Wall Street Journal Supports U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba’s Links with Venezuela

On January 24 a Wall Street Journal editorial criticized Nicolas Maduro’s record in Venezuela and opined that the “crucial but underreported question now is whether dictator Nicolás Maduro’s protectors in Cuba and Russia will intervene to stop this democratic uprising.” (Emphasis added.) [1]

Cuba, says the editorial, is a key player in this drama because it “controls Mr. Maduro’s personal security detail and has built a counterintelligence network around the high command.” Thus, nations “that want better for Venezuela should focus as much on Havana as Caracas. If civilized countries want to end the starvation and mass migration of Venezuelans, they have to convince the Cuban regime to back off. That means targeting Havana with diplomatic pressure, as well as sanctions such as travel restrictions and frozen bank accounts.” (Emphases added.)

“The U.S. needs to make clear that if Mr. Maduro or his paramilitaries act against Americans, the Administration will hold Cuba responsible.” (Emphasis added.)

This essentially is the same message that Secretary of State Pompeo delivered to the Organization of American States on January 24 as reported in a prior post.

A New York Times’ editorial criticized the Maduro record and welcomed his leaving power, but recognized that “American intervention also carries risk . . . . [and] “[a]ny military intervention [by the U.S.] could prove catastrophic, especially if Russia, the primary arms supplier to Venezuela, stepped in.” The Times, however, had no harsh rhetoric towards Cuba with respect to Venezuela.[2]

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[1] Editorial, Cuba Out of Venezuela (Jan. 24, 2019). See also Editorial, Revolt in Venezuela (Jan. 23, 2019).

[2] Editorial, Venezuela; Between Maduro and a Hard Place, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secretary of State Pompeo Criticizes Cuba for Supporting Venezuela’s Maduro     

On January 24 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a lengthy address at the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States denouncing Nicolas Maduro’s reign in Venezuela and defending the U.S. recognition of National Assembly President Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela.[1]

Toward the end of his remarks, Pompeo said the following:

  • “Our support for Venezuela’s democratic hopes and dreams is in sharp contrast to the authoritarian regimes across the globe who have lined up to prop up former President Maduro. And there is no regime which has aided and abetted Maduro’s tyranny like the one in Havana. Maduro’s illegitimate rule was for years sustained by an influx of Cuban security and intelligence officials. They schooled Venezuela’s secret police in the dark arts of torture, repression, and citizen control. Maduro was a fine student at the Cuban academy of oppression.” (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately this statement is consistent with the Trump Administration’s increasingly harsh rhetoric against Cuba.

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[1] State Dep’t, [Pompeo] Remarks at the Organization of American States (Jan. 24, 2019); OAS, Regular Meeting of the Permanent Council, January 24th, 2019.

U.S. Withdraws from U.N. Human Rights Council 

On June 19 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced that the U.S. had “withdrawn” from its membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council.[1] The Council’s current President, Ambassador Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) immediately responded to this news.

Secretary Pompeo’s Remarks

“The Trump administration is committed to protecting and promoting the God-given dignity and freedom of every human being. Every individual has rights that are inherent and inviolable. They are given by God, and not by government. Because of that, no government must take them away.”

“For decades, the United States has led global efforts to promote human rights, often through multilateral institutions. While we have seen improvements in certain human rights situations, for far too long we have waited while that progress comes too slowly or in some cases never comes. Too many commitments have gone unfulfilled.”

“President Trump .. . has called out institutions or countries who say one thing and do another. And that’s precisely the problem at the . . . Council. As President Trump said at the UN General Assembly: “It is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the . . . Council.” In short, the Council now “is a poor defender of human rights.”

It “has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy – with many of the world’s worst human rights abuses going ignored, and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself.” Those members include “authoritarian governments with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records, such as China, Cuba, and Venezuela.” In addition, the Council’s “bias against Israel is unconscionable. Since its creation, the council has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than against the rest of the world combined.”

Moreover, the U.S. “will not take lectures form hypocritical bodies and institution as Americans selflessly give their blood and treasure to help the defenseless.”

