Pope Francis will land in Cuba tomorrow for a three-day visit for what the Vatican has called a “complex trip.”
In the run-up to his visit, Cubans were able to prescreen a video from the Pontiff whose message was direct, open, and clear:
“I would like to convey to you such a simple message. I think it’s important and necessary. Jesus loves you very much. He seriously loves you. He carries you in his heart and knows better than anyone what each of us needs and craves, what our deepest wishes are. And he never abandons us. And when we don’t behave as he wishes, he is always there, ready to comfort, to give us new hope, a new opportunity, a new life. He never leaves. He is always there.”
Like John Paul II and Benedict XVI before him, Pope Francis is visiting Cuba believing he can make a difference – in the lives of faithful Cubans and in the normalization process between the U.S. and Cuban governments that was able to launch, in part, because of his support.
There’s a sign in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston – One person can make a difference, and everyone should try – quoting a speech that today exemplifies the leadership that Pope Francis is trying to provide.
Much has been written about Francis’s imminent trip to the island that demonstrates his seriousness of purpose and illustrates the ripple effects his visit can have.
The commentary reminds us that he is the first South American to lead the Roman Catholic Church, a native speaker of Spanish, the author of a book about John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba, and someone who has dedicated his papacy, as Andrew Chesnut reminds us, “to the periphery.”
It is from this vantage point that Cardinal Jaime Ortega says the pontiff is paying “special deference” to the Cuban Catholic Church at a time when, as the Miami Herald reported, “interesting perspectives are being opened in our national life by the new possibilities of dialogue and mutual listening taking place between the United States and Cuba for the good of both countries and all of Latin America.”
The opening, which Pope Francis helped make possible, is not the only motivating force in his visit, but it is present in its political and pastoral dimensions. The Pope is expected to raise his voice in favor of ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba – if not on the island, perhaps later in Washington or in New York at the United Nations where he will address the General Assembly – because, as the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolinsaid, ‘the Holy See had always opposed the trade and economic embargo against Cuba because it hurts ordinary people most.’
This is consistent with his history of John Paul II’s visit. As Nick Miroff writes, “the bookwas critical of Cuba’s version of authoritarian socialism, but it echoed John Paul’s call for an end to the punitive U.S. trade embargo.”
In his journey to and across Cuba, Pope Francis will elevate the role that Cuba’s Catholic Church is playing in the pews, the places outside of Church, and the halls of power.
Quoting again the Miami Herald, “Since John Paul’s visit in 1998 and Benedict’s 2012 trip, the church has been consolidating its strength on the island and building on those papal visits to gain more space for its activities, which range from educating Cuba’s budding private entrepreneurs in its Cuba Emprende program to running soup kitchens for the elderly and after-school programs for children.”
Cardinal Ortega will be by the Pope’s side, and for good reason. As Reuters explains, “Ortega negotiated the release of 126 political prisoners in 2010 and 2011. He also played a role last year in Cuba’s detente with the United States, leading to the renewal of diplomatic relations after 54 years of Cold War hostility.”
That has made the Cardinal controversial among U.S. hardliners who don’t appreciate the extent to which the church has become “the largest non-governmental organization in Cuba,” again quoting Reuters. In 2012, the director for Radio and TV Martí, Carlos Garcia-Perez, called Cardinal Ortega “a lackey” just ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit, and the Cardinal has been under fire for his role in creating greater space for expression in Cuba.
It may be politically inconvenient to see the Church erase the black-and-white imagery with which hardliners describe Cuba, but that has not discouraged pilgrims from Miami, hopeful about the Pope’s message of reconciliation, from making the trip to Cuba (some for the very first time) in order to hear and see Francis say Mass.
In fact, the last two Papal visits have changed Cubans’ lives. Dionisio Garcia, the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba and president of the Cuban Bishops’ Conference, told Reuters, “Things have improved for all religions. I believe the state’s mentality has changed. There is more tolerance at the moment for religious practices. Not everything one would want, but it has changed for the better.”
Not everything is better. Ahead of the Pope’s visit to Cuba, Cuban police arrested protesters from The Ladies in White, as NBC News reported, but these detentions gain greater visibility because the Pope is about to land for a three-day trip to Cuba.
