Yet Another Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On July 31, 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued its annual report on terrorism in the world: Country Reports on Terrorism 2011. A prior post reviewed the report as a whole.

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We now examine this report‘s designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” i.e., as a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” This post’s analysis is also informed by the previous U.S. reports on terrorism for 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.[1] Earlier posts analyzed and criticized the reports for 2009 and 2010.

Preliminarily I note that the latest report says that 480 of the 10,283 terrorist attacks in 2011 occurred in the Western Hemisphere and that “the vast majority of . . . [these] were ascribed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” There is no mention of Cuba in this statistical summary.

Nor is there any mention of Cuba in the latest report’s “Strategic Assessment” that puts all of its discussion into a worldwide context. Instead this section of the report highlights the death of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qa’ida as putting its “network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” Others specifically mentioned in this Assessment were Iran, terrorists groups in South-Asia, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, anarchists in Greece and Italy, dissident Republican groups in Northern Ireland and Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed 77 people last July).

Cuba As an Alleged Safe Haven for Terrorists 

The first stated basis for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is its allegedly providing safe havens to individuals associated with two U.S.-designated Terrorist Organizations–Spain’s Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)–and to certain fugitives from U.S. criminal proceedings. Here are direct quotations of the report on these points:

  • “Current and former members of . . . ETA continue to reside in Cuba. Three suspected ETA members were arrested in Venezuela and deported back to Cuba in September 2011 after sailing from Cuba. One of them, Jose Ignacio Echarte, is a fugitive from Spanish law and was also believed to have ties” to the FARC.
  • “Press reporting indicated that the Cuban government provided medical care and political assistance to the FARC.”
  • “The Cuban government continued to permit fugitives wanted in the United States to reside in Cuba and also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”

Before we examine some details about these charges, it must be said that the speciousness of this charge about ETA and FARC is shown by the latest U.S. terrorism report itself. It has a separate chapter on the legitimate international problem of terrorist safe havens as “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.” The report then identifies such havens in different parts of the world. For the Western Hemisphere, it discusses Colombia, Venezuela and the Tri-Border Area (where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together). But there is no mention whatsoever of Cuba.

Earlier U.S. reports provide another reason for discounting these charges. They admit that “Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world” (1996, 1997, 1998, 2008, 2009 reports) and that there was no evidence that Cuba had sponsored specific acts of terrorism (1996, 1997 reports). They also report that in 2001(after 9/11) Cuba “signed all 12 UN counterterrorism conventions as well as the Ibero-American declaration on terrorism” (2001, 2002, 2003 reports).

Let us now examine details about each of these specific assertions about alleged safe haven which have been made by the U.S. since at least 1996.

1. ETA

The weakness of the U.S. charge regarding ETA implicitly is admitted by the latest report itself when it states there “was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for” ETA.  Similar admissions were made in the U.S. reports for 2005 (“no information concerning terrorist activities of [ETA] on Cuban territory”); 2008 (“no evidence of . . . terrorist financing activities”); 2009 (“no evidence of direct financial support”); 2010 (“no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support”).

In addition, the latest U.S. report adds that there is evidence”[suggesting ] that the Cuban government [in 2011] was trying to distance itself from ETA members living on the island by employing tactics such as not providing services including travel documents to some of them.”

Earlier U.S. reports also reflect the limited nature of this charge. There allegedly were only 20 ETA members living in Cuba (2001 report), some of whom may be there in connection with peace negotiations with Spain (2009 report). In May 2003, Cuba publicly asserted that the “presence of ETA members in Cuba arose from a request for assistance by Spain and Panama and that the issue is a bilateral matter between Cuba and Spain” (2003 report). In March 2010 Cuba “allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members” (2010 report).

Moreover, in March 2011 the Spanish Ambassador to Cuba told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Spain was “not concerned about the presence of members of . . .  ETA . . . in Cuba.” Indeed, the Ambassador maintained that this enhances his country’s ability to deal more effectively with ETA.  In fact, the Ambassador added, some ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government.

2. FARC

Again the new U.S. report implicitly admits the weakness of its FARC allegations by the report’s stating there “was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for” FARC.  Similar admissions were made in the U.S. reports for 2005 (“no information concerning terrorist activities of [FARC] on Cuban territory”); 2008 (“no evidence of . . . terrorist financing activities”); 2009 (“no evidence of direct financial support”); 2010 (“no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support”).

In addition, the 2008 report said in July of that year “former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.”

There is no indication in the reports of the number of FARC members allegedly in Cuba, but some may be there in connection with peace negotiations with Colombia (2009 report).

Moreover, in March 2011 the Colombian Ambassador to Cuba told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that Colombia was “not concerned about the presence of members of FARC . . . in Cuba.” Indeed, the Ambassador maintained that this enhances their ability to deal more effectively with FARC.

3. U.S. fugitives

There apparently were or are over 70 individuals living in Cuba who are fugitives from criminal charges in U.S. relating to violent acts in the 1970’s purportedly committed to advance political causes, but pursuant to a 2005 Cuban government statement, no additional U.S. fugitives have been permitted on the island. In a few instances Cuba has extradited such fugitives to the U.S. (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 reports).

