Cuban Council of Churches’ Statement Regarding President Trump’s Announced Changes to U.S.-Cuba Policy

Cuban Council of Churches

On June 16, the Council of Churches of Cuba [1] issued the following statement regarding President Trump’s just announced changes in U.S. policies with respect to Cuba.

“With the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States [in 2015], a new era was established with the new policies of the Obama administration. This had been the dream and struggle of many people as well as churches and religions on both sides.”

“A [new] path of respect and dialogue [between the two countries] showed hope to the world that from civilized relationships bridges could be built and walls torn down. [This process was started with agreements that resulted] from work over many years and several generations [that] had and have the wide support of the community of believers at national and global levels.”

“Today, June 16, President Donald Trump has announced another policy that involves a setback in a path that, although fragile, established safe steps in a strategy of coexistence where everyone could benefit and promised a future of peace and understanding: not only between the two countries but for the whole region.”

“This [new] policy, like others of this administration, does not reflect the wishes of the American people, whose visits to the Caribbean nation soared in 2016, expressing and confirming their desire to interact with the island.”

“Cubans and Americans can do much for our region and for our humanity. Laws or resolutions that prevent the interactions that are the will of the people are not logical. We must not, nor can we, renounce the Divine will that these two nations mutually benefit from their religious, cultural, educational, sporting, scientific and enrichment exchanges.”

“This [new] policy denotes a lack of information and knowledge about the Cuban reality, our history, the sovereignty and the rights of this people and the people of the United States. It is decontextualized in the time that we live today. We are, rather, presented with a monologue that should have no part in the 21st century, when humanity calls for dialogue and search for civilized solutions. We live in the era of dialogue, in the search and construction of peace without which humanity will not be able to survive.”

“We know and we are sure that this is not the will of the American people or their churches and religions, who have always advocated peace, dialogue and normalization of relationships. We also know that it is their will the embargo be removed, as has been expressed by nations year after year in multiple ballots of the United Nations.”

“We are members of the World Council of Churches, the Joint Alliance of Churches, the Latin American Council of Churches, brothers of the United States National Council of Churches and the World Service of Churches. [We also are] brothers and fellow missionaries of many denominations, foundations, agencies, councils in the United States and throughout the world, which is of God. We are sure that together with our prayers and actions we will continue to break down walls and lift the bridges in our pilgrimage for justice, peace and love.”

“May the Incarnate, Risen and Glorified Christ pour out and shower His grace upon Cuba, the United States and all the people of our lands, filling us with His blessing and His manifestation to all, guiding us along the paths of dialogue, justice, of love and peace.”

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[1] “Since its foundation in 1941, the Council has proclaimed unity for the service of our people and nation, through the search for love, justice and peace among all peoples and nations, which are the most evident evangelical signs of the reign of God among us.” Today “the Council is the lead institution of the Cuban ecumenical movement, composed of 51 churches and Christian institutions—Protestants, Reformed, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Episcopal and Orthodox—as well as Jews, Yogas and centers of study, information, community service and theological seminaries.” The Council’s current president and the signatory for this statement is Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba. The English translation of the original Spanish of the statement is provided by Jack Kern, an Elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas, which has a partnership with the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba in the Luyanó neighborhood of Havana; he has made 24 trips to Cuba starting in 1998 and plans to return later this year.

 

 

Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders

Díaz-Canel Bermúdez
Díaz-Canel Bermúdez

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

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

The Recent Meeting

Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico
Rev. Joel               Ortega Dopico

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

Rev. Raúl Suárez
Rev. Raúl Suárez

 

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

Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal
Rev. Pablo Odén Marichal

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

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

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

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

The First Meeting in 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Cuban Revolution and Religion

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church since 2002 has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed church in Matanzas, Cuba,  a city of approximately 150,000 on the north shore of the island about  56 miles east of Havana.[1]

The existence of this partnership and my going on three Westminster mission trips to Cuba–November 2002, January 2004 and October/November 2007–have sparked an interest in learning more about Cuba and the history and politics of U.S.-Cuban relations. I already have shared some of the conclusions I have reached as a result of this personal involvement with Cuba and Cubans.[2] Now I would like to share some reflections on religious life in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

First, I give thanks to God and Jesus for the miracle of the survival of the Christian churches in Cuba. Over the 52 years of the Cuban Revolution, these churches indeed have been engaged in a struggle for survival.

Many of their fellow Christians, including pastors, starting in 1959, fled the island to escape the negative aspects of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban government expelled many foreign-born Roman Catholic priests who were seen as supporters of the pre-Revolution Batista regime and as opponents of the Revolution. The Cuban government since 1959 has controlled and severely restricted any construction of church property, which I see as a policy to control use of limited resources. The Cuban government in 1965-67 sent many Christians and others regarded as undesirable to forced labor camps in the Sierra Mastre Mountains at the eastern end of the island.

