A New Travel Warning for Americans Traveling to Cuba 

 Last Wednesday (September 13), the U.S. State Department issued a warning about Americans traveling to Cuba that was discussed in an earlier post.

On September 18, the Department updated its Cuba Travel Warning after Hurricane Irma had hit and damaged the island.[1] It stated the following:

  • “The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Cuba while Hurricane Irma recovery efforts are underway.  Major roads are now open in Havana and power and water service has been restored in most of the city, but some parts of the country may be without power and running water. North central Cuba suffered severe damage and should be avoided until further notice. On September 6, the Department authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees and their family members due to Hurricane Irma.”
  • “Travelers should apprise family and friends in the United States of their whereabouts, and keep in close contact with their travel agency, hotel staff, and local officials.”
  • “U.S. citizens in Cuba in need of emergency assistance should contact the Embassy by telephone at +53- 5280-5791 or the Department of State at 1-202-501-4444. At this time, U.S. citizens should not attempt to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana as it suffered severe flood damage.”

Meanwhile the Cuban government announced that it would help its citizens recover from Hurricane Irma’s devastating swipe at its north coast and rebuild their homes. The plan would have the government finance 50 percent of the cost of construction materials for such rebuilding. Defense councils will certify the extent of damages and the resources necessary to make repairs.[2]

For homes that collapsed or lost their entire roofs, the state will take over interest payments. Defense councils also will consider subsidies for victims whose incomes are too low to purchase all the required construction materials, and those who still owe money on previous construction loans may be granted subsidies.

Hurricane Irma will have a major negative effect on Cuba’s economy. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, is convinced that GDP will decline over the last six months of this year. Another Cuban economist, Pavel Vidal, who is a professor at Javeriana University in Colombia, thought the hurricane damage “may pump up inflation” and cause ‘financial complications.”

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 18, 2017); Rosenberg, US warns would-be Cuban travelers: consider the risks following Hurricane Irma, Miami Herald (Sept. 18, 2017)

[2] Information for the population, Granma (Sept. 18, 2017); Whitefield & Torres, Cuba announces program to repair Irma-damages homes as experts assess damage to economy, Miami Herald (Sept. 18, 2017).

GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats      

On September 15 five Republican Senators asked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take certain actions against Cuba as a result of the medical problems being experienced by some of the U.S. diplomats who have been stationed in Cuba.[1]  The requested actions are the following:

  1. “Remind the Cuban government of its obligation to protect American diplomats [under Article 29 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].”
  2. “Demand that [the Cuban government] take verifiable action to remove these threats to our personnel and their families.”
  3. “Declare all accredited Cuban diplomats in the [U.S.] persona non grata [and thereby prompt Cuba to have them leave the U.S. under Article 9 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].’”
  4. “If Cuba does not take tangible action, close the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”

The five senators are the leader of this effort, Marco Rubio (FL), plus John Cornyn (TX), Richard Burr (NC), James Lankford  (OK) and Tom Cotton (AR), all members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is chaired by Senator Burr.[2]

Separately there were new reports about other details of the problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba.  U.S. diplomats on temporary duty in Havana stay in four hotels near the U.S. embassy, and all four have been sites of “medical attacks.” In addition to Hotel Capri, which was identified in a prior post, they are Hotel Nacional, Hotel Melia Cohiba, and Hotel Melia Habana. (The two “Melia” hotels are owned by a Cuban government agency, Cubanacan.) Rachel Maddow on her September 15th MSNBC show said that NBC News had learned that President Castro had offered to conduct a joint U.S.-Cuba investigation of this matter and that the U.S. had not responded to this offer.[3]

Meanwhile the U.S. and Cuba on September 15 held a meeting in Washington to discuss bilateral cooperation in law enforcement. According to the U.S. State Department, the discussions covered “national security matters, including fugitives and the return of Cuban nationals with final orders of removal” as well as “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.” The Cuban statement more generally said the discussions were about such issues as  terrorism, illicit trafficking in drugs and persons, and cybercrime. This meeting was the third such meeting; the first two were held during the Obama Administration.[4]

Conclusion

As is well known, Senator Rubio, a Cuban-American citizen, consistently has opposed U.S. efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, and thus it is not surprising to see him apparently initiate the above statement with the support of four of his Republican colleagues.