None of these fugitives apparently is affiliated with U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. The issue of whether or not they will be extradited to the U.S. is an appropriate issue for bilateral negotiations between the two countries. But, in my opinion, it is not a legitimate basis for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

Cuba’s Alleged Financial System Deficiencies

The other asserted ground in the latest U.S. report for the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is new.

This other ground is Cuba’s having been identified by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as “having strategic AML/CFT [Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies.  Despite sustained and consistent overtures, Cuba has refused to substantively engage directly with the FATF.  It has not committed to FATF standards and it is not a member of a FATF-style regional body.”

According to its website, FATF “is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions. [Its] . . . objectives . . .  are to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF is therefore a ‘policy-making body’ which works to generate the necessary political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in these areas.” Thus, it apparently is a voluntary international organization, not one established by a multilateral treaty.

FATF currently has 34 member jurisdictions (or only about 18% of the U.N. member states) plus 2 regional organizations (the European Council and the Gulf Co-Operation Council) representing most major financial centers in all parts of the globe.

Starting in 1990,”FATF has developed a series of Recommendations that [it claims] are now recognised as the international standard for combating of money laundering and the financing of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They form the basis for a co-ordinated response to these threats to the integrity of the financial system and help ensure a level playing field. First issued in 1990, the FATF Recommendations were revised in 1996, 2001 [additional measures regarding terrorist financing], 2003 and 2012 to ensure that they remain up to date and relevant, and they are intended to be of universal application.”

To this end, FATF promotes the global adoption and implementation of the FATF Recommendations.

In June 2012 FATF issued a Public Statement that identified Iran and the Democratic Republic of Korea [North Korea] as jurisdictions “subject to a FATF call on its members and other jurisdictions to apply counter-measures to protect the international financial system from the on-going and substantial money laundering and terrorist financing (ML/TF) risks emanating from [these] . . . jurisdictions.”

The June 2012 Statement also listed 18 other countries, including Cuba, as jurisdictions “with strategic AML/CFT deficiencies that have not made sufficient progress in addressing the deficiencies or have not committed to an action plan developed with the FATF to address the deficiencies. The FATF calls on its members to consider the risks arising from the deficiencies associated with each jurisdiction.”

The latest U.S. terrorism report made an important concession on this point by noting that in 2011 Cuba “did attend a [FATF] meeting on Money Laundering in South America meeting as a guest and prepared an informal document describing its anti-money laundering/counterterrorist financing system.” But this U.S. concession did not go far enough, for the June 2012 FATF Statement said, “Since February 2012 Cuba has officially engaged with the FATF and has also attended [the meetings of the relevant regional organizations] CFATF [Caribbean Financial Action Task Force] and GAFISUD [Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering in Latin America] . . . . The FATF urges Cuba to continue its engagement with the FATF, and to work with the FATF to develop and agree on an action plan in order to implement an AML/CFT regime in line with international standards.”

I assume that the issues being addressed by the FATF are important ones for the international community and that its Recommendations are reasonable ones to address the real problems of money laundering and financing of terrorism. I also assume that the Cuban financial system is not as sophisticated as those in the U.S. and other international money centers and that it along with at least 17 other countries that are not “State Sponsors of Terrorism” is not in compliance with the FATF Recommendations.

But these facts, in my opinion, do not support designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” If it were, then the 17 other countries on the two FATF lists should be added to the U.S. list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” (Of the 20 countries on the two FATF lists, only Iran, Syria and Cuba are now U.S.-designated “State Sponsors.”)

Moreover, as noted above, the U.S. terrorism reports have indicated there was no evidence of Cuban financing of terrorism in the covered years. In addition, some of the reports reference Cuban laws permitting the tracking, blocking, or seizing terrorist assets (Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism and Instruction 19 of the Superintendent of the Cuban Central Bank) (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 reports). In addition, in its response to this latest U.S. report, Cuba has asserted that it “regularly provides precise, truthful information to the appropriate United Nations bodies charged with addressing these issues and others related to confronting terrorism.”

The whole FATF issue raised in the U.S. terrorism report, in my opinion, is a “red herring.”

Conclusion

In summary, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is ridiculous. This conclusion is shared, in less colorful language, at least by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency; the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations; the Center for International Policy; the Latin American Working Group; the Center for Democracy in the Americas; The Atlantic magazine’s national correspondent (Jeffrey Goldberg) and a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General (John Adams).

Not surprisingly the Cuban government comes to the same conclusion. It says “the only reason Cuba is kept on this list is exposed as an attempt to justify the U.S. blockade of our country, as well as the adoption of new measures to limit our financial and commercial transactions, to strangle the Cuban economy and impose a regime which responds to U.S. interests.”