Three time zones away from the Kennedy Library, Senator Marco Rubio closed the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with the other candidates running for president, saying he’d fly Air Force One to Israel, South Korea and Japan, to show our allies “we stand with them.”
Then, he’d fly to China “not just to meet with those adversaries of ours that are there, but also to meet with those that aspire to freedom and liberty within China.” He said he’d fly into Moscow, meeting both with Putin and his opponents.
But, ultimately, he’d never go to Cuba on Air Force One, until its people “could choose its leaders and its own destiny.”
It’s a mighty contrast with how Pope Francis defines his leadership. He is acting to make a difference now; not to dictate Cuba’s future from Rome (or have it dictated from Washington), but to put the pen in the hands of the Cuban people so they can write their own.
The Pope’s plane lands in Havana tomorrow. Someday, Air Force One will land there, too. We suspect we will see it arrive before January 20th, 2017. Aboard will be a president who made significant changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba even today.
U.S. issues new rules boosting travel, trade with Cuba; Countries close to pacts on mail service and flights
The Obama administration today issued new regulations further easing restrictions on travel to Cuba and doing business in Cuba, changes that will benefit people and businesses in the U.S. and on the island. Restrictions on certain remittances to Cuba have been entirely removed according to new Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations.
Press reports also indicate that the U.S.-Cuba have agreed to the resumption direct mail service, with a civil aviation pact nearing completion. In a related development, Verizon Wireless announced it will be the first U.S.-based wireless company to offer roaming services in Cuba, beginning next week.
The new rules will be implemented on Monday, September 21.
According to the Associated Press, what is driving this progress is an agreement at talks that took place in Havana last week: “delegations from each side established a plan to settle a half-century of economic and legal disputes within the next 15 months.”
Reuters reported the new rules:
- Allow U.S. companies to establish offices in Cuba
- Permit joint ventures between U.S. and Cuban firms and establish subsidiaries with Cuba
- Make it easier for airlines and cruise ships to import parts and technology to Cuba to improve the safety of their operations
According to the Wall Street Journal, the new rules also permit “U.S. telecommunications companies to open locations as well as bank accounts in Cuba.”
The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security has also updated its regulations “to authorize exports and re-exports of commodities and software to individuals and private sector entities in Cuba that will be used to develop software that will improve the free flow of information.” OFAC further authorized the “employment of Cuban nationals to develop mobile applications.”
The new rules governing trade will intensify commercial relations between Cuba and the U.S., invest more U.S. businesses in the process of normalizing trade relations, and build on the actions taken by President Obama in the wake of his historic December 17 announcement of restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Associated Press explained the logic behind the changes:
“Efforts to expand business, tourism and other exchanges have run into an overlapping thicket of U.S. laws and hindrances, not to mention an uneven response from Cuba’s political leaders, the U.S. official said.
“Many U.S. travelers still need to go on supervised group trips. Routine airline service hasn’t satisfied various federal conditions. Cruise ships and ferries are still trying to finalize regular maritime routes with Cuban authorities. Credit card and other companies still can’t transfer payments to Cuba. Telecommunications companies haven’t been able to set up shop and get equipment to the island 90 miles south of Florida. And Cuba’s government isn’t even running its Internet connections anywhere near capacity levels.
“The new U.S. rules should help cut through some of these bureaucratic hurdles, the official said, though he declined to describe all the legal changes in concrete terms.”
According to news reports, “citizens of both the U.S. and Cuba will be able to send and receive letters and packages directly to one another for the first time since 1963.”
A prospective agreement between the U.S. and Cuba on civil aviation would enable U.S. carriers to offer regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island, adding to the options for travelers who are now permitted to fly on federally-approved charter services. The U.S. and Cuba have not updated their bilateral agreement for flights since 1953. Additional flights would link logically to reforms expanding travel to Cuba.
The Washington Post reported today that for people-to-people or non-tourist travel – “visitors to Cuba for a wide range of allowed purposes, including business, religious, educational and people-to-people exchange – can now include family members, and travelers can open Cuban bank accounts.”
