Recent U.S.-Cuba Developments 

Here are updates on several U.S.-Cuba issues.

U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission Meeting[1]

On June 14 in Washington, D.C., the U.S. and Cuba held their seventh meeting of the  Bilateral Commission that was started by the Obama Administration and Cuba.

Afterwards the State Department said the two parties “reviewed . . . areas for engagement that advance the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people including combatting trafficking in persons; facilitating safe civil aviation; law enforcement cooperation; agricultural cooperation; maritime safety and search and rescue cooperation; resolution of certified claims;[2] advancing understanding of environmental challenges; and protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.]”

The State Department also said, “The [U.S.] reiterated the urgent need to identify the source of the attacks on U.S. diplomats and to ensure they cease. We also reiterated that until it is sufficiently safe to fully staff our Embassy, we will not be able to provide regular visa services in Havana. We expressed our continued concerns about the arbitrary detention of independent journalists and human rights defenders. The [U.S.] acknowledged progress in repatriating Cubans with final orders of removal from the [U.S.], but emphasized Cuba needs to accept greater numbers of returnees.” The U.S. also voiced concern about the “arbitrary detention of independent journalists and human rights defenders” in Cuba.

“Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, the top Cuban official at [this meeting], told The Associated Press that his delegation had “challenged the U.S. on the use of the word ‘attack.’ “There is no evidence of a weapon, there is no evidence of a source, nobody can point to motivation and yet they continue to use the word ‘attack.’ We see it as politically motivated.’” He also noted that neither American nor Cuban experts had been able to determine what caused the symptoms. He renewed concerns that the Trump administration is using the incidents as an excuse to roll back U.S.-Cuba rapprochement started under the Obama administration.

This objection to the U.S. verbiage for this problem was reiterated in a statement by the Cuba Foreign Ministry. “The Cuban delegation urged the government of the [U.S.] to desist from the continued political manipulation of the alleged health cases, which became the pretext to adopt new unilateral measures that affect the performance of the respective embassies, in particular, the rendering of consular services depended upon by hundreds of thousands of persons.” Cuba also raised its objection to the U.S. “travel warning” for Cuba, saying it “hinders the scientific, academic, cultural, religious and entrepreneurial exchanges, as well as the visits by Americans to a country that is internationally recognized as safe and healthy.”

The Cuba Foreign Ministry statement added, “The Cuban delegation rebuffed the regress in the bilateral relationship imposed by the government of the [U.S.] and called attention on the negative consequences thereof for both peoples, the Cuban emigration and the international and regional environment. The Cuban delegation reiterated that the economic, commercial and financial blockade continues to be the main obstacle to any perspective of improvement in the bilateral relationship and denounced its intensification with the adoption, in particular, of additional financial measures of aggressive extraterritorial nature.” Another Cuban objection was registered to what it said were U.S. actions, which were “intended interference in the internal affairs of Cuba, with the open manipulation of the human rights issue, which is flagrantly, massively and systematically violated with the implementation of the blockade.”

The Cuban Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, acknowledged “that it has been demonstrated that it is possible to cooperate and live in a civilized manner, by respecting differences and promoting that which benefits both countries and peoples. It expressed Cuba’s willingness to continue the bilateral dialogue and to work on issues of common interest through the active implementation, based on concrete proposals, of the bilateral agreements subscribed as those on environmental protection, law enforcement, health, agriculture, hydrography and geodesy, among others.”

Finally the State Department announced that the parties had “agreed to hold the next rounds of the biannual Migration Talks and the Law Enforcement Dialogue this summer.”

Another source mentioned that since Trump took office, the two countries have met around two dozen times on topics such as migration, public health, combating illicit drugs, environmental protection, law enforcement, agriculture, people smuggling and migration fraud, fugitives from justice, cyber-security, anti-money laundering, human trafficking, maritime safety, civil aviation and human rights.

Overall Evaluation of U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Trump[3]

Mimi Whitefield, who closely follows Cuban developments for the Miami Herald, notes that U.S.-Cuba relations appear to be stalled since President Trump gave his speech in Miami announcing retreats on U.S. engagement with Cuba.

However, she points out, the Havana-based “Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 5,155 such cases last year, compared to 8,616 and 9,940 during the last two years of the Obama administration.” And in May 2018 they fell to 128, the lowest monthly total in three years, which may have been affected by “factors that affected Cubans’ activism: Poor weather conditions kept many people indoors, Cubans were preoccupied and took more time trying to find food and other staples, transportation was difficult, and the deaths of 112 people in a May 18 airline crash left the nation shell-shocked.”