Whatever legitimate issues are raised by these U.S. reports, I submit, are appropriate subjects, among many, for the bilateral negotiations that a prior post recommended should occur between the U.S. and Cuba to the end of reconciliation and restoration of normal relations. As Cuba pointed out after this U.S. report was released, Cuba repeatedly has proposed that the two countries “agree upon a bilateral program to confront terrorism,” but the U.S. government has not responded.

More generally, Cuban President Raul Castro on July 26, 2012 (the 59th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution) reiterated his country’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the U.S. as equals. He said no topic was off limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Cuba so as long as the U.S. was prepared to hear Cuba’s own complaints. In response the U.S. repeated its prior position: before there could be meaningful talks, Cuba had to institute democratic reforms, respect human rights and release Alan Gross, an American detained in Cuba.

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[1] Cuba has been so designated since March 1982.The U.S. terrorism reports listed above are those that are accessible on the U.S. State Department’s website. I would appreciate detailed comments from anyone with knowledge about the reports for 1982-1995 although they are less relevant due to the passage of time.

The Latest U.S. Report on International Terrorism

 On July 31, 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued its latest annual report on terrorism in the world: Country Reports on Terrorism 2011. This post will review the report as a whole.

This report was submitted in compliance with 22 U.S.C. § 2656f, which defines “terrorism” for this purpose as ” premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” while the term  “international terrorism” means “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

The report included the following statistics on terrorists attack during the year:

Area Number of Attacks
Near East & South Asia    7,721
Africa       978
Europe & Eurasia       561
East Asia & Pacific       543
Western Hemisphere       480
     TOTAL   10,283

The report’s “Strategic Assessment ” section puts all of this into a worldwide context. It highlights the death of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qa’ida as putting its “network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.” However, its affiliated groups around the world increased their impact. Iran was also criticized for its lethal support of terrorism in Iraq and Palestine. Others specifically mentioned in this Assessment were certain terrorist groups in South-Asia, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, anarchists in Greece and Italy, dissident Republican groups in Northern Ireland and Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed 77 people last July).

The statutory authorization of this report requires the Department of State to identify countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” as “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” This year the following four countries were so designated: Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba. A subsequent post will examine this designation of Cuba.

A wide range of sanctions may be imposed as a result of a State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, including: (a) a ban on arms-related exports and sales; (b) controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism: (c) prohibitions on economic assistance; and (d) imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.

Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom

On July 30, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its latest report on the status of religious freedom around the world; this report was discussed in a prior post. Now we analyze that report’s evaluation of religious freedom in Cuba. The previous U.S. State Department report on this subject was discussed in a prior post.

Versalles Church, Matanzas, Cuba

This analysis is based upon my personal involvement in helping to establish and manage a partnership between my church (Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church) and Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Versalles (Versalles Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba); my going on three church mission trips over the last 10 years to visit that congregation; my visits to the ecumenical seminary–Seminario Evangelico de Teologia (SET)–in Matanzas and other churches and religious organizations on these mission trips;  my hearing reports about other trips to our Cuban partner from fellow members of my church; my conversations with Cuban Christians at their church and when they have visited my church in Minneapolis; and my extensive reading about Cuba and specifically religious freedom on the island.

Cuban Religious Makeup

First, however, we review the religious makeup of the Cuban population of roughly 11,000,000. According to the report, an estimated 60 to 70 percent (or 6,600,000 to 7,700,000) is believed to be Roman Catholic although only 4 to 5 percent regularly attend mass. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population (or 550,000):  Baptists and Pentecostals are probably the largest Protestant denominations; Jehovah’s Witnesses, 94,000; Seventh-day Adventists, 30,000; Methodists, 30,000; Anglicans, 22,000; Presbyterians, 15,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 50. The Jewish community is estimated at 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. There are approximately 6,000 to 8,000 Muslims, although only an estimated 1,000 are Cubans. Other religious groups include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Buddhists and Baha’is.

In addition, many Cubans consult with practitioners of religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River basin, known as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some even require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately the total membership of these syncretistic groups. (I have visited the Slave Route Museum in the city of Matanzas, Cuba that has a room devoted to Santeria and Havana’s Callejon de Hamel, an alley with  Santeria murals and other things.)

Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report had many good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba.

The Cuban “constitution protects religious freedom.” After the 1989 collapse of the U.S.S.R, the Cuban constitution was amended to eliminate “[scientific materialism or] atheism as the state creed” and to declare “the country to be a secular state” with “separation of church and state. The government does not officially favor any particular religion or church.” Moreover, says the U.S., “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

The Cuban “government’s respect for religious freedom improved” in 2011, declares the report.

“Religious organizations reported significant ability [in 2011] to attract new members without government interference. Many churches reported increased participation in religious instruction for children because government schools no longer scheduled competing activities on Saturdays or Sundays. The majority of religious groups reported little interference from the government in conducting their services and saw improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events. Some religious groups found it easier to bring in foreign religious workers. . . .”

“Religious organizations reported increased ability to conduct educational programs over the year. The Catholic Church and the Jewish Community Center offered courses on lay subjects such as computers and foreign languages. In September the Catholic Church opened a cultural center in Havana as a space for art exhibits, debates, and small classes, including a business training program. The Church’s business program was offered with the cooperation of the San Antonio University of Murcia, Spain for a master’s degree in business.”

Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs and weekend retreats for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. The Catholic Church held twice yearly teaching workshops for public school teachers. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.”

“Religious groups reported they were able to continue to provide community service programs with little interference from the government. These programs included providing assistance to the elderly, after school tutoring for children, clean water, and health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations, such as Caritas and the Salvation Army, had local offices in Havana.”

Indeed, not mentioned in the report is the de facto pharmacy for the neighborhood that is operated by our partner church in Matanzas with over-the-counter medicines donated by visitors from Westminster and by the Matanzas church’s plan to provide one free meal per week to neighborhood residents, many of whom are not members of the church.

SET Chapel, Matanzas
Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Havana

In addition, the nearby seminary in Matanzas (SET) now has a clean-water system that was installed by Westminster members and that now provides clean water to SET and to people in the surrounding neighborhood, and SET also provides vegetables from its beautiful gardens to people in the neighborhood. Another clean-water system was installed by Westminster members in Havana’s Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Luyano (Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church), which shares the clean water with people in its neighborhood.

During the year the report says “the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own Web sites with little or no censorship. The Catholic Church’s periodicals sometimes included criticism of official social and economic policies. As in previous years, the Catholic Church also received permission to broadcast Christmas and Easter messages on state-run radio stations and, in 2011, a televised mass on September 8, the feast day of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s patron saint. The [Cuban] Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host monthly two hour-long radio broadcasts. ”

The report’s referencing the Cuban Council of Churches, however, did not mention that the it was founded in 1941 (long before the Cuban Revolution), and its members now include 22 churches, 12 ecumenical movements, and seven associate organizations. The Council, whose offices I have visited, promotes unity among the Christian Churches of Cuba and helps link these churches with other churches around the world. The Council also encourages dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for Cuban churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation. Finally the Council promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.

The U.S. government’s report continued, “Religious groups . . . reported it was easier to obtain government permission to maintain and repair existing places of worship and other buildings.” Moreover, the government “frequently granted permission to repair or restore existing temples, allowing significant expansion of some structures and in some cases allowing essentially new buildings to be constructed on the foundations of the old. Numerous houses of worship were expanded or repaired.” (In a prior year our partner church in Matanzas obtained such permission to expand its facilities for children’s Sunday School programming, and Westminster members helped build  that expansion.)

Even though some religious organizations and “house churches” have not been officially recognized by the government, as required by Cuban law, in practice, most unregistered organizations and “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government.

Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported improved access to prisoners during the year, with services offered in prisons and detention centers in most, if not all, provinces. (According to the report, however, some prison authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious assistance, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits to a maximum of two or three times per year.)

The government worked with the Catholic Church to facilitate the public procession of an icon honoring the Virgin of Charity to mark the 400th anniversary of her appearance in Cuba. The procession concluded in December with a public open-air mass in Havana attended by over 3,000 citizens as well as by government officials. It was the first country-wide religious procession permitted since the Cuban revolution.

Although there is no official law of policy for conscientious objection to military service, since 2007 the government has unofficially allowed a period of civilian public service to substitute for military service for men who object on religious grounds. The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that their members usually were permitted to participate in social service in lieu of military service.

The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists stated that mistreatment and job discrimination, which had been particularly harsh in the past, were now rare and that their members were usually exempted from political activities at school. Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated that their members employed by the state usually were excused from working on Saturdays.

Pope Benedict XVI @ Plaza de Revolucion

Not included in the report for 2011 was the late March 2012 visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI. During a mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion before a crowd of thousands, the Pope called for “authentic freedom.”

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report also commented on what it saw as negative aspects of religious freedom in Cuba.

The report notes that obtaining government permission for construction of new religious buildings remained difficult. This may well be true, but, in my opinion, this difficulty springs from the government’s attempts to regulate the allocation of scarce resources in a relatively poor country and to allocate more resources to other purposes it deems more important.

By law religious groups “are required to apply to the Ministry of Justice for official recognition. The application procedure requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities and their source of funding, and requires the ministry to certify that the group is not ‘duplicating’ the activities of another recognized organization in which case, recognition is denied. A number of religious groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, have been waiting for years for a decision from the Ministry of Justice on their pending applications for official recognition.” (However, the report said that unrecognized religious groups reported they were able to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, and send representatives abroad. In addition, I believe that the government’s official requirement that such applications indicate it is not “duplicating” another organization’s activities is due to the previously mentioned desire to conserve scarce resources.)

Once the Ministry of Justice grants official recognition, religious organizations have to request permission from the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, to hold meetings in approved locations, to receive foreign visitors, and to travel abroad. Religious groups indicated that while many applications were approved within two to three years from the date of the application, other applications received no response or were denied. Some religious groups were only able to register a small percentage of their “house churches.”

The report states that religious groups may not establish schools. This is true because the Cuban Revolution nationalized all private schools–religious and nonreligious– and instead emphasized public education for all children.

