’s time to accept change. Let us not heed those relatively few voices who would go on continuing to trap our minds in hatred.” Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat who is close to President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, put it best. He said, “The genie is out of the bottle. And once it’s out, you’re not going to be able to put it back in.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), who is the author of a bipartisan bill to lift the embargo, said this must be done for the U.S. to avoid losing investment opportunities that will come with loosening of travel restrictions to the island. She said, “Once millions of American tourists are going, they will need places to stay and they will need food to eat. … So when they come, they are going to be starting to sleep in Spanish hotels and eat German foods because those countries will be able to supply what they need in the tourism industry, not to mention the computers and Wi-Fi and everything else.”[5]

James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, a major bipartisan group promoting this normalization, issued a statement on the reopening of embassies. He said, “we begin a new chapter of engagement between our two countries. American diplomats will now be much better equipped to engage with the Cuban people and civil society. They will be in a stronger position to elevate issues of concern, like human rights, as well as expanding on areas of cooperation with Cuba.” He pointed out that the “vast majority of the American people, and 97% of the Cuban people support opening relations. We applaud both governments for taking this important step to move forward beyond the Cold War policies of the past and call on Congress to play a constructive role at this historic moment of transition.”[6]

John Dinges, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, said for the U.S. “the new relationship with Cuba removed a stumbling block in relations with the entire region, where the US attitude [was] considered irrational and stupid.”[7]

However, others argue that this change is misguided and erroneous. For example, Edward Gonzalez, professor emeritus of political science at U.C.L.A., stated that “in the face of potentially destabilizing change and high expectations at home, Cuban officials are tightening state controls in the short term.” Moreover, “given the regime’s totalitarian proclivity and apparatus, the state’s repression of dissidents and civil society, and its control over the lion’s share of the island’s economy, it is likely to continue into the distant future.” Therefore, he continues, the new U.S. engagement with Cuba “makes the [U.S.] complicit in propping up the regime both economically and politically, while leaving Cuban society even more isolated and defenseless vis-à-vis the all-powerful, coercive state.”[8]

Moreover, Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, currently two of the many contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, have said that if elected president in 2016, they would rescind the diplomatic relations. And Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AK) has pledged to “work to maintain and increase sanctions on the regime, block the confirmation of a new ambassador, demand the extradition of U.S. fugitives from justice, and hold the Castro regime accountable.”[9]

Secretary of State John Kerry in his July 20 interviews,[10] responded to these threats to rescind the relations with Cuba. Kerry said that whoever is elected president in 2016, including Marco Rubio, will have “the ability to make a decision [on whether or not to rescind the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba]. Congress, obviously, has an ability to have an impact on that.” [11] But I think it would be a terrible mistake [to rescind such diplomatic relations]. The vast majority of the American people believe this is a very good thing to do. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, we had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. We had diplomatic relations with then-called Red China. We have to have relationships with countries to do business. And American citizens get hurt when we don’t do that.” Moreover, Kerry added, “I believe . . . President [Obama] has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Kerry continued, “Given the fact there are so many Cuban Americans, people who have family in Cuba, to not have a relationship where we can advocate for people, advocate for human rights, advocate for fairness, for elections, for democracy, for travel, for engagement, and all these things that make a difference in the quality of life of Cubans would be a terrible, terrible mistake. So I think, as time goes on, people will see the benefits that come from this policy.”

2. Future Changes in Cuba?

As Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s July 20 statement and Secretary Kerry’s statements made clear and as both governments previously had recognized, the opening of the embassies did not mean the process of normalization had been completed. Indeed, it has just started.

Secretary Kerry, in his interviews, observed, There are “key issues in the normalization process, and . . . [Minster Rodriguez and I] both said today that it will be long and complex. . . . [T]he measure of progress and success is really going to come from what happens in the next months as we go through this early diplomatic rekindling of a relationship. My suspicion is that there’s a possibility it could move faster than people think, simply because I think the Cuban people want it. And as we are there doing diplomacy, more present, able to engage, we actually can work at these kinds of issues more effectively than we’ve been able to for the last 50, 60 years.”