Whitefield also states that the U.S. List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated With Cuba as of November 9, 2017, with which U.S. persons are not to have any dealings, has not been updated and does not even include all the hotels run by Cuba’s military conglomerate, and Americans still have the option of staying at hotel chains operated by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.

U.S. visitors to the island declined 56.6% in the first quarter of 2018 versus the prior year, with enormous adverse impact on Cuba’s emerging private sector. “Cuban entrepreneurs complain that the confusing U.S. travel policy has hurt them disproportionally because individual travelers tend to stay with them rather than at state-owned hotels. Business, some say, is down 30 to 40 percent because U.S. travel in general is down.”

On the other hand, says John McAuliffe, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which promotes engagement between Cuba and the U.S., “there is one form of travel to Cuba that is booming and that is cruises, and most of the revenue from the cruise industry goes to the state. With cruise terminal fees, buses, tours, and cruise passengers eating at mostly state restaurants, it’s channeling more money to official circles.”

Expansion of Bipartisan State Councils Supporting  Engagement with Cuba[4]

 On June 12, Engage Cuba, a bipartisan coalition promoting U.S. engagement with Cuba, announced that there are now 18 states with bipartisan state councils supporting these efforts. The latest is Pennsylvania, which like the others will seek to build statewide support for pro-engagement policies and ending U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

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

[1] U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Seventh Bilateral Commission Meeting (June 14, 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Seventh Meeting of the Cuba-United States Bilateral Commission held in Washington, D.C, (June 14, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Renews Call for Cuba to Probe Cause of Health ‘Attack,’ N.Y.Times (June 14, 2018); The US urges the Government of Cuba to identify the origin of attacks on diplomats, Diario de Cuba (June 14, 2018).

[2] The “certified claims” probably refers to claims against Cuba by U.S. nationals for their claims for compensation for Cuba’s expropriation of their property on the island in 1959-1960 that were certified by the U.S. Department of Justice. See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (April 6, 2015); Resolving U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims (Dec. 13, 2015).

[3]  Whitefield, Has President Trump’s year-old Cuba policy helped the Cuban people? Miami Herald (June 14, 2018).

[4]   Engage Cuba, Pennsylvania Leaders Launch Engage Cuba State Council (June 12, 2018).

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on Morocco’s Religious Freedom Record in 2017

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. State Department released its report on religious freedom in every country of the world for 2017.[1]

Here is its Executive Summary for Morocco’s religious freedom record in 2017:[2]

  • “The constitution declares the country to be a Muslim state with full sovereignty and that Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says that the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits undermining the faith or enticing a Muslim to convert to another religion. According to human rights organizations and local Christian leaders, the government detained and questioned some Christian citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians. Christian and Shia Muslim citizens stated fears of government harassment led to their decision to hold religious meetings in members’ homes. Foreign clergy said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches out of fear they could be criminally charged with proselytism. Some Christian citizens reported authorities pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith. On at least two occasions during the year, the government expelled foreign individuals accused of proselytism as “a threat to public order,” rather than prosecuting them under provisions of the law that prohibit “undermining the faith.” Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported government rejection of their registration requests. In May Spanish media reported the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs used the term “virus” when referring to Christians and Shia Muslims in the country. Some religious minority groups, such as the Bahai community, practiced their religion without formal registration. In October media reported that authorities prevented the Bahai community from publicly celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of the faith’s founder. The authorities introduced new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.”
  • Some Christian, Bahai, and Shia Muslims reported societal, familial, and cultural pressure on account of their faith. Passersby reportedly attacked at least one individual during Ramadan for eating in public during fasting hours.”
  • “The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officers, and other S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.” (Emphases added.)

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

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

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Morocco (May 29, 2018).

 

U.S. State Department’s Opinion on Morocco’s Human Rights Record in 2017     

On April 20, 2018, the U.S. Department of State released its annual report on human rights in every country in the world. [1]

Here is the very short Executive Summary of its report about Morocco’s human rights record in 2017:[2]

  • “Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary national legislative system under which ultimate authority rests with King Mohammed VI, who presides over the Council of Ministers. The king shares executive authority with the Head of Government (prime minister) Saadeddine El Othmani. According to the constitution, the king appoints the head of government from the political party with the most seats in parliament and approves members of the government nominated by the head of government. International and domestic observers judged the 2016 parliamentary elections credible and relatively free from irregularities.”
  • “Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.”
  • ‘The most significant human rights issues included reports that security forces used techniques that may have constituted torture in some cases, although the government was taking steps to eliminate the practice; allegations that there were political prisoners; limits on freedom of expression, including criminalization of certain political and religious content; limits on freedom of assembly and association; and corruption.”
  • “There were few examples of investigations or prosecutions of human rights abuses by officials, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, which contributed to the widespread perception of impunity.”

