Resolution of Issues Regarding Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay

Since the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement, Cuba has voiced at least three demands or issues regarding its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. The most serious one is ending the lease and returning this territory to complete Cuban control. The second is the U.S.’ paying for use of the territory since the Cuban Revolution’s takeover of the island in 1959. The third is Cuba’s objection to the U.S.’ establishing and maintaining a prison for detainees after 9/11 and to the U.S.’ alleged mistreatment and torture of those detainees.

Understanding these issues requires an examination of (a) the Cuban war for independence, 1895-1898, and the Spanish-American War of 1898; (b) the terms of seven documents relating to the lease, all of which predate the Cuban Revolution; and (c) the position of the Revolutionary government toward these documents and the lease. [1] In conclusion, this post will discuss methods for resolving these issues.

Before all of that, here are maps and photographs of Guantanamo Bay.

Guant map1

guantanamo.bay

 

 

 

 

Gitmo look west

_245513_us_base_guantanamo300

 

 

 

The Cuban War for Independence and the Spanish-American War [2]

In 1895 Cubans started a revolt or war of independence from Spain, which responded with ferocity, launching its “reconcentrado” campaign that herded 300,000 Cubans into re-concentration camps. Spain’s tactics infuriated many Americans, who began to raise money and even fight on the side of the Cuban nationalists while American businesses with economic interests on the island were worried about the safety of their investments. U.S. President William McKinley wanted an end to the Cuban-Spanish conflict, but demanded that Spain act responsibly and humanely and that any settlement be acceptable to Cuban nationals.

In November 1897, an amicable resolution appeared possible when the Spanish granted the Cubans limited autonomy and closed the re-concentration camps. But after pro-Spanish demonstrators rioted in Havana in January 1898 to protest Spain’s more conciliatory policies, McKinley ordered the U.S. battleship Maine to Havana to protect American citizens and property and to demonstrate that the U.S. still valued Spain’s friendship.

With the Maine safely moored in Spanish waters, the Spanish-American relationship was jolted by the publication in a New York newspaper of a letter by the Spanish minister to the U.S. describing McKinley as “weak and a bidder for the admirations of the crowd” and revealing that the Spanish were not negotiating in good faith with the U.S. Americans saw the letter as an attack on both McKinley’s and the nation’s honor. The American public’s anger only intensified following an explosion on the Maine and its sinking on February 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor, killing 266 crew members. The Navy, on March 21, reported that an external explosion, presumably from a Spanish mine, had destroyed the ship.

With diplomatic initiatives exhausted and the American public wanting an end to the Cuban crisis, McKinley, in mid-April 1898, asked Congress for authority to intervene in Cuba, which it granted. Spain soon broke relations with the U.S., and the U.S. blockaded Cuba’s ports. On April 23, Spain declared war on the U.S. Two days later the U.S. did likewise with the Teller amendment committing the U.S. to the independence of Cuba once the war had ended, disclaiming “any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island, except for the pacification thereof.”

What became known as the Spanish-American War lasted only a little over three months with U.S. victories in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines ending in a cease fire on August 12, 1898. Under the Paris Peace Treaty of December 10, 1898, the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands while Spain renounced its claim to Cuba, which remained under U.S. military occupation until 1902.

Thereafter, Cuba would be a de facto U.S. protectorate until 1934.

The Lease of Guantanamo Bay

The first five of the seven documents relating to the Guantanamo lease were created during the period that Cuba was a de facto protectorate of the U.S.

  1. Act of Congress (March 2, 1901). On this date, President McKinley signed an Act of Congress that included what was called “the Platt Amendment,” which authorized the U.S. President “to leave the government and control of the island of Cuba to its people so soon as a government shall have been established in said island under a constitution which, either as a part thereof or in an ordinance appended thereto, shall define the future relations of the United States with Cuba, [and shall include the following: provisions]:
  • “I. That the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgement in or control over any portion of said island.”
  • “III. That the government of Cuba consents that the [U.S.] may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the treaty of Paris on the [U.S.], now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.”
  • “”VII. That to enable the [U.S.] to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the [U.S.] lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”
  1. Constitution of Cuba (May 20, 1902). On this date, the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba was promulgated, and Article VII of its Appendix provided: “To enable the [U.S.] to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Cuban Government will sell or lease to the [U.S.] the lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”
  1. U.S.-Cuba Agreement (February 23, 1903). Pursuant to the just mentioned Cuban constitutional provision, on February 23, 1903, the U.S. and Cuba entered into the “Agreement . . . for the Lease of Lands for Coaling and Naval stations.” Its Article I stated that Cuba “hereby leases to the United States, for the time required for the purposes of coaling and naval stations, the following described areas of land and water [Guantanamo Bay and Bahia Honda] [3] situated in the Island of Cuba”

This Agreement’s Article II stated, “The grant of the foregoing Article shall include the right to use and occupy the waters adjacent to said areas of land and water, and to improve and deepen the entrances thereto and the anchorages therein, and generally to do any and all things necessary to fit the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

This Agreement concluded in Article III, whereby the U.S. “recognizes the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba over the above described areas of land and water, on the other hand the Republic of Cuba consents that during the period of the occupation by the [U.S.] of said areas under the terms of this agreement the [U.S.] shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas.”