Kerry added that if Cuba is “willing to embrace it, we can bring them a tremendous leap in their economy. We could bring a better standard of living to their people. We can bring technology. We can bring various modern instruments of education, of health delivery, of communications. And I believe that over time things will change . . . at a pace that will be acceptable and, frankly, helpful to Cuba.” Kerry also said, the U.S. wants to see “a true, deep engagement [by Cuba], a willingness to work through these issues. There’s so much that we can cooperate on right now. We want to cooperate on law enforcement, . . . the environment, . . . our visas, . . . health, education, the rights of people, . . . hemispheric issues and interests like the war in Colombia or the relationship with Venezuela.”

Although not in direct response to the reopening of the embassies, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in his July 15 speech to Cuba’s legislature (the National Assembly of People’s Power)[12] asserted, “We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, which we have sovereignly chosen, with the majority support of the people, in the interest of constructing a prosperous and sustainable socialism, the essential guarantee of our independence.” (Emphases added.) He reiterated this theme near the end of his speech with these words: “Changing everything which must be changed is the sovereign and exclusive domain of Cubans. The Revolutionary Government is willing to advance in the normalization of relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, to our mutual benefit, beyond the differences we have and will have, thus contributing to peace, security, stability, development and equity in our continent and the world.” (Emphases added.)

A New York Times editorial said, “The full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will take years and will be an arduous process. Issues that will be hard to resolve include the disposition of American property the Cuban government seized in the 1960s, and the fate of the United States Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, which the Cuban government considers an illegally occupied territory.”[13]

Professor Dinges offered a similar assessment of the future. He said, “’normal’ relations are not compatible with the [U.S.] travel ban, with [the U.S.] economic embargo, with a recent history of semi-clandestine operations by the [USAID] to promote economic and social discontent. I hope to see in the near future gestures of friendship and rapprochement. For the [U.S.], it is important to dismantle the Guantanamo prison, and the minimization of military forces at the base. On behalf of Cuba, a gesture of detente toward the Miami Cubans would not cost anything and could have huge benefits. . . . There is distrust, there is a long history of [U.S.] aggression [against Cuba]. . . . [He believes future] “changes will be economically, technically, diplomatically. It would be illusory to expect radical changes in political structures in Cuba. Equally unrealistic to think that the US will stop talking about democracy and human rights.”

3. Future Changes in Cuban Human Rights?

Probably the leading U.S. desire for future changes in Cuba is with respect to human rights. For example, in one of his July 20 interviews, Kerry said Cuba does not “want [domestic] interference, but they know we’re not going to stop raising human rights issues. We made that very clear. . . . [W]e’re not giving up the DNA of the [U.S.], which is a deep commitment to human rights, to the values of democracy, freedom of speech, and so forth. So those . . . will be on the agenda. But on the other hand, the great step forward here is that neither of us . . . [is] taking one of our issues of contention and making it a showstopper. We want to engage, and when you get to that point, that’s what begins to break down the barriers.”

Kerry also told Andrea Mitchell, “There’s been a little bit of give . . . [by Cuba] with respect to some agreement on human rights. And I think that over time the elections discussion and the more pointed human rights issues are going to be very much part of the discussion. They are in every country where we have an embassy and an ambassador. We are fearless in our determination to walk in and talk to the authorities and give them a shared our sense of the problems that exist.”

According to the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 2,822 politically related detentions in the first six months of 2015, less than half the 5,904 registered in the same period last year. Many of those detained this year, however, report being treated more roughly, however.[14]

The previous source also reports, “more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for congressional delegations.” This was apparently due to “Cuban officials . . . [having] made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba” and to U.S. assessment that “talking with Cuban leaders is clearly the most promising way to promote reform on the island.”