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

[1]  U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017 (April 20, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018).

[2]  U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017: Morocco  (April 20, 2018).

 

U.S. Establishes Task force To Coordinate Response to Health Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba and China 

On May 23, the U.S. State Department established the Health Incidents Response Task Force to coordinate a response to unexplained health problems affecting some diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba and in China.[1]

As the Department’s press release stated, this group will “direct a multi-agency response to the unexplained health incidents that have affected a number of U.S. government personnel and family members stationed overseas” and coordinate “Department and interagency activities, including identification and treatment of affected personnel and family members, investigation and risk mitigation, messaging, and diplomatic outreach.” This Task Force “includes interagency partners, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Justice, Defense and Energy, as well as other members of the foreign affairs community.”

As has been noted in previous posts, 24 U.S. personnel and family members who had served in Cuba have been “medically-confirmed as having symptoms and clinical findings similar to those noted following concussion or minor traumatic brain injury.[2] In addition, on May 16, 2018, “a U.S. government employee serving in China was medically-confirmed with similar findings.”

This Task Force, at least initially, ignores the recent request by an eminent Cuban scientist for the creation of a joint task force of Canadian, Cuban and U.S. scientists and medical personnel to conduct an investigation of these medical issues.[3]

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

[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Establishment of the Health Incidents Response Task Force (June 5, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Sets Up Task force Over Unexplained Diplomatic Heath Incidents, N.Y. Times (June 5, 2018).

[2] Previous posts about the medical incidents of U.S. diplomats in Cuba may be found in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[3] Cuban Scientist Calls for U.S., Canada and Cuba Joint Investigation of Medical Problems of U.S. and Canadian Diplomats in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (May 30, 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.

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

[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.

 

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom   

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic,  or ongoing, or egregious.”[1]

Commission’s Key Findings About Cuba[2]

According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:

  • “The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
  • “Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
  • “The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
  • “While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
  • “The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
  • “Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
  • “In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”

Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government[3]

The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:

  1. “Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
  2. “Press the Cuban government to:
  • “Stop harassment of religious leaders;
  • End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
  • End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
  • Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
  • Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
  • Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
  • Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
  • Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
  1. “Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
  2. “Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
  3. “Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
  4. “Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

Conclusion

On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world.[4] Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.

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

[1] U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain,  Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).

[2]  2018 Annual Report at 148-53.

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018).

 

Discussion About Cuba at the Washington Conference on the Americas

On May 8 the U.S. Department of State hosted the Americas Society’s Council of the Americas’ 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas with U.S. administration senior officials and distinguished leaders from across the Americas to focus on the major policy issues affecting the hemisphere..[1]

The speakers at this event were Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley; U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Benjamin Sasse (Rep., NE); other U.S. State Government officials (U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs, David Malpass; U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, Ted McKinney; U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri) plus Brazilian Ministry of Finance Secretary for International Affairs Marcello Estevão; and International Finance Corporation Chief Executive Officer Philippe Le Houérou.

The bulk of the comments were directed at combatting corruption and at criticizing Venezuela and then at Nicaragua with only a few barbs at Cuba, as discussed below.

Acting Secretary Sullivan’s Remarks[2]

Acting Secretary Sullivan said, “Our engagement in the Americas, of course, is not a recent phenomenon. Since the birth of our republic, the United States has had strong relationships in the Western Hemisphere, bonds built on geography, shared values, and robust economic ties. We strive to coexist peacefully and to do so in a mutually beneficial way.”

The U.S. “Caribbean 2020 strategy is increasing private sector investment in the Caribbean, promoting Caribbean energy security, and building resilience to natural disasters. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative seeks to enhance maritime interdictions, build institutions, counter corruption, and foster cooperation to protect our shared borders from the impact of transnational crime.”

“Threats to the hemisphere occur on a number of other complex fronts, requiring coordinated and sophisticated responses. Whether building capacity to counter cyber threats, supporting de-mining in Colombia, or combating trafficking in persons, the United States is committed to being the security partner of choice for the Americas in the years ahead.”

“The United States is the top trading partner for over half of the 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere. Annually, we trade $1.8 trillion in goods and services with the hemisphere, supporting millions of jobs and leading to an $8 billion surplus in goods and services in 2017.”

“Underpinning our economic engagement is respect for the rule of law and shared values. Corruption both undermines and corrodes the confidence our citizens have in democratic institutions.”