The report also says, “Except for two Catholic seminaries and several interfaith training centers throughout the island, religious schools were not permitted.”

This is an erroneous or misleading statement about religious education in Cuba as shown by the report’s own acknowledgement that in 2011 religious organizations had increased ability to conduct their own educational programs and by the following facts not mentioned in the report:

  • Since 1946 there has been an ecumenical Protestant Christian seminary in the city of Matanzas — Seminario Evangelico de Teologia (SET)–that was founded by the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches. It has a full curriculum for various degrees as well as other non-degree programs, some of which are offered in other cities on the island.
  • The Methodists recently withdrew from SET to start their own seminary in Havana.
  • SET and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana are developing a program for education of prospective owners and operators of private businesses on the island under the government’s announcement allowing such activities. The MLK Center, by the way, was founded in 1987 to provide training and education in King’s philosophy of nonviolence for Cuban religious and community leadership.
  •  In the last several summers young people from Westminster have conducted a vacation Bible school at our partner church in Matanzas.
MLK Center, Havana

“A license from the Office of Religious Affairs is necessary to import religious literature and other religious materials.” (Yet, as previously mentioned, the report itself states there were fewer restrictions on such importation.)

Printing press, Versalles Church, Matanzas
Church bulletins for distribution, Versalles Church, Matanzas

The report also states that “the government owns nearly all printing equipment and supplies and tightly regulates printed materials, including religious literature.” This, in my opinion, is an overstatement. Our partner church in Matanzas owns old-fashioned printing presses and at least one specialized computer printer and that the church prints and distributes religious bulletins and journals for most, if not all, of the Protestant churches on the island. A photo of the covers of some of the religious publications that are printed here appears in my 12/30/11 post, “The Cuban Revolution and Religion.”

The report states that “most religious leaders reported they exercised self-censorship in what they preached and discussed during services. Many feared that direct or indirect criticism of the government could result in government reprisals, such as denials of permits from the Office of Religious Affairs or other measures that could stymie the growth of their organizations.”

The government took “measures to limit support to outspoken religious figures that it considered a challenge to its authority.”I have no basis to challenge that statement or the following specifics cited by the report on this point:

  • On June 26, police arrested 23 people and detained them for five hours to prevent them from attending a Sunday prayer session in support of a Methodist minister who was removed from his post by his superiors, partly because of his outspoken criticism of the government.
  • On October 19, police stopped Baptist pastor Mario Felix Lleonart, a vocal critic of the authorities in the province of Santa Clara, and detained him for 10 hours.
  • In February Pastor Omar Perez Ruiz (aka Omar Gude Perez), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches, was released after serving almost three years of a six-year prison sentence for illicit economic activities and falsification of documents. Perez maintained his innocence and claimed his incarceration was due to his religious activities. Perez’s release was conditioned on his refraining from preaching and from leaving the city of Camaguey. Although Perez and his family were granted refugee status in the United States, they were unable to leave because the government did not grant them an exit permit.
  • As part of its campaign of repression of human rights activists, the government prevented many Catholics from attending religious services. Members of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) group were routinely prevented from attending church, a practice that was particularly pronounced in the eastern provinces of Holguin and Santiago. The government prevented Adisnidia Cruz, mother of political prisoners Marcos and Antonio Lima-Cruz, from leaving her house in Holguin on Sundays to attend mass on dozens of occasions. In other instances the government harassed human rights activists immediately after religious services. On September 8, for example, members of the Damas de Blanco were arrested after attending mass in Santiago to celebrate the day of Cuba’s patron saint.

Conclusion

Is the glass half empty or half full? This is the question for all human activities since none of us is perfect, and it is the legitimate question about religious freedom in Cuba.

In the opinion of a respected Cuban Protestant leader, the glass of such freedom in Cuba is more than half full, and there is no basis whatsoever  for the U.S. government or her citizens to castigate Cuban religious institutions or leaders or members. I concur. As Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees when they asked him if they should stone a woman who had committed adultery, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” All of the questioners then silently departed without throwing any stones. (John 8: 3-11.)

I, therefore,  am glad that this U.S. government report does not designate Cuba as a “Country of Particular Concern,i.e., a country which has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” or the ” systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.” There is no basis for any such designation, in my opinion.

Nor do I think there is any basis for the quasi-independent  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to have put Cuba on its “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the [Commission’s] . . .  threshold [for designation as a Country of Particular Concern], but require close monitoring.” The Commission should cease making such a designation in its next report.

The Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom

On July 30, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom.

The operating definition for this purpose is found in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.

Introducing the report, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton placed the subject in a broader context. She said, “religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies. It’s been statistically linked with economic development and democracy stability.” Without such freedom, she continued, there can be “a climate of fear and suspicion that weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their leaders” and thereby “make it more difficult to solve national problems.” Indeed, she asserted that “the absence of religious freedom . . . is correlated with religious conflict and violent extremism.” As a result, the Obama Administration has made such freedom a diplomatic priority.