Companies are continuing to use the reforms announced by the Obama administration in January to offer new services in Cuba.
On Thursday, Verizon Wireless said it will provide roaming service that will help make visits and business in Cuba easier. Verizon customers will be able to talk on the phone, send messages, and use data through the company’s Pay-As-You-Go International Travel option, according to Miami Herald. Customers using a World Device can add the Pay-As-You-Go International Travel option “to stay connected while in Cuba.”
Verizon Wireless joins other communications ventures like IDT Corp which reached an agreement in March with Cuba’s Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) to provide direct international long distance communication by telephone.
Most recently, on Wednesday, President Obama urged businessmen to pressure Congress to lift the Cuban embargo, emphasizing the “significant economic opportunities” created by renewed relations reports Fox News Latino.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) wrote Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to stop the project initiated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors to fund a ten-episode situation comedy to ridicule the leaders of Cuba’s government and civil society.
We wrote about the BBG program in last week’s news blast.
Secretary Kerry also serves on the Broadcasting Board of Governors by virtue of his office.
CDA questioned why the U.S. government was planning to fund programming transmitted to Cuba that ridicules the Cuban leadership at the same time that President Obama and the Secretary are working to reorient U.S. policy toward engagement and respect and away from previous efforts to undermine the Cuban government.
“More than a waste of tax dollars is at stake,” Sarah Stephens, executive director of CDA said in her letter to the Secretary, the BBG program risks “confusing the overwhelming majority of Cubans, who want normalization to take place, and emboldening hardliners in Cuba who do not.”
Earlier this week, Tracey Eaton, who unearthed the BBG solicitation titled “OCBSatire,” reported that the deadline for submitting for programming proposals had been extended from Monday September 14th until today.
The New York Times and Pundit Wire also wrote about the regime change sitcoms. A piece about the controversial program appeared under Sarah Stephens’ byline in the Huffington Post.
On Wednesday, the U.S News and World Report reported that the U.S. Navy is seeking a contractor to build a new school for dependents of U.S. civilian and military personnel working on base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Despite Cuban calls for the return of the base, Administration officials including both Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and National Security Advisor Susan Rice have said that Guantánamo Bay is not up for negotiation.
Although the Obama Administration continues to consider ways to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center, the administration contends that Guantánamo Naval Base still has “operational value” and new construction is likely a sign of the Administration commitment to maintaining the base.
On Saturday, the Houston Chronicle reported that efforts to close the detention center, a campaign promise of President Barack Obama in 2008, remain “frustrating.” According to U.S. officials familiar with the process, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently notified Congress of two prisoner transfers, and has four more files set to go to Congress by the end of the month. Under the 2014 Defense Department authorization law, Congress has 30 days to review the transfers before they become public. Arrangements must be made to transfer the remaining 116 prisoners out of Guantánamo Bay prison before it can be closed.
The U.S. has occupied the forty-five square acre land adjacent to Guantánamo Bay since 1898 as part of the imposition of the Platt Amendment following the Spanish-American War. The U.S relies on the 1934 Treaty of Relations between the U.S. and Cuba as the basis for doing so.
On Tuesday, Billboard reported that Afo Verde, Sony Music chairman and CEO for Latin America, Spain and Portugal and Mario Angel Escalona Serrano, managing director of the Cuba’s Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (EGREM), signed a historic deal licensing EGREM’s music catalog for global distribution. The catalog includes over 30,000 songs and 2,300 albums dating from 1964 according to OnCuba.
The agreement, signed in the historic Areíto studio 101, where Cuban artists have recorded since the 1940s, allows Sony to “expand international awareness and appreciation of Cuban culture, Cuba’s rich musical heritage and its many wonderful artists” according to Doug Morris, chief executive officer of Sony Music Entertainment. EGREM’s managing director echoed Morris saying that the deal would “give new impulsion to the worldwide diffusion of Cuban music.”
Recordings included in the catalog are by artists like Bola de Nieve, Elena Burke, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Celina Gonzalez, Cesar Portillo de la Luz, and Guillermo Rubalcaba, as well as groups like Aragon, Irakere and Los Van Van. While parts of this catalog have been licensed previously, this is the first time that a multinational company has acquired access to the entire catalog as part of a multi-year agreement.