 Ambassador Haley’s Remarks

The Ambassador recalled her speech to the Council in June 2017 that “declared our intent to remain a part of the . . . Council if essential reforms were achieved.. . . to make the council a serious advocate for human rights.”[2]

She then provided details on how the U.S. since then unsuccessfully has endeavored to obtain such reforms. Therefore, the U.S. “is officially withdrawing from the . . . Council.”

The details of the failure of reform included: (a) the U.N. General Assembly last Fall electing as a Council member the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which “is widely known to have one of the worst human rights records in the world;” (b) the Council would not hold “a meeting on the human rights conditions in Venezuela” because it is a Council member; (c) early this year the Council passed five resolutions against Israel; (d) the U.S. effort to reform the Council was blocked by “unfree countries,” including “Russia, China, Cuba, and Egypt;” and (e) “many members that share U.S. values “were unwilling to seriously challenge the status quo.”

In contrast, she said, under U.S. leadership the U.N. Security Council this past 12 months held its “first ever . . . session dedicated to the connection between human rights and peace and security” and another session on “Iranian human rights.” In addition, last year the U.S. organized “an event on Venezuela outside the Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva.” And the Ambassador herself has traveled “to UN refugee and internally displaced persons camps in Ethiopia, Congo, Turkey, and Jordan, and met with the victims of atrocities in those troubled regions.”

Council President Šuc’s Statement[3]

“While I recognize it is the prerogative of any member State to take such a decision [to withdraw], I wish to acknowledge that the United States has been a very active participant at the Council having engaged constructively on numerous issues aimed at improving the lives of rights holders around the globe, including the many issues which we are addressing in our current session. The Human Rights Council always stands to benefit from constructive engagement of its member States.”

“In times when the value and strength of multilateralism and human rights are being challenged on a daily basis, it is essential that we uphold a strong and vibrant Council recognizing it as a central part of the United Nations for the 21st century.”

“Over the past 12 years, the . . . Council has tackled numerous human rights situations and issues keeping them in sharp focus.  In many senses, the Council serves as an early warning system by sounding the alarm bells ahead of impending or worsening crises.  Its actions lead to meaningful results for the countless human rights victims worldwide, those the Council serves.”

“The . . . Council is the only intergovernmental body responding to human rights issues and situations worldwide, with the active participation of civil society.  It provides a unique setting to hear a wide range of views, including those which other organizations are unable or unwilling to discuss.”

Conclusion

I disagree with the U.S. decision to withdraw from its membership on the Council for several reasons.

First, the Human Rights Council does not have the power to order any Council member or any other U.N. member to do anything. Instead it is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and [making] recommendations on them. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention.” In short, it is a forum for discussion or debate on these issues, and the U.S. has an important voice to raise on these issues.

Second, there are 47 Council members, and although the U.S. correctly points out that some members have horrible human rights records, there is no claim that such countries constitute a majority of the Council. Moreover, no country in the world has a perfect record on these issues, including the U.S.

Third, all Council members, including the bad actors, are subject to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) every five years. A mere summary of the latest UPRs for the countries mentioned by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Haley shows that each of them received many recommendations for improving their human rights records, thereby negating or diminishing the notion advanced by these two U.S. officials that those with poor records escape censure by the Council.[4]

Fourth, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has the authority and responsibility to provide the Council with his or her assessment of human rights concerns in the world. The current High Commission did just that on June 18 (the day before the previously mentioned U.S. decision to withdraw from the Council).[5] In so doing he had critical comments about  seven of the nine countries identified by Pompeo and Haley as having bad human rights records (China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela).