This report highlights what it sees as key trends in the year 2011: (a) the impact of political and demographic transitions on religious minorities; (b) the effects of conflict on religious freedom; (c) expanded use and abuse of blasphemy laws; and (d)  the rising tide of anti-Semitism;

This annual report reviewing the worldwide status of religious freedom is mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988, which also requires the report to designate countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” when they have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” i.e., ” systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

In this latest report covering 2011, the following eight countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

With respect to China, the report said in 2011 there was a “marked deterioration . . . in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom.” It cited specific restrictions In the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. The report noted that only “groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned ‘patriotic religious associations'(Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) . . . [could] register with the government and legally hold worship services.” Moreover, “Proselytizing in public or unregistered places of worship is not permitted” and some “religious and spiritual groups are outlawed.” Finally according to the report “Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members are required to be atheists and are generally discouraged from participating in religious activities.”

Not too surprisingly China immediately rejected the report’s comments. China said the report was “full of prejudice, arrogance and ignorance” and was “a political tool used by the U.S. Government to exert pressure on other countries, mostly deemed its rivals.”

The importance of religious freedom for the U.S. is evidenced by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and by the U.S. Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of those provisions. This importance also has been demonstrated by the following more recent events:

  • The 1988 enactment of the previously mentioned International Religious Freedom Act, which In addition to requiring the annual reports on the subject, created in the Department of State the Office of International Religious Freedom headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
  • That same Act also created the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that is required to issue separate annual reports on such freedom. In addition, it is charged to “consider and recommend options for policies of the [U.S.] Government with respect to each foreign country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom, including particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including diplomatic inquiries, diplomatic protest, official public protest demarche of protest, condemnation within multilateral fora, delay or cancellation of cultural or scientific exchanges, delay or cancellation of working, official, or state visits, reduction of certain assistance funds, termination of certain assistance funds, imposition of targeted trade sanctions, imposition of broad trade sanctions, and withdrawal of the chief of mission.”
  • On October 18, 2011, the Department of State established the Working Group on Religion and Foreign Policy that includes representatives of religious groups and other members of civil society. Its mission is to engage in “a continuing dialogue with religious leaders and other members of civil society that informs U.S. foreign policy and fosters common partnerships with the NGO community, including faith-based groups, in support of conflict mitigation and development as well as efforts to promote human rights, including religious freedom.”

I have developed a special interest in Cuban religious freedom, and a subsequent post will review this report’s section on Cuba.

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U.S. Releases Annual Report on Human Rights in the World

On May 24, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its annual report on human rights conditions in every other country in the world. Secretary of State Clinton said that the reports “make clear to governments around the world: We are watching and we are holding you accountable. And they make clear to citizens and activists everywhere: You are not alone. We are standing with you.” Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner added, “In too many countries, egregious human rights violations continue, including torture, arbitrary detention, denial of due process of law, disappearance, and extrajudicial killings.”

The annual U.S. reports cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various international treaties. The U.S. Department of State submits reports on all countries receiving assistance and all United Nations member states to the U.S. Congress in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974.

The Department of State prepares these reports using information from U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, foreign government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations and published reports. U.S. diplomatic missions abroad prepared the initial drafts of the individual country reports, using information they gathered throughout the year from a variety of sources, including government officials, jurists, the armed forces, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, and labor activists.

Once the initial drafts of the individual country reports are completed, the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, in cooperation with other Department offices, work to corroborate, analyze, and edit the reports, drawing on their own sources of information. These sources included reports provided by U.S. and other human rights groups, foreign government officials, representatives from the U.N. and other international and regional organizations and institutions, experts from academia and the media. Bureau officers also consult experts on worker rights, refugee issues, military and police topics, women’s issues, and legal matters, among many others. The guiding principle was to ensure that all information was reported objectively, thoroughly, and fairly.

As Secretary of State Clinton stated on the release of the latest report, “Congress mandated these country reports more than three decades ago to help guide lawmakers’ decisions on foreign military and economic aid, but they have evolved into something more. Today, governments, intergovernmental organizations, scholars, journalists, activists, and others around the world rely on these reports as an essential update on human rights conditions around the world – where we have seen progress, where progress has come too slowly or at great cost, and all too often, where it has been rolled back.”

In my work as a pro bono lawyer for asylum seekers in the U.S., for example, these reports were important corroborative evidence to support the claim of someone who alleges that he or she has a well founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, ethnic group, political opinion or membership in a particular social group if returned to his or her home country. In addition, my experience with some of the country reports, especially El Salvador, has shown that over time they have become increasingly more objective.

With respect to China, the new report said that human rights had deteriorated. It cites “repression and coercion” of rights advocates, tight restrictions on political dissidents, curbs on journalists and on Internet access, and “severe cultural and religious repression” of ethnic Uighurs and Tibetans.