The good news is that the other 95 senators were not part of this statement, that Cuba by all reports continues to cooperate on investigating the circumstances surrounding these health issues and that the Trump Administration is not jumping to preordained conclusions about these issues.

This statement by Senator Rubio and four others was not justified and should be resisted by all U.S. citizens and their representatives in Washington. Instead allow the U.S. State Department and other agencies with Cuban assistance to continue their investigation in a professional and objective manner.

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[1] Dorsey, Five GOP senators ask Tillerson to close Cuba embassy after attacks on diplomats, CBS News (Sept, 15, 2017).

[2]  Rubio Press Release, Rubio, Colleagues Ask Tillerson to Expel Cubans, Close Embassy after Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Cotton Press Release, Senators Ask Secretary of State to Expel Cubans and Close Embassy Over Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers Want Retaliation for Sonic Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: GOP senators want US pushback on Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 15, 2017).

[3] Rachel Maddow, Mysterious attack on US diplomats in Cuba confounds (Sept. 15, 2017).

[4] State Dep’t, [U.S.] and Cuba Hold Third Law Enforcement Dialogue in Washington, DC (Sept. 15, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and [U.S.] Authorities . . . Held Third Round of the Dialogue on Application and Compliance with the Law in Washington (Sept. 15, 2017);   The earlier law enforcement dialogues were discussed in these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Hold Law-Enforcement Dialogue (Nov. 9, 2015)(comment to Developments in U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Nov. 8, 2015); United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016).

U.S. Tells Americans Not To Go to Cuba While It Recovers from Hurricane Irma 

                                                                                                           On On September 13, the U.S. State Department issued a “Cuba Travel Warning.”[1]

It stated that the Department “advises U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba while Hurricane Irma recovery efforts are underway.  Large parts of the country, including many areas of the capital Havana, are without power and running water. Transportation is difficult and many roads remain impassable due to downed trees and power lines. in Havana. . . . Outside the capital, north central Cuba suffered severe damage and should be avoided until further notice. On September 6, the Department authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees and their family members due to Hurricane Irma. “

“While Cuban authorities are working to clear the debris, it will be several days before roads are fully open.”

Separately the website for the U.S. Embassy in Havana has a September 13 statement that “Major roads are now mostly open in Havana. . . . The area around the U.S. Embassy in Havana suffered flood damage, and communication systems are down. Do not attempt to come to the Embassy seeking assistance at this time. [2]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 13, 2017). Previous posts have discussed Irma’s destruction on the island: Hurricane Irma Hits Cuba (Sept. 10, 2017); Update on Hurricane Irma’s Impact on Cuba (Sept. 12, 2017); Cuba’s Crumbling Infrastructure Battered by Irma (Sept. 13, 2017)(comment to 9/11/17 post).

[2] U.S. Embassy to Cuba, Security Message: Hurricane Irma Update # 4 (Sept. 13, 2017).

In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

Previous posts have discussed the recent news that starting in late 2016 through March 2017 several U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba had been suffering various medical problems apparently associated with some kind of sonic device, that the U.S. with Cuban cooperation has been investigating these incidents and that the U.S. was not accusing the Cuban government of being responsible.[1]

On September 1, the U.S. State Department revealed that last month (this August) additional U.S. diplomats were suffering symptoms from a sonic “incident” in Cuba. The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said that 19 Americans are now confirmed to have been affected, up from 16 reported last month. But the Department did not say exactly when last month the incidents took place or provide other details while also cautioning, “We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate” diplomats and their families. The U.S. investigation of these incidents is continuing and to date the Trump administration has not blamed the Cuban government.[2]

Also on September 1 the American Foreign Service Association, the labor union representing U.S. Foreign Service officers, said that based upon its contacts with 10 of the U.S. diplomats suffering from medical problems associated with their having served in Cuba the Association believes that they have been subjected to mysterious “sonic harassment attacks” that have caused  “mild traumatic brain injury [concussions]and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption, and brain swelling.” Therefore, the Association “strongly encourages the Department of State and the U.S. Government to do everything possible to provide appropriate care for those affected, and to work to ensure that these incidents cease and are not repeated.”[3]