Fifth, the High Commissioner had these critical fact-based criticisms of    Israel and the U.S., which both countries should be willing and able to evaluate on their merits:

  • “Israel continues to deny access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. This has been the case for three successive holders of the mandate. Access has also been denied to all of the Council’s previous Commissions of Inquiry, including on Gaza in 2014. I believe the Council’s advocacy of impartial monitoring and expert recommendations is entirely justified by the gravity of the situation, and I urge Israel to provide access to all human rights mechanisms – including the investigative body mandated last month – to enable impartial monitoring and advance accountability and justice.” (Emphasis in original.)
  • “In the United States, I am deeply concerned by recently adopted policies which punish children for their parents’ actions. In the past six weeks, nearly two thousand children have been forcibly separated from their parents. The American Association of Pediatrics has called this cruel practice ‘government-sanctioned child abuse’ which may cause ‘irreparable harm,’ with ‘lifelong consequences’. The thought that any State would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable. I call on the [U.S.] to immediately end the practice of forcible separation of these children, and I encourage the Government to at last ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in order to ensure that the fundamental rights of all children, whatever their administrative status, will be at the center of all domestic laws and policies.” (Emphasis in original.) [6]

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[1]  U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks on the UN Human Rights Council (June 19, 2018). The Council is made up of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The U.S. is in its second consecutive term ending  January 1, 2019.

[2] Haley, Remarks at the United Nations Human Rights Council (June 6, 2017); Haley, Remarks at the Graduate Institute of Geneva on “A Place for Conscience: the Future of the United States in the Human Rights Council” (June 6, 2017).

[3] Human Rts. Council, Press Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) (June 19, 2018)

[4] Human Rights Council: Report of the Working Group on the UPR-China (252 paragraphs of recommendations) (Dec. 4, 2013);Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Cuba (292 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 8, 2013); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Democratic Republic of Congo (229 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 7, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Ethiopia (252 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 7, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Iran (291 paragraphs of recommendations) (Dec. 22, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Jordan (173 paragraphs of recommendations) (Jan. 6, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Russian Federation (231 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 8, 2013);Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Turkey (278  paragraphs of recommendations) (April 13, 2015); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Venezuela (274  paragraphs of recommendations) (Dec. 27, 2016).

[5]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Opening statement and global update of human rights concerns by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Hussein at 38th session of the Human Rights Council (June 18, 2018).

[6] After a firestorm of criticism by the public and politicians from both major political parties, President Trump on June 20 signed an executive order ending the policy of separating immigrant children from their immigrant parents. (Haberman & Shear, Trump Signs Executive Order to Keep Families Together, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2018).)

 

 

A Pessimistic Assessment of Cuba’s Economic Future

Jorge G. Castañeda, the Foreign Minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003,[1] has rendered a pessimistic assessment of Latin American socialism, especially in Venezuela and Cuba.[2]

He starts with the assertion that the recent “Cubana de Aviación airliner’s crash in Havana . . . [was an] illustration of the utter bankruptcy of the 21st century socialism.” Later in the article he says, like “the Cuban economy, the plane was old, poorly maintained, leased by the national airline because it was the only one it could afford, and the rest of Cubana de Aviación’s domestic fleet had already been grounded.” (A subsequent article reported that Cubana de Aviación has suspended all domestic flights until September.[3])

Cuba, he says, “paid a heavy price for the initial, and perhaps enduring, successes of its revolution: education, health and dignity. But from the very beginning — with the exception of a few years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to Cuba in 1992 and the advent of Venezuelan support in 1999 — it always found someone to pay the bills. The next option was meant to be the United States. That no longer seems possible.”

Now, with a new president, Cuba “again faces enormous economic and social challenges. They stem from three problems with no solutions.”

“First, says Castañeda, is the fall of tourism from the United States and the new tough line on Cuba adopted by the Trump administration. Through March of this year, the number of visitors from the United States is down more than 40 percent compared with 2017. This is partly because of travel warnings over safety issued by Washington, partly because of new travel restrictions put in place by President Trump [[4]] and because after the initial boom of nostalgic tourism, Cuba is now competing for normal travelers with the rest of the Caribbean. Its beauty and charm do not easily outweigh other destinations’ far superior services and infrastructure, and lower prices. Today myriad start-up businesses — always thought to be too small and numerous to survive — that sprang up for United States visitors are failing as a result of falling tourism.” [5]

Second, according to Castańeda, “American sanctions and Cuban fear of economic reforms have rendered the push for greater foreign investment somewhat futile. After an initial rush of highly publicized announcements, some United States companies have proved reluctant to run risks, particularly given Mr. Trump’s hostility toward all things Obama, and his dependence on Florida for re-election.”