The next day (May 25th) China said that the U.S. report was inaccurate and irresponsible. As the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, the report was “baseless, biased and completely wrong.” In fact, the spokesman said China has made world-recognized gains in improving human rights since broad social and economic reforms were launched 30 years ago. China’s economy has grown rapidly over the last three decades, and the government marks poverty reduction as one of its greatest human rights achievements. Moreover, the person said, “The Chinese people themselves are the most qualified to judge China’s human rights condition . . . . Countries can hold talks about human rights on equal footing to increase mutual understanding and help each other improve, but should never use the relevant issue as a tool for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.”

China simultaneously retaliated with its report on human rights in the U.S. It criticized the arrest of Occupy Wall Street protesters and other alleged U.S. violations of civil and political rights.

The Chinese report on human rights in the U.S. reflects other countries’ frequent criticism of the U.S.’ annual reports for failure to evaluate and criticize the U.S. itself. But the U.S.’ recent submission of its own human rights record to Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, as discussed in a prior post, is another means for the U.S. to do just that with on-the-record comments and criticism by other governments.




Reactions to Charles Taylor’s Conviction

Special Court for Sierra Leone Logo

As reported in a prior post, on April 26th the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Charles Taylor, the former President of neighboring Liberia of 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The hearing on his sentencing has been scheduled for May 16th with the sentence to be pronounced on May 30th. The deadline for any appeal is 14 days after the sentencing judgment.

Before we look at the reactions to that conviction, we should be aware of the gruesome details of what happened in Sierra Leone according to witnesses at Taylor’s trial. Here are only two examples. One male witness, “Then I put this other hand. Then he [a Sierra Leone rebel] chopped it, but when he chopped it it was not severed initially. He chopped it twice, and it hit here and some bones were broken in it. Then the third time it was severed.” Another male witness, “Well, they [the rebels] used to treat them [civilians] badly. They used to rape them. They used to kill them. Sometimes they even ate them.” A video with photos of some of the Sierra Leone victims should be watched as well as current photos from the country.

Another aspect of the trial needs highlighting. One of the challenges facing the prosecution was how to link Mr. Taylor in Liberia to the crimes committed in Sierra Leone. There was no paper trail showing orders from Taylor. Nor was there any evidence of his ever going to Sierra Leone. He was not at the scene of the crimes in that country, and the Liberian army was not involved. Instead the link was proven by radio and telephone communications from Taylor to the rebels in Sierra Leone, by shipments of arms and ammunition to the rebels from Taylor’s forces and by bank records showing transfers of funds to Taylor’s accounts from Sierra Leone.

The Special Court’s chief prosecutor, Brenda J. Hollis, who is a U.S. lawyer, said the conviction was a triumph for the idea that political leaders should be held accountable  for their deeds in “the new reality of an international justice system.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the conviction “marked a major milestone in the development of international justice. . . .  A former President, who once wielded immense influence in a neighbouring [sic] country where tens of thousands of people were killed, mutilated, raped, robbed and repeatedly displaced for years on end, has been arrested, tried in a fair and thorough international procedure, and has now been convicted of very serious crimes.” Such a result, she said, was “a stark warning to other Heads of State who are committing similar crimes, or contemplating doing so.”

The U.S. Department of State issued an official statement welcoming the conviction as “an important step toward delivering justice and accountability for victims, restoring peace and stability in the country and the region, and completing the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s mandate to prosecute those persons who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed in Sierra LeoneThe Taylor prosecution at the Special Court delivers a strong message to all perpetrators of atrocities, including those in the highest positions of power, that they will be held accountable.” The U.S. statement also noted that the U.S. “has been a strong supporter and the leading donor of the Special Court  . . . since its inception. The successful completion of the Special Court’s work remains a top U.S. Government priority.”

Amnesty International (AI) asserted that the conviction sends “a clear message to leaders the world over that no-one is immune from justice.”  However, AI lamented that because of the limited jurisdiction and funding of the Special Court, “Thousands of persons suspected of criminal responsibility for incidences of unlawful killings, rape and sexual violence, mutilations and the use of children in Sierra Leone’s armed conflict have never been investigated, much less prosecuted.” In addition, AI emphasized that “only a limited number of Sierra Leone’s thousands of victims who bear the terrible scars of the conflict have received reparations, despite the [provisions for reparations in the Sierra Leone] Peace Accord and the clear recommendations [for reparations] by [Sierra Leone’s] Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” AI also reiterated its call for the repeal of the amnesty provision in the Peace Accord and [for Sierra Leone’s] enactment of legislation defining crimes against humanity and war crimes as crimes under Sierra Leone law.”

Human Rights Watch had a similar reaction. It said the conviction “sends a message to those in power that they can be held to account for grave crimes.”

A New York Times editorial said the conviction “is a historic victory for justice and accountability: the first time a former head of state has been convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Mr. Taylor . . . richly deserves this distinction.” The editorial also reminded us that “other leaders . . .  deserve the same fate” from the International Criminal Court in its prosecutions of the Ivory Coast’s brutal former president, Laurent Gbagbo, and Sudan’s current president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The Guardian newspaper from London commented that the conviction was “an important step in what can only be described as the faltering path of international justice.” It noted that even though there were dysfunctional justice systems in Russia and China, it is “a safe bet that no Russian [or Chinese] leader will ever appear before an international court of justice for war crimes . . . . The same is true of . . . US or British generals for war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Might, or a seat on the UN security council, still appears to be right. If the arm of international law is long, it is also selective. . . .  If impunity is to end, jurisdiction has to be universal.”