Unlike most leases, this agreement did not set forth a set period of time for the lease or the compensation or rent to be paid.

  1. Treaty between the United States of America and Cuba (May 22, 1903). This treaty in Article I states, “The Government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes, or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island.”

Article III provides, “The Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba.”

Article VII adds, “To enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”

  1. Lease of Certain Areas of Land and Water for Naval or Coaling Stations in Guantanamo and Bahia Honda (July 2, 1903). This instrument details additional terms of the lease in seven articles. Its Article I specified the compensation that the U.S. would pay to Cuba for the leased territories: “the annual sum of two thousand dollars, in gold coin of the United States, as long as the former shall occupy and use said areas of land by virtue of said agreement.” Under Article II, the U.S. agreed “that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within said areas.”

There still was no set period of time for the lease of the territory.

On November 12, 1903, Guantánamo Bay Outer Harbor passed into U.S. hands “without any formality” and was “effected in a quiet manner.”

  1. Treaty between United States of America and Cuba (May 29, 1934)By 1934 there had been changes in the overall relationship between the two countries. The U.S., pursuing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” policy, proposed to nullify the previously mentioned May 22, 1903, U.S.-Cuba Treaty. Cuba had become increasingly upset with the earlier treaty’s Platt Amendment granting the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba, and Cuba welcomed the idea of nullifying the 1903 treaty. Negotiations to that end proceeded quickly; and a new Cuban-American Treaty of Relations was signed on May 29, 1934, and after rapid ratifications by both states it entered into force on June 9, 1934. This effectively ended the U.S. de facto protectorate of Cuba.

The 1934 treaty in Article II also stated: “All the acts effected in Cuba by the [U.S.] during its military occupation of the island, up to May 20,1902, the date on which the Republic of Cuba was established, have been ratified and held as valid; and all the rights legally acquired by virtue of those acts shall be maintained and protected.”

Article III added the following language with respect to the naval station at Guantánamo Bay: “The supplementary agreement in regard to naval or coaling station signed between the two Governments on July 2, 1903, also shall continue in effect in the same form and on the same conditions with respect to the naval station at Guantánamo. So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantánamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territory it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty.”

The implication of Article III is that the U.S. at any time can walk away from the lease at Guantánamo (abandon the base), but the Cubans can never revoke the lease.

  1. Change in Amount of Rent (1938). Although the source document has not been located, secondary sources say the annual rent for Guantanamo was changed in 1938 to $4,085 (U.S. Dollars), which was the 1938 equivalent of $2,000 in U.S. gold coins. That term has never been changed. Indeed, the U.S. documents transmitting the annual rent checks in that amount for 2011, 2012 and 2013 merely refer to the July 2, 1903, Lease while stating the amount of $4,085 was “computed in the manner of which the government of Cuba has been advised in connection with previous rental payments.” [4]

Cuba’s Revolutionary Government’s Positions Regarding the Lease

Soon after the Cuban Revolution took over the government in January 1959, it started calling for the U.S. to get out of Guantanamo. Over time Cuba set out four different, and sometimes contradictory, legal arguments for invalidating the lease. Even though some international law experts thought Cuba had a good argument for such invalidation: rebus sic stantibus (fundamental change of circumstances), [5] Cuba never instituted legal proceedings to that end. In addition, while the U.S.S.R. still existed and was a major Cuban ally, the Soviets argued that the lease was an “unequal treaty,” but that legal theory was not embraced by the U.S. and most Western nations.

In addition, Cuba has refused to cash the annual U.S. checks for $4,085 made out to the “Treasurer General of the Republic” (a position that ceased to exist after the Revolution). One such check, however, was cashed in the early days of the Revolution, Cuba says, due to confusion. (Many years ago during a televised interview, Fidel Castro opened a desk drawer in his office to show the collection of uncashed checks.)

At least by 2004, Cuba accepted the lease as valid while asserting that control over Guantanamo “will eventually revert to Cuba because of the nature of the arrangement, ad defined by its domestic law, which prohibits perpetual leases. For example, in 2004, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated the arrangement “does not grant a perpetual right but a temporary one over that part of our territory, by which, in due course, as a just right of our people, the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo should be returned by peaceful means to Cuba.” In short, said Cuba, the lease is valid, but U.S. occupation of the territory is illegal. This argument is ridiculous, in the opinion of this blogger, a retired U.S. lawyer.