As a result, he continues, the Cuban “economy has stopped growing, scarcities have re-emerged and new opportunities for employment and hard-currency earnings are not appearing. If one adds to this the government’s decision to suspend new cuentapropista or private self-employment permits, it is no surprise to discover that economic prospects are dim.”

Third, “Venezuela is no longer able to subsidize Cuba’s transition to a Vietnam-style socialist economy the way it did before.” In short, Venezuela cannot now provide oil to Cuba at below-market prices and on credit and cannot pay for Cuban doctors, teachers and intelligence personnel, which has been a major source of Cuban export earnings.

Nevertheless, Venezuela is “Cuba’s only unconditional ally in the world.” Hence, the first foreign leader to visit Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, was Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, and Diaz-Canel returned the favor by making his first foreign visit to Venezuela.[6]

Now the U.S. is pressing for increased hemispheric sanctions against Venezuela with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 4 being expected to drop the next shoe in an address to the  General Assembly of the Organization of American States.[7] If any of those anticipated U.S. requests are met, this will increase the pressures on Cuba.

Conclusion

 In partial response to these issues, on June 2 Cuba started the process for revising its constitution with the agenda for an extraordinary session of its national legislature (the National Assembly of People’s Power) including approval of “the process to be followed in carrying out Constitutional Reform and the commission of deputies responsible for drafting and presenting the proposed Constitution of the Republic.”  This first step was the approval of a commission to prepare a draft of a revised constitution that will be headed by Raúl Castro, the former president, Diaz-Canel, the current president, and 31 others. Once the constitutional draft is ready, it is slated to be discussed first by the national legislature and then by the broader population, before being submitted to a referendum.[8]

One of the major anticipated challenges for drafting the new constitution will be validating private ownership of property and businesses while simultaneously upholding the “irrevocable nature of socialism.” Perhaps the selection of Castro as the chair of this constitutional commission is not as anti-economic reform as might appear to outsiders. After all Raúl first announced the need for a new constitution in 2011 after embarking on a series of reforms cautiously opening up the economy to foreign investment and the private sector in order to make Cuban socialism sustainable. And at the Communist Party’s Congress in 2016, Castro praised the innovations of the private sector and criticized the “outdated mentalities” and “inertia” of state-owned enterprises.[9]

Such a change will have to delete or modify a current constitutional clause forbidding Cubans from “obtaining income that comes from exploiting the work of others.” “According to Julio Perez, a political analyst and former news editor at state-run Radio Habana, said “Cuba has to make substantial changes to the constitution that endorse private property, self-employment and cooperatives as part of the Cuban economy.”

Simultaneously there are reports that the government is preparing decrees regarding norms for 2,386 Cooperatives of Credit and Services (CCS), 650 Cooperatives of Agricultural Production (CPA) and 1,084 Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC) operating in the agricultural sector and producing 92% of the island’s food.[10]

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[1] Castañeda now is Associated Professor of Public Service, New York University (NYU) Wagner; Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, NYU Faculty of Arts and Science. He also is a former member of the  board of Human Rights Watch and a noted author.

[2] Castañeda, The Bankruptcy of 21st Century Socialism, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018).

[3] Cubano de Aviación will maintain the suspension of domestic flights at least until September, Diario de Cuba (June 2, 2018).

[4] This blog has criticized the 2017 State Department’s urging Americans to reconsider traveling to Cuba because of the still unresolved medical problems experienced by some U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats in Havana and the U.S. cancellation of individual person-to-person travel to Cuba. (E.g., A New Travel Warning for Americans Traveling to Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 19, 2017); New U.S. Regulations Regarding U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Cuban Entitles, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 8, 2017).)

