Why the Pope’s Visit Mattered; USAID’s Hidden Documents; Jacobson and Reynoso, confirmed!

March 30, 2012

Over the last decades, the Catholic Church has moved from the margins in Cuba’s national life to a more influential role.

This progress has been mostly defined by decisions taken in Cuba.  But it has also been propelled forward by Pope John Paul II’s trip in 1998 and now by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI this week.

We were in Cuba as the Pope journeyed from Santiago to Havana.  We spoke to scores of Cubans.  Disappointment was hardly the prevailing sentiment, and we dissent from the view expressed in some news accounts that the Pope’s trip to Cuba failed to meet expectations.

In our view, this is what the Pope’s trip to Cuba accomplished.

First, it served a pastoral purpose, “I came here,” the Pope said, “as a witness to Jesus Christ.”  He spoke to a Cuban congregation that is a fraction of the island’s population, but his very presence reminded them they were not forgotten.

Second, the trip is likely to lead to larger spaces for the faithful to worship.  David Adams, writing for Reuters, said the Pope “used the trip to deliver a shopping list of requests in talks with Raul Castro…including official recognition of Good Friday – barely a week away – as a national holiday, as well as pressing for greater access to the media and the right to open religious schools.”

Third, the visit touched Cubans beyond the community of Catholics.  His visit received extensive coverage on Cuban television. Many Cubans we saw in the Plaza of the Revolution – especially younger Cubans –did not come to fulfill a religious purpose, but were drawn to the historic presence of the Pope because they wanted to hear and participate in something historic.

Fourth, Pope Benedict and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, during their homilies in mass and other public appearances, pressed on issues that the larger Cuban community does not get to hear discussed, regardless of their beliefs.

The Pope said these and other things with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, who attended two of his masses, seated in the front row. Even some of his critics in the U.S. were forced to acknowledge his message “demanding dignity and freedom for all.

Fifth, the Pope’s visit was an occasion for reunification, reconciliation, and exchange for Cubans and their families from the United States.  Archbishop Wenski led a pilgrimage of hundreds of Miami Catholics to see the pope. They included Cuban Americans who had fled the island, never returned, or rarely visited.

But, as the Associated Press reported, some of these pilgrims enjoyed the mind- and heart-opening experiences that can only take place through travel:

Lourdes Amorin, who left Cuba for Puerto Rico as a young girl with her family shortly after the 1959 revolution, said she grew up thinking she had nothing in common with Cubans on the island.  “Our parents, our relatives got it into our minds that we have nothing to return to. I am going to go home to tell them we have a lot in common. We are human. We are all Cuban.”

This is progress.  More is likely to follow.

As it updates Cuba’s economic model, cutting state employment, encouraging Cubans to take private sector jobs, cutting benefits and subsidies, the government is saying, as the Wall Street Journal noted this week, that the state cannot do everything for its people, and it is inviting the church to help fill the resulting void in both spiritual and material ways.

On the island, the church is the largest, most encompassing institution other than the state, and Cuba’s government acknowledges its reach by engaging its help in delivering social services and aid to the islands’ needy.  At the same time, as Anya Landau French observed, the church is publishing “unvarnished criticisms of Raúl Castro’s halting economic reforms.”  The church’s role is also political – it was involved in Cuba’s decision to release all of the prisoners that remained from the 2003 crackdown against dissidents.

This will continue, as Dr. William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert and the dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, told McClatchy, as demonstrated by the Pope’s last meeting in Cuba, with former president Fidel Castro.  The meeting, he said, “sends a message to ordinary Cubans that Fidel is comfortable and supports the new relationship between the church and state.”  This in turns will build acceptance of the church’s role among intellectuals and elites in the months and years ahead.

Some will never be satisfied.  Senator Marco Rubio worried that the church had negotiated “political space for themselves in exchange for their moral imperative.” A spokesman for the exile community told the Miami Herald “The pope’s visit is part of a combination or strategy to confuse people.”

We’re not confused.  This trip provided solace for the faithful, religious space for the church, reconciliation for Cuban Americans, a testament to the power of travel, and the promise of a larger role for the church during an era of economic and political change in Cuba.

We think this is pretty powerful stuff.

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Benedict and the Balancing Act; Googling the Heritage Foundation; U.S. Ponders Oil Crisis Response Plans

March 23, 2012

As old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.  As the New York Times reported this week, Cuba’s Cardinal Ortega, the priests, the faithful, the protestors in Cuba, the diaspora in Miami, official Washington, and many others have assigned great expectations to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s a real balancing act ahead. Not everyone wants the visit to succeed; and it is hard to imagine that everyone will be satisfied.  But it might be nice for the Pope’s visit to take place – and for Cubans who plan to worship with him in the Plaza of the Revolution to have their chance to do so – before the grades are assigned, the political analysis is completed, and the crowd moves on to the next chapter in the Cuba story.