Taylor’s conviction was for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sierra Leone. But the conviction reminded Liberians of the horrible similar crimes committed in their country by Taylor and his forces.

Charles Taylor (Rebel leader)
Charles Taylor, President of Liberia

An expert on Liberia stated that in “Liberia, Mr. Taylor fought a brutal campaign against West African peacekeepers and other armed factions. As many as 250,000 Liberians out of a prewar population of just over [3,000,000] lost their lives, while more than [1,000,000] others became refugees — crimes for which no one has yet been held accountable. An internationally brokered peace deal in 1997 led to the travesty of a frightened population’s electing Mr. Taylor president for fear of what would happen if he did not get his way. He was driven from power only in 2003.” Moreover, “many of his closest former associates remain at large and active in public life . . . . Mr. Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, who filed for divorce after his fall from power in part to protect her assets from international sanctions, is a member of the Liberian Senate. So is Prince Y. Johnson, a onetime Taylor ally who literally butchered President Samuel K. Doe at the start of the civil war and was so certain of his impunity that he had the entire episode videotaped for posterity. Far from becoming a pariah, Mr. Johnson played kingmaker in Liberia’s presidential election last year, delivering the bloc of votes that assured President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a second term.”

The previously mentioned New York Times editorial said that Taylor now “must also be held accountable for his role in Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Liberia needs to enact the legislation to bring him, and the other murderous warlords from that era, to trial either in Liberian or international courts.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also remembered that Taylor and his forces had committed grave crimes in his native Liberia, but had not been subject to any criminal prosecutions for those crimes. Said AI, “during “the 14-year Liberian civil war that raged while Taylor was first the leader of one of the numerous armed opposition groups and later the President, all parties to the conflict committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murders along ethnic lines, as well as torture, rapes and other crimes of sexual violence, abductions, and recruitment and use child soldiers.” After the end of the civil war, AI said the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation commission had recommended “that a criminal tribunal be established to prosecute people identified as responsible for crimes under international law [but that it] is yet to be implemented, as are most TRC recommendations on legal and other institutional reforms, accountability, and reparations.  The lack of justice for the victims of the Liberian conflict is shocking. The government of Liberia must end the reign of impunity by enacting the necessary legislation and acting on its duty to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.”

Finally, two African observers commented that justice having “had to come from international courts does not reflect well on . . .  Liberia in particular. The process exposes the failure by Liberians to provide themselves with a legal and judiciary system capable of effectively administering justice.” More generally “the verdict and the process should be a wakeup call to Africans. The successful conviction for such crimes is a glaring example of the failure of Africans to govern themselves effectively. . . . Africans must focus on building strong institutions to deal with human rights violations ourselves . . . .” On the other hand, the conviction “informs future Liberian, and indeed African, dictators and tyrants that they cannot escape justice by hedging their bets on a dysfunctional domestic legal system. Where national systems are incapable of adequately and effectively prosecuting leaders who engage in wanton violations of human rights, citizens can look to the international criminal court for justice.”

International Criminal Court’s First Conviction

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo

On March 14, 2012, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted its first defendant: Thomas Lubanga Dylio. [1]

The ICC’s three-judge Trial Chamber unanimously concluded, after a lengthy trial, that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as a co-perpetrator of the war crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate in an internal armed conflict in 2002-2003 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). At the time Lubanga was the President of a rebel group, the Commander-in-Chief of its military wing and its political leader.

At a hearing to be held on April 18th the Trial Chamber will consider the length of his sentence and the principles to be used in establishing reparations for the victims of these crimes. The ICC’s Prosecutor has said that his office will seek a sentence close to the maximum of 30 years under Article 77(1)(a) of the Court’s Rome Statute. It is anticipated that Lubanga will appeal his conviction and sentence to the ICC’s Appeals Chamber.

The Trial Chamber’s judgment also harshly criticized the Prosecutor for negligence in delegating investigations to unreliable intermediaries who had encouraged certain witnesses to give false testimony that had compelled the Court to exclude any reliance on their testimony.

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights said this verdict “represented the coming of age of the [ICC] . . . and . . . [sent] a strong signal against impunity for such grave breaches of international law that will reverberate well beyond the D.R.C.”

The U.S. had similar words of commendation. The White House said the decision demonstrated that “the international community is united in its determination to end the repugnant practice of using child soldiers.” The U.S. Department of State noted that the conviction highlighted the “paramount international concern” over “the brutal practice of conscripting and using children to take a direct part in hostilities” and puts “perpetrators and would-be perpetrators of [such conduct] on notice that they cannot expect their crimes to go unpunished.”


[1] A previous post reviewed the trial of this case while another post discussed interesting issues of witness protection in the case.