On August 30 CBS News reported that U.S. intelligence analysts believe the cause of the acoustic attack on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana starting late last year was an inaudible sound (ultra and infrasonic waves), and a Georgetown University ear surgeon said such sounds can damage hearing. Medical records show that U.S. victims have been diagnosed with hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury and likely nerve damage. CBS also reported that the two Cuban diplomats earlier expelled from the U.S. were intelligence officials.[4]

Although the U.S. Government to date has not blamed Cuba for these incidents, a Washington Post editorial has strongly suggested that Cuba is responsible, and Roberto Alvarez Quińones, a Cuban-American journalist, economist and historian living in Los Angeles, asserts that however the attacks occurred, Raúl Castro is responsible.[5]

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[1] Posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba (Aug. 23, 2017); At Least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Aug. 24, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for American Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post).

[2] Gearan, State Department reports new instance of American diplomats harmed in Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Lederman (Assoc. Press), U.S.: Another health attack on diplomats in Cuba last month, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2017).

[3] Gearan, American diplomats suffered traumatic brain injuries in mystery attack in Cuba, union says, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Diplomats Union: Attacks in Cuba Caused Mild Brain Injury, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017).

[4] Dorsey, Infra- and ultrasonic waves thought to be responsible for Cuba attacks, CBS News (Aug. 30, 2017); CBS: US Intelligence points out that diplomats in Cuba were affected by ‘an inaudible sound,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 30, 2017).

[5]   Editorial, Don’t play down a sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba, Wash. Post (Aug. 24, 2017); Alvarez Quińones, Acoustic attack or not, Raul Castro is to blame, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 31, 2017).

 

Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba  

Previous posts have discussed the recent emergence of a U.S.-Cuba diplomatic dispute over hearing problems of U.S. diplomats.[1] Here is an update on that dispute.

The only news about the conditions of those affected was an August 23 report by CBS News, which had reviewed the medical records of certain U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba. CBS reported that their doctor had diagnosed them with conditions as serious as mild traumatic brain injury and damage to the central nervous system. The U.S. State Department, however, said that it did not yet have “definitive answers” on the source or cause of the incidents and that the investigation into these matters was “ongoing.” The Department also stated, “We remain in regular contact with the Cuban government to emphasize that we take these incidents very seriously and to resolve this matter in a satisfactory manner.”[2]

Earlier, on August 11, Secretary of State Tillerson said that some of the U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana had been victims of “health attacks” that the U.S. has “not been able to determine who’s to blame” and that the U.S. held “the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats [Canadians] involved.”[3]

John Caulfield, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 2011 to 2014 said U.S. diplomats in Cuba are under 24-hour surveillance during their assignments. “Nobody does anything in Cuba without them knowing.” However, he added that such aggressive tactics largely stopped by late 2013 and 2014 as U.S. and Cuban officials secretly negotiated the diplomatic reopening announced in December 2014, after his departure from Havana. He believes that the likeliest explanation for the diplomats’ mysterious deafness was “a new surveillance technique gone bad that had consequences. I do not believe they would randomly cause harm to this variety of people.”

At least six of the affected U.S. diplomats were flown to the University of Miami Hospital where they received treatment and this August a Hospital specialist went to Havana to examine others who work at the embassy, because officials expect that more people were affected.[4]

The State Department Press Briefing on August 23 touched on this dispute, but did not add any new information.

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[1] U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute, dwkcommentaires (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute, dwkcommentaries (Aug. 10, 2017).

[2]  Some U.S. diplomats in Cuba diagnosed with serious health conditions, medical records show, CBS News (Aug. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba ‘Incidents’ Caused Brain Injury, Nerve Damage to Diplomats: CBS News, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2017).

[3] Assoc. Press, Tillerson Says Diplomats in Havana Suffered ‘Health Attacks,” N.Y. Times (Aug. 12, 2017).

[4] Robles & Semple, ‘Health Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Baffle Both Countries, N.Y. Times (Aug. 11, 2017); Robles & Semple, Diplomats under ‘health attack in Cuba were treated by Miami doctors, Miami Herald (Aug. 13, 2017).