On the issue of Cuban human rights, I submit that there is an enormous cognitive dissonance in the minds of U.S. opponents of normalization. Here are the reasons for that conclusion:

  • First, any objective student of history has to conclude that the U.S., especially since the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, has committed and threatened serious acts of hostility towards Cuba, including the embargo, the 1961 U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, the 1962 threatened bombing of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the embargo of the island and CIA attempts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. Moreover, U.S. hostility toward Cuba started at least in 1898 when it intervened in Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. Indeed, Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ July 20 speech referred to the late 19th century warning by José Marti of the U.S. “excessive craving for domination [over Cuba].”
  • Second, Cuba, therefore, has good reason to be fearful of the much larger and more powerful U.S. and as a result to take steps to protect itself against such perceived threats by restricting dissent. What would you do if you were in the Cubans’ shoes? It, therefore, will take time for Cuba to develop a sense of trust of the U.S. and as a result modify its restrictions on free speech and assembly.
  • Third, the self-proclaimed advocates of Cuban human rights like Rubio and Jeb Bush do not appear to be aware of the first two points. In addition, they apparently do not appreciate that their very hostility towards Cuba and normalization, purportedly on the ground of promoting Cuban human rights, instead contributes to Cuban skepticism about the good intentions of the U.S. and to the prolonging of Cuba’s restrictions on free speech and other civil liberties.

4. Ending the U.S. Embargo of Cuba?

Ending the embargo or blockade, of course, is a key demand by Cuba, and President Obama has asked the Congress to do just that. As discussed in previous posts, various bills to end the embargo have been introduced in this Session of the Congress, and supporters of normalization or reconciliation of the two countries, like this blogger, urge the Congress to approve such bills as soon as possible.

Such congressional action is in the U.S. national interest because the embargo has failed for over 50 years to produce positive change in Cuba, the embargo clearly has harmed or damaged the island’s economy, and Cuba has insisted on its removal as a key requirement for full normalization of relations.

In addition, there are at least two additional reasons for ending the embargo that this blogger has not seen mentioned in all the public discussion of this issue.

  • First, last October at the U.N. General Assembly Cuba alleged that the damage to Cuba from the embargo or blockade totaled $1.1 trillion, and the longer the embargo remains in effect that number will only increase. For a U.S. business this would require at least a footnote to its balance sheet identifying this as a contingent liability and explaining whatever reasons the business has for challenging the claim or the alleged amount of the claim. The rational action for such a business would be to terminate the conduct allegedly causing the damage, especially when it is not producing some benefit to the business.
  • Second, because of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement of last December, other countries, especially the European Union and its members, are accelerating their efforts to obtain beneficial trade arrangements with Cuba. In short, the longer the U.S. waits to end the embargo, the further behind the U.S. will be with respect to competitors from around the world seeking to do business with Cuba.

Wake up, Congress!

5. Altering or Terminating the Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

As previously noted, Foreign Minister Rodriguez at the July 20 reopening of the Cuban Embassy and at the subsequent joint press conference with Secretary Kerry reiterated Cuba’s request or desire to have its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. terminated and the territory returned to Cuba. Although the Foreign Minister did not set forth any alleged legal basis for this claim, he did mention that the 1906 lease occurred during a period of U.S. military occupation of the island that “led to the usurpation of [this] piece of Cuban territory”and thereby suggested that the lease was unfairly or coercively obtained.

Interestingly Rodriguez did not mention a previous legal theory advanced by the Fidel Castro regime: that the lease purportedly runs in perpetuity and, therefore, is illegal under Cuban law. Nor did Rodriguez mention another theory for ending the lease: the U.S. operation of a prison/detention facility at Guantanamo that allegedly is not permitted by the lease and, therefore, the U.S. has breached the lease.[15]

At that same joint press conference, Secretary Kerry immediately rejected U.S. willingness to return Guantanamo to Cuba. However, there were caveats in his comment: he said, At this time, there is no discussion and no intention on our part at this moment to alter the existing lease“ and “I can’t tell you what the future will bring but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side.” (Emphasis added.) This was reiterated, with similar qualifications, on July 22 by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at a White House press conference.[16] She said, “We’ve been clear that we’re not, at this stage, at all interested in changing the nature of our understanding and arrangements on Guantanamo.  And they may choose to raise it, but we’ve been equally clear that, for us, that’s not in the offing at the present.” (Emphasis added.) Do these caveats indicate an U.S. willingness in the future to discuss altering or even terminating the lease? I could understand a lease amendment increasing the amount of the rent and perhaps making administrative changes, but would be surprised if the U.S. would be willing to discuss termination of the lease and returning Guantanamo to Cuba.[17]