[5]  As this blog has reported, Cuba’s private sector was flourishing in 2015-2016, but has fallen into hard times as a result of new Cuban restrictions on such enterprises and the decline of American visitors, a result that should be contrary to the normal Republican promotion of entrepreneurship and of a potential challenge to Cuba’s socialism. (See., e.g., Why Is the Cuban Government Trying To Slow Down the Private Sector? dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2017).)

[6] E.g., Cuba’s New Leader Praises Maduro in ‘Solidarity’ Visit to Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 30, 2018); Why did Díaz-Canel make his first state visit as President to Venezuela?, Granma (June 1, 2018).

[7] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary of State Pompeo to Lead U.S. Delegation to the Organization of American States General Assembly (June 1, 2018).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Set to Launch Constitutional Rewrite to Reflect Reforms, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018); Raúl will lead the Commission in charge of the project of Constitution of the Republic (+ Video), Granma (June 2, 2018); Díaz-Canel: The new Constitution will take into account the principles of our political system, Granma (June 2, 2018); Deputies will continue meeting following extraordinary session, Granma (June 1, 2018); Romero, Constitutional Reform in Cuba: Priority for ANPP commissions, Cubadebate (June 2, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba Forms Commission to Update Soviet-Era Constitution, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018); Reuters, Raul Castro Appointed to Head Rewrite of Cuba Constitution, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2018).

[9] Raúl Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016); President Raúl Castro Affirms Importance of Cuba’s Private Sector, dwkcommentaries.com (July 18, 2017).

[10] The government prepares laws for Cuban agricultural cooperatives, producers of 92% of food, Diario de Cuba (June 2, 2018).

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department 

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. Department of State released its 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, which is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (“the Act”) and which details the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 foreign countries and describes U.S. actions and policies in support of religious freedom worldwide.[1]

The State Department says its “guiding principle [in preparing this report] is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible. Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports. To the extent possible, the reports use multiple sources to increase comprehensiveness and reduce potential for bias.”

At the report’s release, introductory remarks were made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a former Republican U.S. Representative from Kansas and Director of the CIA), followed by a briefing for journalists by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (a former Republican U.S. Senator and Governor of the State of Kansas). After reviewing these comments, the Report’s discussion of Cuba religious freedom will be covered.

Secretary Pompeo’s Introduction[2]

“This report is a testament to the United States’ historic role in preserving and advocating for religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom is in the American bloodstream. It’s what brought the pilgrims here from England. Our founders understood it as our first freedom. That is why they articulated it so clearly in the First Amendment. As James Madison wrote years before he was president or secretary of state, ‘conscience is the most sacred of all property.’ Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future.”

“Religious freedom is not only ours. It is a right belonging to every individual on the globe. President Trump stands with those who yearn for religious liberty. Our Vice President stands with them, and so do I.”

“Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests. Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press, and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability, and terrorism. On the other hand, governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable, and peaceful.”

“So for all of these reasons, protecting and promoting global respect for religious freedom is a priority of the Trump administration. As our National Security Strategy so clearly states: ‘Our Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as the gift of God to every person and a fundamental right for a flourishing society.’ We’re committed to promoting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future.”

“I am pleased to announce that the United States will host the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State on July 25th and 26th of this year. I look forward to hosting my counterparts from likeminded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

Ambassador Brownback’s Briefing[3]

The Ambassador mentioned that Eritrea, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, North Korea  and Iran were “Countries of Particular Concer” and that Pakistan, Russia and Burma also raised serious issues.

Report’s Executive Summary: Cuba Religious Freedom

“The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Communist Party, through the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted the government continued to use threats, travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers. In May the government officially informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) [4] noted 325 violations of freedom of religion or belief during the year. CSW reported a “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year compared with previous years, which it attributed to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of the decree outlawing the 2,000 AG churches. The majority of CSW’s reported violations were related to government efforts to prevent members of the human rights organization Ladies in White from attending Catholic Mass, as well as government threats and harassment of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Some leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year, pointing to progress made in a pending permit to build a permanent church structure, while some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for them.”” (Emphases added.)