We’re sending a team to Cuba to observe what happens and to talk to Cubans about their reactions to Benedict’s trip.  We’d like to learn what they think first, before we try and understand whose expectations might have been disappointed or met.

In this issue of Cuba Central, we survey some of what’s been written and said – in Miami, by Amnesty International, by the Vatican, and others – as the Pope begins his journey, stopping in Mexico before he reaches Cuba early next week.

We’re also keeping an eye on René González, the paroled member of the Cuban Five, who has gained permission to visit his ailing brother in Cuba; a newly discovered document that spells out the Federal oil spill disaster plan that could be used in connection with drilling off the coast of Cuba; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s surprising attack on USAID (she’s accusing the agency, which engages in regime change activities of “supporting” Cuba’s economic reforms); as well as Fidel Castro’s warning that an attack on Iran is a road to disaster.

There’s much to read and reflect about, this week, in Cuba news…

Read the rest of this entry »


A Tale of Two Popes

March 16, 2012

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba is ten days away. But it is already easy to discern disquiet among the hardest of the hardliners that history could repeat itself. They’re busy creating expectations for the visit to fail. Why are they so grim?

What makes them nervous is that like the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, Benedict’s trip to the island could bolster the image of Cuba’s government and lead to progress in U.S.-Cuban relations.

The party line of the hardliners was pretty harsh in 1998. Then-Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart called the Cuban Catholic Church “untrustworthy,” and accused it of collaboration with the Castro government. Exiles in Miami who wanted to see John Paul’s visit first hand were branded as traitors by anti-Castro activists. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen attacked the Pope for opposing embargos and setting up “a great photo-op for the dictator, Fidel Castro.” Most of all, she predicted the visit wouldn’t amount to anything. “Life will go on in the same horrid way for the Cuban people.”

The reality proved different and more complex.

The images of Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro embracing destroyed their insistence that the Catholic Church in Cuba was under siege. It also gave hope to believers on the island that there would be more space for them in Cuban society. That did occur. However, the full reestablishment of the Catholic Church as a predominant institution did not.

The television coverage of the visit, as well as John Paul’s open air masses before tens of thousands of Cubans, affirmed that religious believers were no longer as stigmatized as previously. Furthermore, John Paul publicly criticized “any infringement on religious freedom,” and said that true human liberation had to include “the exercise of freedom of conscience.” Before his departure, John Paul denounced the embargo for its impact on Cuba’s poor, and the isolation it imposed on all of Cuba’s people. In ringing tones, the Pope called upon “Cuba to open to the world and the world to Cuba.”

The impact was also felt on U.S. policy toward the island. President Clinton – heeding as the Miami Herald reported, the Pope’s message asking help for Cuba’s people and the church on the island -loosened restrictions on flights to Cuba and family financial support, actions the Herald applauded. These changes provided emotional and financial support for Cubans with relatives in the United States and produced more questions about restrictions on U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel to and engage with Cuba.

Over time, the Pope’s visit strengthened the position of the Church. Caritas Cubana, the Church’s charitable agency, expanded throughout the island. A new seminary for training priests was opened in Cuba for the first time in fifty years. Cuban Bishops, as CRS reports, now speak out on the need for change in Cuba.

When Raúl Castro formally assumed the presidency in 2008, his first meeting with an overseas leader was with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarciso Bertone. Cardinal Jamie Ortega sat down with President Castro in 2010 to assist with the government’s release of more than 125 political prisoners. The church has even been allowed to provide graduate courses in business alongside the Spanish University of Murcia.

This is progress. Not all of it by any means is attributable solely to John Paul II or to the Catholic Church in Cuba; it clearly stems from the Cuban government’s view of its own interests; but the Church is committed to bending the arc of history in ways that will improve the welfare of all Cubans and offer hope for a brighter future.

This is what the hardliners fear from Benedict’s arrival. Among the frozen images of Cuba that the pro-sanctions crowd wants to preserve is that of a government hostile to and intolerant of the religious practices of its people. Network news footage of thousands of Cuban and U.S. Catholics worshipping together in the Plaza of the Revolution as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass is inconsistent with their political interests.

For more on the status of the Church in Cuba and Pope Benedict’s visit, please read this exceptional essay by Dr. Meg Crahan, The Institute of Latin American Studies, Columbia University, and advisory board Member of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.  Read the rest of this entry »


This is news: U.S. Says Something Nice about Cuba (but it still can’t attend the Summit of the Americas)

March 9, 2012

The U.S. rarely has a kind word for Cuba or its government.  So, it was noteworthy this week when our State Department released its 2011 annual reports on drug trafficking and money laundering and Cuba received good marks for its counter-narcotic efforts.