The Cuban government in 1961 closed and prohibited Christian schools and confiscated their property. This included the well-known Presbyterian Escuela la Progressiva in the city of Cardenas, now known as the home-town of Elian Gonzalez.

In the early 1960’s the Communist Party of Cuba banned Christians and other religious citizens from party membership, which was a requirement for many jobs controlled by the state. On my second visit to Cuba, I met a man who said he had been in seminary with the pastor of our partner church, but had left the church and only had returned after he had retired as a history teacher. (That ban lasted until 1991 or after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The Cuban government in 1976 amended the country’s constitution to make scientific materialism or atheism the official or established philosophy or religion. (That provision was deleted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992.)

The Cuban government still permits very limited church access to radio and TV. The Cuban government still controls and limits the publishing of religious materials. In fact, I believe, the only authorized such publisher on the island is our partner church. They print church bulletins and newsletters and other religious materials for most of the Protestant churches on the island.

The Cuban government plasters the island with billboards proclaiming the virtues of the Revolution and the sayings of Fidel, Che Guevara and Jose Marti, the 19th century Cuban poet and patriot. In contrast, the Cuban churches apparently are not permitted to have any billboards with competing messages of the good life.

Just compare our partner church with the next-door provincial headquarters of the Communist Party of Cuba. The church has virtually no identifying sign or message. The Party (CCP) has a bright red sign in its parking lot, and its building used to have a billboard with a Fidel quotation on top.

The Revolutionary socialist or communist philosophy and polices since 1959 have resulted in a leveling down of the society economically. Thus, there has been no prosperous middle class such as we have in the U.S., to provide financial and other support to the Cuban churches.

It, therefore, was not surprising for me to hear an active member of our partner Cuban church say that earlier she was not brave enough to be a Christian.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Havana

In 2007 we visited Havana’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center which is affiliated with the adjacent Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, Raul Suarez, said that in 1984 he learned that Jesse Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President that year, was coming to Cuba. Jackson said that Fidel Castro had invited him to discuss the status of 22 U.S. citizens then being held by the Cuban government. Jackson said that he also wanted an invitation from a Cuban church so that he could participate in a religious service in Cuba. Jackson asked Suarez, then Executive Secretary of the Cuban Council of Churches and Director of International Relations of the Cuban Baptist Church, if that would be possible. Jackson also gave Suarez a letter to provide to Castro on this issue. Castro responded that it would not be a problem even though atheism was the established “religion” in the Cuban constitution at the time.

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

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

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

Soon thereafter Suarez asked for a meeting of religious leaders with Fidel and submitted to Fidel a document of concern about the official policy of atheism’s limiting the space for religion. This resulted in a four-hour meeting between Fidel and about 14 Protestant leaders and the College of the Roman Catholic Bishops. Fidel expressed surprise at the Protestant ecumenicism, saying that when he was a boy in Jesuit schools, Roman Catholics disparaged Protestants. At the end of the meeting Castro made a covenant with these leaders: the churches will made an effort to understand “us” while Fidel and the Cuban Communist Party will make an effort to understand the churches. This agreement, said Fidel, should be easier for the churches than for the party.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there have been signs of a more tolerant Cuban policy toward the churches, some of which have already been mentioned: elimination of scientific materialism as the established “religion” in Cuba and of the Communist Party’s ban on religious people becoming members of the Party.

Pope John Paul II & Fidel
Mass in Plaza de Revolucion

In addition, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998 and celebrated mass before a huge crowd in Plaza de Revolucion (the site of many Revolutionary celebrations and long speeches by Fidel). The next year Cuban Protestants had a similar gathering in that Plaza.

Recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his planned visit to Cuba in 2012, and the Cuban government said that it would release many political prisoner

Fidel & Patriarch @ Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Greek Orthodox Cathedral,Havana
Patriarch & Fidel mosaic @ Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Havana

In 2004, during my second visit to Cuba, Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church was in Havana for the dedication of the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral that was paid for by the Cuban government.

These developments, in my opinion, were real politik moves by the Cuban government to gain international allies to help combat el Gringos de Norte.

In short, Revolutionary Cuba has made life very difficult for churches and religious people, especially from 1959 through 1989. On the other hand, there were no assassinations or disappearances of priests or other religious people who were opposed to the regime like what happened in El Salvador.

Pursuant to statutory authorization the U.S. government and a quasi-independent U.S. commission have been releasing annual reports on religious freedom in the world that have been very critical of such freedom in Cuba. These reports will be discussed in a subsequent post.

This then is the historical context in which Westminster initiated its partnership with the church in Matanzas in 2002, a relationship that has grown and become more meaningful for the people of both churches. A future post will discuss our Cuban partnership.


[1] See Post: Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (April 6, 2011).

[2]  In the “Tag Cloud” at the top right of my blog, click on “Cuba” to look at the posts about Cuba.