“The Community of Sant’Egidio organized the Paths of Peace, an interreligious meeting, in Havana on October 4 and 5. Leaders of different religions and more than 500 participants attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of welcoming and integrating migrants regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.”

“U.S. embassy officials met with ORA officials to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and encourage equal treatment in allowing nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-recognized organization with close ties to the government and comprising most Protestant groups, to discuss its operations and programs. The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities. Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Santeria, and various Protestant communities. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

The Report’s Comments About Cuban Government Practices[5]

Religious organizations and human rights groups stated the government continued to threaten, detain, and use violence against outspoken religious figures, especially those advocating for human rights and religious freedom or collaborating with independent human rights groups. Security forces took measures, including detentions sometimes accompanied by violence, which inhibited the ability of members of the protest group Ladies in White to attend Catholic Mass. Some members of independent evangelical Christian churches said government authorities closely monitored and detained, for unspecified periods of time, their leadership and family members. Representatives of the Patmos Institute, a religious freedom advocacy organization, said authorities also targeted Christians affiliated with the institute, including through threats, detentions, and expulsions from school and work. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build the first new church built in the country since 1959.”

“Some high level Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious leaders stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year; however, some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for their groups. CSW’s annual report stated church leaders from all denominations reported consistent harassment and surveillance from state security and officials responsible for religious affairs. It also stated the government continued to severely restrict public religious events. The CSW report counted 325 violations during the year, compared with 2,380 violations in 2016 and over 2,300 violations in 2015. In its report CSW stated the “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year, compared with previous years, was due to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of a decree that had outlawed 2,000 AG churches. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build a new Catholic church in Pinar del Rio Province – the first new church built in the country since 1959.” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, human rights activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez reported state security agents raided the home of Misael Diaz Paseiro on October 22 and confiscated two Bibles, a number of crucifixes and five rosaries. On November 4, police reportedly beat Diaz, tore his rosaries from his neck, and said ‘in addition to being a counterrevolutionary, you are also a Christian. You should look at us – we are revolutionaries and we don’t believe in your god. Our god is Fidel Castro.’ Diaz was imprisoned on November 22 and reportedly denied visits from a priest and access to a Bible. The Christian Post reported the government charged Diaz with ‘pre-criminal dangerousness’ and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison.” (Emphasis added.)

“Reverend Juan Carlos Nunez Velazquez, an Apostolic Movement leader, lost an appeal on February 1 to overturn his sentence of one year under house arrest. Police arrested Nunez in 2016 for disturbing the peace because he failed to comply with police orders to reduce the size and volume of the speakers he used during Sunday sermons at his open-air church.”

“According to CSW, in February authorities twice interrogated an Eastern Baptist Convention pastor about his work, members of his congregation, and the activities of his church. The authorities also threatened to confiscate the property; however, at year’s end, the government had taken no action against the church.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW and news sources, on April 27, airport authorities detained and interrogated Felix Yuniel Llerena Lopez, a 20-year-old student and evangelical Christian and religious freedom activist, upon his return to the country. The authorities informed Llerena Lopez he was being investigated for planning terrorist acts, possessing pornographic materials, and meeting with “terrorist” Cuban exiles opposed to the government. The authorities briefly detained Lopez’s mother, expelled Llerena Lopez from the university where he was a part-time student, and banned him from international travel. On October 2, authorities informed Llerena Lopez he would not be charged with any crimes and rescinded his travel ban; however, the university had not reinstated him at year’s end. CSW quoted Llerena Lopez as saying, ‘After five months of opposition, arrests, being expelled from university, intimidation, threats, and a false accusation, today I can say that solidarity and the dignity of not giving up on principles … triumphed.’” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, on November 6, police arrested and briefly detained Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso, a local Patmos coordinator in Santa Clara, without charges. CSW sources said on April 11, Rodriguez’s daughter, Dalila Rodriguez Gonzalez, was fired from her position as a university professor for not being ‘a good influence on students’ and because she ‘could damage their formation.’  According to Rodriguez Alonso, his daughter’s dismissal was revenge for his religious freedom advocacy.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, police physically assaulted members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, while they were en route to attend religious ceremonies. On February 19, CSW reported that a police officer punched in the face Ladies in White member Magda Onelvis Mendoza Diaz as she was going to church. On August 13, a police officer in Havana reportedly choked Berta Soler Fernandez, and officers detained her for 24 hours; they subsequently released her without charge.” (Emphases added.)