There have been at least two U.S. responses to these Cuban arguments of invalidity of the lease. First, under the international legal principle of pacta sunt servanda (the contract is the law between the parties), the lease remained a valid agreement between the two states and Cuba has a legal obligation to adhere to agreements previously entered into despite a change in governments. [6] Second, the revolutionary government’s acceptance of at least one of the annual rent checks was an admission of the lease’s validity or a waiver of Cuba’s objections thereto.

Conclusion

As a retired U.S. lawyer, without doing any legal research, I see potential issues of lease invalidity due to (a) possible undue influence or coercion by the U.S. in establishing the terms of the original lease in 1903 and the modifications in 1934 and 1938; [7] and (b) the U.S. use of Guantanamo possibly exceeding the uses permitted by the lease. Any such claim, however, would be potentially subject, at least in a domestic legal dispute, to the affirmative defenses of waiver, estoppel, ratification, laches and statute of limitations. [8]

The argument for invalidity based on the U.S. use of Guantanamo has been rejected by Professor Strauss. He notes that the lease permits the use of Guantanamo as a “naval station,” which is a term created by the U.S. to allow its Navy to determine the range of activities that could occur at such a “station” and which has been used for fewer functions than a full naval base and more recently as a full naval base. As a result, says Strauss, the limitation on use is “largely meaningless in a practical sense.”

In any event, if Cuba now were to assert a right to terminate the lease, over U.S. objection, then I suggest that such a claim should be submitted to a panel of three arbitrators at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague under its existing Arbitration Rules. Presumably the U.S. in addition to resisting the claim would have a contingent counterclaim (in the event of an arbitration award of termination) for reimbursement for the value of U.S. improvements to the territory.

Such an arbitration proceeding should also include any Cuban claim for compensation for the U.S. use of Guantanamo for 66 years (1960-2015). If, however, such a claims is only for the $4,085 annual rent established in 1938 for a total of $269,610 (without interest), then the claim should be resolved quickly by the U.S. paying the amount of the claim. If, however, the claim is for a higher amount based upon some theory to void the $4,085 figure and instead use a larger amount of alleged fair market value, then presumably such a claim would be contested by the U.S. and a proper claim for arbitration.

Of course, at any time the two parties could negotiate a new lease of Guantanamo, presumably for a specific term of years, with a right of renewal, at a higher and annually adjustable rent. Such a new lease could also impose limits on U.S. use of the territory such as prohibition of the operation of a prison or detention facility.

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[1] An excellent overall discussion of the U.S. lease of Guantanamo is contained in Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013).  See also Notes on Guantanamo Bay; Wikipedia, Guantanamo Bay Navy Base.

[2] This brief summary of the two wars is based on American President: William McKinley: Foreign Affairs, Miller Center, Univ. Virginia.

[3] Bahia Honda was never used by the U.S. and reverted to Cuban control.

[4] Boadle, Castro: Cuba not cashing US Guantanamo rent checks, Reuters (Aug. 17, 2007); Shiffer, Annual rent for Girmo Naval Base: $4,085, payable to Cuba, StarTribune (Oct. 10, 2014) (contains U.S. transmittal advices for rental checks for 2011, 2012 and 2013).

[5] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that entered into force on January 20, 1980, sets forth “the codification and progressive development of the law of treaties,” which are “international agreement[s] concluded between States in written form and governed by international law.” (Preamble & Art. 2(1)(a).) Its Article 62 recognizes a “fundamental change of circumstances” as a ground for “terminating or withdrawing from” a treaty and defines the conditions for such a ground. Cuba is a party to the treaty, and although the U.S. is not, the State Department has said that this Convention “is already generally recognized as the authoritative guide to current treaty law and practice.” (David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Joan Fitzpatrick, Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 127-28 (4th ed. LexisNexis 2009).)

[6] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties notes that “the principles of free consent and of good faith and pacta sunt servanda are universally recognized” and its Article 26 under the heading “Pacta sunt servanda” states, “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.”

[7] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in Article 52 provides, “A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.”

[8] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides in Article 45 that a “State may no longer invoke [breach by the other party or fundamental change of circumstances] if, after becoming aware of the facts: (a) it shall have expressly agreed that the treaty is valid or remains in force or continues in operation . . .; or (b) it must by reason of its conduct be considered as having acquiesced in the validity of the treaty or its maintenance in force or in operation . . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report)

cuba_havana_matanzas

We have just reviewed the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now we look at the Department’s recent report on Cuban religious freedom.[1] A subsequent post will examine and compare the Commission’s recent views on the subject.