Although Cuba has not mentioned the U.S. operation of a detention facility at Guantanamo and the alleged U.S. torture of some of the detainees as a reason for Cuba’s desire to have the territory returned, it should be noted that President Obama has been trying to close that facility since the start of his first term.

On July 22, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed “that the administration is, in fact, in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress. That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time, primarily because it is a priority of the President.  He believes it’s in our clear national security interest for us to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Earnest also said the President has decided to veto a defense spending bill now being negotiated in Congress if it includes provisions that would make it harder to close the prison.[18]

A few more details about the plan to close the detention facility were offered on July 25 by Lisa Monaco, one of Obama’s top national security aides, who said that such a plan was nearing completion. It will call for the U.S. to step up the transfers of 52 detainees cleared for resettlement in other countries and for the transfer to U.S. “Supermax” or military prisons for trials or continued military detention of at least some of the other 64 detainees still at Guantanamo who are deemed too dangerous to release. Efforts will be made to reduce the size of the latter group through “periodic review boards” that have been used to clear others for transfer.[19]

6. Ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti?

Another Cuban request is for the U.S. to stop its radio and TV broadcasts aimed at Cuba (Radio and TV Marti), again mentioned on July 20 by Minister Rodriguez. On July 22 National Security Advisor Rice stated, apparently in response to this request, the U.S. ”will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba. . . . we’re not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did.”

7. Ending USAID and Other Covert U.S. “Democracy” Programs in Cuba?

Prior posts have discussed recent “discreet” or covert programs in Cuba operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through private contractors purportedly to promote democracy in Cuba and the latter’s objections to same. Rodriguez in his July 20 speech did not specifically mention such programs, but did so indirectly by objecting to the U.S. seeking “obsolete and unjust goals” (i.e., regime change) by “a mere change in the methods.”

These prior posts have expressed this blogger’s objections to such USAID programs. The New York Times has done the same.

8. Cuba Returning U.S. Fugitives?

Although not specifically mentioned last week by Secretary Kerry or Minister Rodriguez, the issue of Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives remains a top priority for many in Congress and in the U.S. generally. On July 24 Representative Jerry McNerney (Dem., CA) raised the issue with respect to Charles Hill, who is the sole surviving member of a group who hijacked an airliner in 1971; Hill and two others were fleeing charges relating to the killing of a New Mexico state trooper. McNerney, who was on that hijacked airliner, wants Hill to be returned to the U.S.[20]

9. Nominating and Confirming U.S. Ambassador to Cuba?

With respect to congressional threats to not provide funds for the U.S. embassy in Cuba and to not confirm an ambassador to that country, Kerry observed, “it always matters when Congress is sort of stepping in the way of something being able to . . . be fully effected. . . . [W]hy are they going to do that? Are they going to do that because the [old] policy [purportedly] has been so successful? Are they going to do that because they can show so much change that’s taken place in the last 60 years that this is a crazy path? . . . [It] just doesn’t make sense to prevent our diplomats from carrying the message . . . [of human rights and democracy]. To not be able to meet with more people in Cuba to know what is going on is a huge cutoff of opportunity. So I just think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face and it’s a shame.”

Kerry also said, “Well, it depends on whom, obviously, the next president is, and we don’t know that now. So you can’t bet on it that way. You have to do what you think is right. You have to do what’s appropriate and make the difference. Nobody can guard against every eventuality of the future. But I believe the President has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Conclusion

The time has come for all U.S. citizens to support full normalization of our relations with Cuba!