“According to representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought legal recognition, the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the MOJ to deny the registration of certain religious groups. If the MOJ decided a group was duplicating the activities of another, it denied recognition. In some cases, the MOJ delayed the request for registration or cited changing laws as a reason why a request had not been approved.”

“According to the members of Protestant denominations, some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of ‘house churches’ in private homes; however, most unregistered house churches continued to operate with little or no government interference. A number of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official recognition, some dating as far back as 1994. These groups said the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make substantial renovations to their facilities, and send representatives abroad. They also said state security continued to monitor their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.”

“According to CSW sources, on September 14, police disrupted an interdenominational Christian service in Santiago; local authorities had previously approved the service. Local authorities said the service was ‘counterrevolutionary’ and threatened to imprison event organizer Pastor Ernesto Lora if he organized a similar event in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, on April 3, authorities in Las Tunas fined Reverend Mario Travieso of the Apostolic Church 1,500 pesos ($1,500) for building a wall next to his church that the authorities considered too high even though he had received written approval from his neighbors. Prior to imposing the fine, authorities had inspected his house in response to a noise complaint; they told him not to pray or sing with neighboring families.” (Emphasis added.)

“Many religious leaders continued to state they refrained from speaking about overtly political topics. Some said they feared criticizing the government could lead to denials of permits from the ORA, dismantling of religious buildings, or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups. The nongovernmental organization Outreach Aid to the Americas (OAA) reported some instances in which evangelical Christians not supporting Communist Party political activities experienced harassment and threats from government employers and educators.”

“According to the OAA, the Central University in Santa Clara expelled an 18-year-old student after he began attending Christian group meetings at the university. The OAA said university officials told the student he was expelled because his beliefs ‘were not compatible with the philosophy taught at the university.’”

“The OAA said from October 2016 to April 2017, the supervisors of an employee in a government-run company in Taguasco reportedly threatened the employee with termination after learning he had joined a Christian church in 2016. The man reported his harassment and threats to his pastor in April.”

The OAA stated in April school administrators had threatened to expel a 17-year-old student “enrolled in a pre-university course at the Ernesto Che Guevara Institute of Santa Clara if he continued to participate in Christian group meetings.”

“In May the government informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect.”

“Many religious groups continued to use private homes as house churches to work around restrictions on constructing new buildings. Protestant leaders’ estimates of the total number of house churches for Protestant groups varied significantly, from fewer than 2,000 to as many as 10,000. Religious groups said authorities approved many applications within two to three years from the date of the application, but either did not respond to or denied other applications arbitrarily.”

“Representatives from both the Catholic Church and the CCC [Cuban Council of Churches] said they continued to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in some provinces. The Protestant seminary in Matanzas and churches in Pinar del Rio continued to train chaplains and laypersons to provide religious counseling for prison inmates and to provide support for their families. The CCC continued to operate a training facility it opened in 2016, at which it offered courses on chaplain work as well as courses on caring for sacred religious objects, gender and women’s issues, and seminars for international students.”

“Representatives of religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad generally unimpeded to participate in exchanges between local and international faith-based communities.”

“The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services. According to local observers, in September authorities prohibited a Baptist journalist from traveling with an interfaith group of religious and civil society activists and journalists to a human rights training seminar in Brazil. The journalist’s employer reportedly accused the journalist of selling secret information and of committing treason. Several independent journalists and bloggers reported an increase in government harassment and prohibitions of travel of individuals who questioned government policies.”

“Some religious leaders reported obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic challenges and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. Several groups said they could import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods. The Catholic Church and several Protestant religious group representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.”