Versalles Church, Matanzas, Cuba
Versalles Church,   Matanzas, Cuba
SET Chapel
SET Chapel, 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

According to the report, an estimated 60 to 70 percent (or 6,600,000 to 7,700,000) of the 11 million Cuban people are  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; Methodists, 35,000; Seventh-day Adventists, 33,000; 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. (On one of my trips to Cuba we visited a synagogue in Havana to deliver a digital version of the Talmud as a gift from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel.)

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. (On another trip to Cuba we visited the beautiful Greek Orthodox Cathedral to deliver an icon as a gift from our friends at Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church.)

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 State Department 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” (atheism) as the state ideology 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 State Department, “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.” (The same was true in the Department’s prior report for 2011.)

The Cuban government’s respect for religious freedom improved in 2012.

There “were some advances in the ability of members of established churches to meet and worship.”  In  addition, religious groups reported “improved ability [in 2012] to attract new members without government interference. . . . reduced interference from the government in conducting their services, and improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events.” It also was easier for them “to bring in foreign religious workers and visitors and restore houses of worship.” (The same was true in 2011.)

Churches reported “increased participation in religious education for children.” The Catholic Church’s cultural center in Havana “continued to offer academic and business administration courses.”  The “Jewish Community Center and some Protestant churches also offered courses in lay subjects, such as computers and foreign languages.” Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs, weekend retreats and workshops for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.” (The same was true in 2011.)

“Religious groups reported they were able to engage in community service programs. 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.” (The same was true in 2011.)

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 providing one free meal per week to neighborhood residents, many of whom are not members of the church.

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.

Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Havana
Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church, Havana

Another clean-water system was installed by Westminster members in Havana’s Iglesia Presbiteriana-Reformada en Luyano (Luyano Presbyterian-Reformed Church), which shares the water with people in its neighborhood. A similar water system was installed last year in another church near Havana by Westminster members.

During the year the report says “the Catholic Church and some other churches were able to print periodicals and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship.” The Catholic Church’s periodicals “sometimes criticized 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, the Cuban “Council of Churches, the government-recognized Protestant umbrella organization, was authorized to host a monthly twenty-minute-long radio broadcast.” In addition, state-run television and radio stations mentioned a Council of Churches ceremony celebrating Reformation Sunday. (Essentially the same was true in 2011.)

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.

Cuban Council of Churches
Cuban Council of Churches

The Council, whose Havana 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 State Department said Cuban religious leaders reported that 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. Many houses of worship were thus expanded or repaired.” (The same was true in 2011.) And 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, said the State Department, most unregistered organizations and “house churches” operated with little or no interference from the government. (The same was true in 2011.)

Both the Catholic Church and the Cuban Council of Churches reported “they were able to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in most 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 same was true in 2011.)

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 same was true in 2011.)

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. (The same was true in 2011.)

Pope Benedict XVI @ Plaza de Revolucion
Pope Benedict XVI @      Plaza de Revolucion

In late March 2012 Pope Benedict XVI visited the island at the invitation of the Cuban government, which assisted in organizing papal masses in large public squares in the two largest cities. During the mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolucion before a crowd of thousands, the Pope called for “authentic freedom.” The government declared a three-day public holiday to facilitate citizen participation in these events, and videos of the visit were broadcast on state-run television stations with parallel coverage in the print media.

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

Although to my eye the Department’s report is overwhelmingly positive, it still opens with an unnecessary negative tone. It says, “in practice, [the Cuban] government policies and practices restricted religious freedom . . . . The Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, continued to control most aspects of religious life.”

The report also had specifics 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. It was not an attempt to restrict religious freedom. Moreover, as noted above, the State Department recognized that it was relatively easy in 2012 for Cuban religious groups to obtain government permission to repair and remodel existing buildings.)

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, as previously noted, the report said that unrecognized religious groups 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.”

(However, as previously noted, the report also says that the “house churches” operate without governmental interference.)

The report states that religious groups may not establish schools. This is true because the Cuban Revolution nationalized all private schools 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 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.
MLK Center, Havana
MLK Center, 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.

“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.)

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 the church prints and distributes religious bulletins and journals for most, if not all, of the Protestant churches on the island.)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.” (May be true.)

The government took “measures to limit support for outspoken religious figures that it considered a challenge to its authority.” I have no basis to challenge that statement or the specifics cited by the report on this point with respect to Pastor Omar Perez Ruiz (aka Omar Gude Perez), a leader of the Apostolic Reformation, an association of independent nondenominational churches or the Ladies in White, or the death of Oswaldo Paya Sardinas in an auto crash. (Whatever the facts are in these cases, I believe they are issues of civil liberties for Cuban dissidents, not issues of religious freedom.)

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 Cuban Protestant leader and in my opinion, the glass of such freedom in Cuba is more than half full.

Therefore, there is no basis whatsoever  for the U.S. government or her citizens to castigate Cuban religious institutions or leaders or members. 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.


[1] Prior posts examined the State Department’s reports on Cuban religious freedom for 2010 and 2011.