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. 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. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. 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.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

U.S. State Department Unjustly Continues To Allege That Cuba’s Foreign Medical Missions Engage in Forced Labor 

As noted in a prior post, the U.S. State Department on June 27, 2017, issued its annual report on human trafficking, and Its discussion of Cuba (pp. 143-45) included the allegation that Cuba had engaged in illegal forced labor with its foreign medical mission program.

This allegation has been present in previous annual reports, some of which have been discussed in other posts.[1]

Report Regarding Cuba’s Alleged Forced Labor in Its Foreign Medical Missions

The latest report observes, presumably correctly, that the Cuban penal code does not criminalize forced labor. Therefore, the report, also presumably correctly, states that Cuba “did not make efforts to identify or protect victims of forced labor” and  “did not report having procedures to identify victims of forced labor.”

In addition, the report says, presumably correctly, “The government is the primary employer in the Cuban economy, including in foreign medical missions that employ more than 84,000 workers in more than 67 countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. These medical missions constitute a signficant source of Cuban government income.”

Implicitly conceding that there was conflicting evidence, this report said, “Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other [unnamed] sources allege that Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; the [Cuban] government has stated the postings are voluntary, and some participants also have stated the postings are voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” (Emphases added.)

This report continued, “The Cuban government acknowledges that it withholds passports of overseas medical personnel in Venezuela due to security concerns; the government provided ID cards to such personnel in place of passports. There are also claims about substandard working and living conditions in some countries. In the past, there have been claims that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program, including by allegedly withholding their passports, restricting their movement, using “minders” to monitor participants outside of work, or threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In 2015, Cuba reinstituted restrictions on travel for specialized doctors and some medical personnel, requiring them to obtain an exit permit from their superiors before leaving the country. On September 9, 2015, the government agreed to reinstate medical personnel who had left their positions while abroad. As of April 1, 2016, the Cuban authorities claimed that 274 medical professionals who returned to Cuba and were rehired at the same salary and level of responsibility they had before leaving. More recent data was not available.”

This report, consistent with prior reports, alleges or assumes that Cuba is engaged in illegal forced labor of Cuban medical personnel in foreign medical missions and that Cuba does not recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad.

Analysis of the Allegation

This U.S. allegation is flawed for at least the following seven reasons.

First, while previous reports admitted that “information on the scope of . . . forced labor in Cuba is limited,” the latest report admits there is conflicting evidence about whether medical personnel’s participation in the foreign mission program is coerced and that the Cuban government denies such illegal coercion.

Second, most of this report’s recitation of alleged facts about the foreign mission program do not relate to, or substantiate, the forced labor allegation.

Third, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” At least four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions have recorded how they treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.[2]

Fourth, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a detailed study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman.  He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.[3]

Fifth, relevant to this issue, but not mentioned in the Report, is the fact that medical education in Cuba (at the Latin American School of Medicine) is free. As a result requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation. The recent $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.[4]

Sixth, this Report and its predecessors do not cite to the relevant international legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim or set forth any legal analysis purportedly supporting the allegation. This is not surprising as international law does not support this allegation.

Most pertinent is the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which Cuba and 177 other state members of the International Labour Organization have ratified (as of 2016). The U.S., however, has not so ratified, yet another reason why the U.S. charge is inapt.

This treaty’s  Article 2(1) preliminarily defines  “forced or compulsory labour” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” But there are five exceptions to this definition set forth in the treaty’s Article 2(2). One such exception, in subsection (b), states  ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphases added.)[5]

Cuba clearly is a “fully self-governing country” and the participants in the foreign medical missions are Cuban “citizens,” and as previously stated, such participation is regarded as “part of the normal civic obligations” of such citizens with the appropriate medical qualifications. Thus, under the most relevant statement of international law, Cuba has not engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to the foreign medical missions.

Seventh, there has not been any fair adjudicative process that has determined that such illegal coercion exists.

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[1] Relevant posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug, 7, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Human Trafficking Report (July 2, 2016); U.S. Senate Hearing on on 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 20, 2016).

[2]  Ledn, Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] Erisman, Brain Drain Politics: the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, Int’l J. Cuban Studies  269, 286-87 (2012).

[4] Raul Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016).

[5] This and other parts of the definition of “forced or compulsory labour” were reaffirmed in Article 1(3) of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.