The brief section on Cuba in the report, which details problems identified by the U.S. government in the enforcement of controls against narcotics globally, speaks in brief but clear, declarative sentences about what Cuba is doing in the fight against illegal drugs, and it turns out Cuba is doing well.   The U.S. finds that –

  • Cuba’s counter-narcotics efforts have prevented illegal narcotics trafficking from having a significant impact on the island.
  • Domestic production and consumption of illegal drugs remained very limited
  • Cuba continues to demonstrate a commitment to fulfilling its responsibilities as a signatory to the 1988 United Nations Convention against illicit trafficking in drugs
  • Cuba regularly participates in international counter-narcotics conferences
  • Cuba maintained a significant level of cooperation with U.S. counter-narcotics efforts.

And so on.  It reports these and other positive indicators – without hedging or suggesting areas where Cuba’s performance lags.

No matter what grade it gets, Cuba finds its appearance in such reports by the U.S. endlessly irritating.   Diplomats from Cuba’s foreign ministry have told us on numerous occasions that Cuba is subjected to double-standards by the U.S. government in assessing its actions on matters ranging from drugs to child trafficking, and they simply don’t believe the U.S. is suited to judge the behavior of other countries.   Cuba cooperates with reporting conducted by international organizations where it thinks it will get a better shake.  They will likely derive little satisfaction from the positive mentions it received in this year’s report on drugs.

But, we offer kudos to the State Department for telling the truth about Cuba’s anti-narcotics record.

We can only add, let’s hope that this experiment in honesty takes hold.  It would be nice, for example, if President Obama took note of the sweep and significance of Cuba’s economic changes, or if he took another look at Cuba’s false and politically-motivated inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and acted accordingly.

Ideally, candor is contagious, and we’ll get a better policy toward Cuba, and even the possibility of a better, two-way relationship down the road

Read the rest of this entry »


Diplomacy and Double Standards; Rene Gonzalez’s Humanitarian Request

March 2, 2012

If you needed another reminder about the double standards of U.S. diplomacy relating to all issues Cuba, this week provided another powerful example.

After weeks of conflict with Egypt, and tormenting days of impasse for the families of 16 Americans held in that country as part of a crackdown on pro-democracy groups, the United States government has been able to secure their release.  Americans held captive have been able to leave Egypt.

As this crisis wore on, Members of Congress threatened to cut off Egypt’s access to $1.5 billion in aid.  But the deadlock was broken by intensive diplomacy with Egypt.

According to The Cable, Obama administration officials – including U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brooke Anderson of the National Security Council, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Harold Koh of the State Department –worked “furiously” to resolve the crisis.  Secretary of State Clinton met twice with Egypt’s Foreign Minister.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham “pitched in.”  $5 million in bail money was paid as part of the arrangement that enabled all 16 to fly out of Egypt yesterday.

Half a world away, in the comfortable confines of a Congressional hearing room, Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee explored various dimensions of the U.S. relationship with Cuba and Latin America.

Secretary of State Clinton, to her credit, said economic reforms in Cuba could lead to greater opportunity and political spaces for everyday Cubans, mentioned the releases of political prisoners in Cuba that took place in 2010-2011 and, leaning against the prevailing winds in the Committee, called Iran’s outreach to the region a failure and said no evidence could be found to verify alleged ties between Hezbollah and Latin American drug traffickers.

But in contrast to the U.S. government’s resolve in addressing the crisis affecting the U.S. prisoners in Egypt, the Secretary gave considerable ground when the Committee’s questions turned to the continuing confinement of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence for activities funded by the regime change programs of the Helms-Burton law.

REPRESENTATIVE ALBIO SIRES (D-NJ): I know you mentioned Alan Gross before, but I just want to know that there is [sic] no negotiations going on for a swap between the Cuban spies that are imprisoned for Alan Gross. I know that we had two senators who were in Cuba a couple of days ago. And I was just wondering if — you know, if you know anything about kind of negotiations for a swap.

SEC. CLINTON: At no point, however, has the United States government been willing to give any unilateral concessions to the Castro regime or to ease sanctions as a means to secure Mr. Gross’s release. We think this should be done as a matter of humanitarian concern, as evidence that, you know, the Castro regime is, you know, willing to demonstrate that it is, you know, moving in a different direction. But it hasn’t happened yet. So we have not had any success in our diplomacy. We’d like to see Mr. Gross home. But we have made no deals. We’ve offered no concessions, and we don’t intend to do so.

The Secretary’s posture – rejecting a compromise with Cuba to secure Mr. Gross’s release – not only fails to move his case forward, but it doesn’t even satisfy the hardliners who believe, against five decades of experience, that squeezing Cuba harder will somehow spring Mr. Gross from his confinement.

They advocate ending flights to Cuba, ending family support in the form of remittances to Cuba, even expelling the small group of Cuban diplomats who function in the U.S. under the auspices of the Swiss embassy or the United Nations.   At the end of the day, they would rather preserve the fiction that sanctions will break the back of the Cuban economy than engage in the kind of diplomacy that conveys legitimacy to the Cuban government –even if that puts Mr. Gross at risk of serving his entire sentence.

Surely, we can do better, as the diplomacy we employed in Egypt makes quite clear. Read the rest of this entry »