EGREM is the largest record label in Cuba with 95 percent of the market. Sony made this agreement pursuant to the “informational materials” exemption under U.S. sanction rules for Cuba administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This exemption applies to music and other works of art and is intended to promote free expression.
Pope Francis leaves Rome for Cuba on Saturday, where a meeting with Fidel Castro is “likely” but still not scheduled.
On Thursday, September 17, a video of Pope Francis’ message to the people of Cuba aired on Cuban TV, according to Cuba’s state media. Gustavo Andujar, director of the Felix Varela Cultural Center (one of the main community outreach arms of the Archdiocese of Havana), told Associated Press that the state “has been coming to grips with the reality that they can’t guarantee everything to everyone from cradle to the grave, ” adding “More and more spaces are opening up each day.”
During a trip lasting a total of 9 days, Pope Francis will visit three cities in Cuba (Havana, Holguín, and Santiago) and three in the U.S. (Washington, New York, and Philadelphia), reports La Nación. The schedule can be viewed here.Vatican officials say there is no symbolic significance in the Pope’s decision to deliver most of his speeches in the U.S. in Spanish, but the decision to combine the U.S. and Cuba trip is more than coincidental; it is a way for the Pontiff to express support for the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba.
Pope Francis’ remarks at the White House and first ever speech by a pope to Congress will be in English. The Vatican opposes the embargo; a position that the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has expressed publicly for decades; their website has letters, statements, and testimonies on U.S.-Cuba relations dating back to 1989.
Pope Francis will deliver homilies in Spanish at a canonization in Washington, the Catholic Church’s world family conference in Philadelphia, and Madison Square Garden, where Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan will sing at a headline show hosted by Archdiocese of New York before Pope Francis’ September 25 Mass.
Today, Cuba’s Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation expressed “profound indignation” regarding the “social cleansing” of Cuba prior to the papal visit. In their press release, the commission estimates that thousands of poor and homeless Cubans have been removed from the streets in anticipation of foreign press surrounding Pope Francis’ visit.
The commission explains that government actions are concentrated in Havana, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba- three locations in which Pope Francis will give a mass. Commission representatives ask that the Pope request the immediate release of those detained during the government’s clean-up operation.
On Monday, El Nuevo Diario reported that Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs tweeted that she was “Disturbed to see detentions of ladies in white exercising right to non-violent protest in #Cuba ahead of Papal visit.” Jacobson’s tweet came in response to arrests this past Sunday of 50 individuals participating in a Ladies in White protest according to Reuters. Detentions following mass have become common for the Ladies in White. Ladies in White leader Berta Soler told Reuters individuals with the organization plan to attend masses that Pope Francis will lead in Havana and Holguin while he is in Cuba from Sept. 19-22. The organization has asked to meet with the Pope but it is unclear if this is on the agenda according to PanAm Post.
Sunday’s arrests came on the heels of a decision by Cuba’s government to release over 3,500 prisoners prior to the papal visit in a gesture of goodwill as we reported here. Groups like #CubaNow expressed concern that the release did not include any political prisoners while calling the overall release “progress.”
Jacobson’s tweets echo previous concerns she expressed on Twitter like, “We will always speak out against violations of international human rights. These attacks can never be justified. #cuba.” At the first meeting of the bilateral commission between the U.S. and Cuba this past Friday, the U.S. and Cuba agreed to a tentative timeline for continued discussion on key topics like human rights according to the U.S Department of State.
Members of the Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) travelled to Cuba on Monday to discuss collaboration according to the Latin American Herald Tribune. Cuban news sources report that experts from CARICOM will meet with officials of the Cuban Ministries of Science and Agriculture, as well as visit the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, and the Center of Molecular Immunology.
The three-day delegation is headed by Professor Harold Ramkissoon, who is the director of the regional scientists’ network, CARISCIENCE. The government of Grenada organized the trip; however, Cuba is not a CARICOM member. CARICOM comprises Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
The U.S. is also interested in scientific collaboration with Cuba on topics like Cuba’s cancer vaccine. Frances Colón, acting science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, gave an interview in May during which he voiced strong interest for increased collaboration noting, “We should empower innovators wherever they are, because solutions can come from anywhere and will more often than not be an idea that is developed and tested by teams that span national and institutional borders. Given our proximity and shared challenges, U.S.-Cuba cooperation can benefit the people of both countries which is why we continue to pursue it.”