“Finally, we must keep working together to ensure that the people in this hemisphere can live according to democratic values. . . . While most of the region enjoys democratic rule, a few outliers – Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – continue to undermine the region’s shared vision for effective democratic governance as enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” (Emphasis added.)

The United States remains committed to championing freedom and to standing with the people of Venezuela and Cuba in their struggle to achieve the liberty they deserve. . . . We look to our partners – including governments and civil society organizations – to join us in speaking up whenever and wherever the hemisphere’s shared democratic principles come under attack.” (Emphasis added.)

U.S. Ambassador Haley’s Remarks[3]

“I am here today because the Trump Administration places a high priority on the Western Hemisphere, its security, its prosperity, and its freedom. And we recognize that the United States must reassert our leadership in the hemisphere.”

“I have seen time and time again at the United Nations that when the United States fails to lead, we suffer, and the world suffers. This is even more true in our relationships with other nations. There is no substitute for strong U.S. leadership, based on our values of political and economic freedom and respect for human rights.”

“The prosperity of the United States is critically tied to the prosperity of the hemisphere. Our future is bound up with our neighbors.”

“Among other things, we are each other’s largest and best trading partners. The United States sells more goods and services to our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere than we do to China, Japan, and India combined. While a lot of attention is placed on issues of trade with China, we should keep in mind that we trade nearly three times as much with the Western Hemisphere as we do with China.”

“We are also dependent on each other for our security.”

“And the principle that ties it all together is something else the United States has in common with most of our neighbors in the hemisphere – a commitment to freedom. . . . The western hemisphere is increasingly dominated by countries that share our political and economic principles.”

“The great human rights activist Natan Sharansky had a test for evaluating the freedom of societies that he called the “Town Square Test.” According to Sharansky, if someone can walk into a town square and express his or her views without being arrested, thrown in prison, or beaten, then they lived in a free society. If not, they lived in what he called a ‘fear society.’”

“As we look across the Americas, it’s pretty easy to tell the free societies from the fear societies. It’s a testament to the people of Latin America – and the love of freedom and dignity that exists in the human heart – that most of the hemisphere is free.”

“Across Latin America, the good news is that these challenges are increasingly dealt with through a commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions. The region is far from perfection, but the progress is unmistakable.”

The democratic process  “has exposed the rot at the core of the Nicaraguan government. Like his patron in Caracas and his mentors in Havana, the Ortega government has stayed in power by rigging elections, intimidating critics, and censoring the media.” (Emphasis added.)

The Cuban-Venezuelan-Nicaraguan model of socialism, dictatorship, corruption, and gross human rights violations has proved to be a complete and total failure. It has caused the suffering of millions of people. (Emphasis added.)

“We cannot allow the last, few surviving authoritarians to drag down the hemisphere. As neighbors, the United States and all the nations of Latin America are bound together on this journey.”

Senator Rubio’s Remarks[4]

Senator Rubio’s hostile opinions regarding the Cuban government are well known and appear to be a major factor behind the Trump Administration’s policies on Cuba. At this conference, Rubio was brief. He said, “What I care about in Cuba is political freedoms. The ability to have independent political parties, and a free press and to speak your mind, that’s what I support in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

About a week later, a Rubio complaint led the State Department to cancel a seminar, titled “Cuba under [Miguel] Díaz-Canel,” because it only was going to feature speakers who support normalization with Cuba. The scheduled speakers were Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group; Marguerite Jimenez of the Washington Office on Latin America; American University professor William LeoGrande; and Philip Peters of the Cuba Research Center. LeoGrande and Peters also are advisers to Engage Cuba, a bipaartisan coalition which favors lifting the U.S. embargo.

Americas Society Background[5]

The Americas Society “Is the premier forum dedicated to education, debate, and dialogue in the Americas. Its mission is to foster an understanding of the contemporary political, social, and economic issues confronting Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage of the Americas and the importance of the inter-American relationship.”

Its Council of the Americas is “the premier international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Council’s membership consists of leading international companies representing a broad spectrum of sectors, including banking and finance, consulting services, consumer products, energy and mining, manufacturing, media, technology, and transportation.”

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

[1] State Dep’t, Deputy Secretary Sullivan To Deliver Opening Keynote Remarks at the 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 7, 2018); Council of the Americas, Washington Conference on the Americas.

[2] U.S. Embassy in Havana, Remarks at 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 8, 2018).

[3] Americas Society. Remarks: U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley to the 48th Annual Washington Conference (May 8, 2018).

[4]  Press Release, VIDEO: Rubio Delivers Remarks at Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 8, 2018); Torres, State Department postpones event on Cuba after Sen. Rubio protests, Miami Herald (May 17, 2018).

[5] Americas Society, About AS/COS .