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

[1] Center for Democracy in Americas, Flag Poles to Public Opinion Polls—Is Congress (Finally) Getting the Message (July 24, 2015)

[2] The Senate Committee on July 23 voted, 18 to 12, to lift the “decades-long ban on travel to Cuba . . . . to block enforcement of a law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. . . . [and] to lift restrictions on vessels that have shipped goods to Cuba from returning to the U.S. until six months have passed.” A journalist asserted, “The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy.” (Assoc. Press, GOP-Controlled Senate Panel Votes to Life Cuba Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015); Davis, Senate Panel Takes Small Step Toward Easing Travel Restrictions with Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015); Shabad, GOP-led Senate panel votes to lift travel ban to Cuba, The Hill (July 23, 2015).) This move in the Senate Appropriations Committee is part of a Democratic Senators’ strategy of attacking House riders in appropriation bills that imperil U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. (Shabad, Dems show their hand in budget poker, The Hill (July 26, 2015),)

[3] Menendez, Menendez Statement on Cuban Embassy Opening (July 20, 2015;    Ros-Lehtinen, Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. Harms Our National Security, Says Ros-Lehtinen (July 20, 2015); Diaz-Balart, Embassy in Washington, D.C. Will Represent the Castros, Not the Cuban People (July 20, 2015).

[4] Reuters, Cuban-American Resistance to Diplomatic Thaw Proves Tepid, N.Y.Times (July 21, 2015); Assoc. Press, Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Diplomatic Ties With Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015); Reuters Video, Cubans enthusiastic about reopening of U.S. embassy in Havana, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015).

[5] Klobuchar, News Release: Klobuchar: Opening of Cuban Embassy Marks Next Chapter in Relationship (July 20, 2015).

[6] Engage Cuba, Statement from Engage Cuba on Official Opening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies (July 20, 2015).

[7] Elizalde, John Dinges on Cuba-US relations: ‘I’m optimistic,’ CubaDebate (July 23, 2015)

[8] Gonzalez, Letter to Editor: Effects of Our Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015)

[9] Carney, GOPer doubles down on pledge to block Obama on Cuba, The Hill (July 20, 2015).

[10] Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio (July 20, 2015); Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News (July 20, 2015).

[11] This blogger disagrees with Kerry’s saying Congress had a role in deciding to recognize a foreign government; such a congressional role appears to be unconstitutional in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that the president has the exclusive constitutional authority to recognize foreign governments.

[12] Speech presented by Army General Raúl Castro Ruz: ‘We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, CubaDebate (July 15, 2015.

[13] Editorial, Formal Restoration of Diplomatic Ties with Cuba Is Just a Beginning, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015).  The Washington Post, on the other hand, continued its opposition to normalization with Cuba with an editorial that focused on the human rights problems in Cuba and urging our diplomats to concentrate on those issues. (Editorial, U.S. diplomats in Cuba would do well to focus on human rights, Wash. Post (July 20, 2015).) As Secretary Kerry emphasized in his remarks, the U.S. continues to concentrate on those issues.

[14] Assoc. Press, Cuban Dissidents Feel Sidelined as Focuses on State Ties, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015).

[15] A prior post suggested that Cuba’s best argument for terminating the lease was the U.S. operation of the prison/detention facility. However, Dr. Michael Strauss, an expert on this lease, asserts that at least in 2002 Cuba offered to facilitate U.S. transportation of detainees to Guantanamo; such conduct should weaken, if not demolish, such an argument for Cuba. (Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo Bay, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 546 (2013).)

[16] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/22/15.

[17] A prior post discussed these issues about the Guantanamo lease and recommended that the parties submit any unresolved disputes about the lease to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.

[18] Assoc. Press, White House Finishing Up Latest Plan for Closing Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015) Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015).

[19] Reuters, Some Guantanamo Inmates Would Go to U.S. Under New Plan: Obama Aide, N.Y. Times (July 26, 2015)

[20] Hattem, House Dem demands fugitives in Cuba be returned to the U.S., The Hill (July 24, 2015). A prior post explored the issues regarding extradition under a U.S.-Cuba treaty on the subject and recommended submitting any unresolved disputes about extradition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.