On Tuesday, the United Nations announced that President Raúl Castro will address the UN General Assembly on September 28 reports Reuters. This is President Castro’s first visit as head of state and his only visit since 1959.
A meeting between Presidents Obama and Castro on the sidelines of the General Assembly is not officially planned. The leaders first encountered each other at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013 where they shook hands. This April, they met in Panama at the historic seventh Summit of the Americas which included Cuba for the first time since its inception in 1994.
The UN General Assembly meeting begins on September 25th. Pope Francis will give the opening speech of the meeting during his official visit to the U.S after visiting Cuba.
On Wednesday, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez confirmed that Cuba would again present a resolution before the international community calling for the end of the embargo. According to Rodríguez, the resolution contains two paragraphs applauding renewed bilateral relations between the U.S. and Cuba and President Obama’s support for ending the embargo.
During his press conference on Wednesday, Rodríguez explained that “Cuba appreciates and recognizes U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposals towards lifting the blockade.” However, Rodriguez estimated the total damage to Cuba from the embargo has been $121 billion, “an exorbitant figure for a small economy.”
Cuba has presented similar resolutions before the UN for over 20 years. Last year, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of ending the embargo with 188 countries voting in favor. Only the U.S. and Israel voted against the resolution.
Univisión reports that 140 heads of state will participate in this year’s UN proceedings. In celebration of its 70th anniversary, the UN General Assembly agenda includes a special summit where world leaders will approve global development goals for the next 15 years.
The Republic of Cuba has formally appointed Dr. José Ramón Cabañas, who previously held the post of Chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC, to serve as Ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Cabañas joined Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in 1984.
He holds a B.A. in International Political Science from the Institute of International Relations “Raúl Roa García” in Havana, Cuba. He is the author of “Radio Martí: Una nueva agresión” (“Radio Martí: A New Agression”).
The ambassador succeeded Jorge Bolaños, who started at the Interests Section just before President Obama’s first term
On Wednesday, a memorandum of understanding to increase collaboration in the tourism sector was signed by Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero and head of China’s National Tourism Administration Li Jinzao, visiting the island with a business delegation.
In June, Air China announced that it would begin operating direct flights from Beijing to Havana beginning this fall, bringing more Chinese tourists to the island. Cuba and China are creating joint ventures to diversify options for tourists by boosting real estate development and building golf courses.
Overall, China and Cuba’s bilateral trade was worth $1.3 billion in 2014, with over $1 billion of that made up of Chinese exports to Cuba (mainly mechanical consumer goods, such as refrigerators, buses, and pick-up trucks, according to China’s Foreign Ministry).
The State of Cuba, Azam Ahmed and Victoria Burnett, The New York Times
The feature highlights Cuba’s change and contradiction through photos and paragraph entries on topics such as race, political freedom, tourism, private sector growth, economic growth, trade, and migration.
Memo to Pope Francis: Cuba Wasn’t All That Catholic Even Before Castro, Tim Padgett, WLRN
Even before Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, Catholicism wasn’t incredibly vibrant in Cuba, according to Padgett. One explanation is the Church aligned with the Spanish crown during Cuba’s fight for independence.
Pope of the Periphery Puts Cuba Front and Center, Andrew Chesnut, The Dialogue
Cuba has been one of the focal points of the Vatican attention in Latin America. While the Catholic Church is a highly respected institution on the island, only 27% of Cubans are Catholic and most of them are cultural Christians.
The Moral Perspectives and Policy Priorities of Pope Francis, John L. Allen Jr., Council on Foreign Relations
John L. Allen Jr., associate editor of the Boston Globe, discusses Pope Francis’s moral perspectives and policy priorities in advance of the papal visit to the United States, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
U.S Olympians left Cuba to cross the Florida Straits to Key West on Friday, September 11. The American team attempted the 30-40 hour nonstop journey with the realization that “the symbolism is more important than the journey itself.”