“By year’s end, the government had not granted the Archbishop of Havana’s 2016 public request to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcast on television and radio. The ORA authorized the CCC to host a monthly radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country. No other churches had access to media, which are all state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to protest the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.”

“The ORA stated in August the law on associations was being revised, although it did not provide a timeline for when the revisions would be finalized, nor what the changes would be. Members of the AG continued to request the government pass reforms to the law that would validate and legalize the property the church owned, as well as allow the church to build new temples.”

“Several religious leaders said the ORA continued to grant new permits to repair or restore existing buildings, allowing the expansion of some structures and in some cases the construction of essentially new buildings on the foundations of the old. In August an ORA source stated the ORA had granted permission in 2015 for the Catholic Church to build an entirely new church on newly acquired ground in Pinar del Rio Province. The media reported in 2017 the construction was almost complete. Some religious leaders stated the government regularly granted permits to buy properties to be used as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there. Other religious groups stated securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”

T”he government continued to prevent religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however the government did not recognize any of these degrees.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses remained ineligible for professional careers in the fields of law, medicine, among others.”

“Church leaders reported the government continued an unofficial practice of allowing civilian public service to substitute for mandatory military service for those who objected on religious grounds. Church leaders submitted official letters to a military committee, which decided whether to grant these exemptions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated their members generally were permitted to perform social service in lieu of military service.”

“Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas. They cited a measure that prohibited churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations, and required existing individual accounts used in this way to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. Larger, better organized churches reported more success in receiving large donations, while smaller, less formal churches reported difficulties with banking procedures. According to these religious leaders, the regulations allowed the government to curb the scope and number of activities of individual churches and to single out groups that could be held accountable for withdrawing money intended for purposes not approved by the government.”

“Religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs, including assisting the elderly, providing potable water to small towns, growing and selling fruits and vegetables at below-market prices, and establishing health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas in particular was very involved in gathering and distributing hurricane relief items.”

“According to the Western Baptist Convention (WBC), on July 6, members of a family that occupied a Havana property owned by the WBC more than 30 years ago broke into the WBC’s new office adjacent to where the family lived. The family reportedly stole the WBC’s documents, computers, furniture, and other property and refused to return it to the WBC. The ORA took no action, despite WBC’s requests for ORA’s intervention. In 1992, a court ruled the family’s residency in the property was illegal but did not require the family to leave.”

Conclusion

The Act requires the Secretary of State to make annual designations of counties that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” as “Countries of Particular Concern,” and on December 22, 2017, then Secretary Rex Tillerson so designated these 10 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all of which in this Report are so identified.[6]

The Report’s discussion about Cuba surprisingly did not mention the recent annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and instead heavily relied on the annual report of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which seems contrary to the Department’s stated desire to have multiple sources of information. Further research and a separate blog post about CSW seem necessary and then an overall evaluation of these reports about Cuba religious freedom.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 (May 29, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Five things To Know About This Year’s International Religious Freedom Report Release (May 29, 2018); Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018). Earlier reports on international religious freedom by the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are identified in the “Cuban Human Rights” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA. /

[2]  U.S. State Dep’t, Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[4] Christian Solidarity World claims that it it is independent of any government or political persuasion and says it has a “specialist team of advocates work on over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, to ensure everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief is defended, protected and promoted. Our vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone has the right to practice their religion or belief freely.” Its main office appears to be in London with other offices in Brussels, Belgium; Edinburgh, U.K.; Washington, D.C.; Casper, WY, U.S.; and Kaduna, Nigeria. In April 2017 the U.N. granted CSW  Consultative Status allowing it to participate in certain U.N. activities. Its Founder and Chief Executive is Mervyn Thomas, a member of the World Assemblies of God Religious Freedom Commission. (See Thomas, One Church, One Prayer; Williams, Christian Solidarity Worldwide gets UN recognition after lengthy wait (April 20, 2017).)

[5] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017—Cuba (May 29, 2018).

[6] Compare U.S. State Dep’t,  Designations Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Jan. 4, 2018)   with Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (May 28, 2018).  The six additional countries so designated by the Commission were Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.