This Tuesday, on the eve of the autumnal equinox, Pope Francis flew north to Washington from Santiago de Cuba to meet President Obama. The meeting joined the moral authority of the Pontiff and the political authority of the President to accelerate the embargo’s ongoing fall from grace.
Aboard his plane from Cuba to the United States, Pope Francis told reporters that the Vatican’s long-standing opposition to embargoes was founded on the social doctrine of the Church, which he called “precise and just.”
In Cuba, he urged Presidents Castro and Obama to persevere on the path toward normalization and held out their diplomacy “as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
At the White House, he repeated this thought, saying, “The efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family represent positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice, and freedom.”
And again in his address to the U.S. Congress: “I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past,” the pope said. “This has required, and requires, courage and daring.”
The decision by Pope Francis to bring together the themes of leadership and the Church’s opposition to trade sanctions in his trips to Cuba and the United States is significant.
It only highlights what President Obama has done to focus attention and national debate on how U.S. interests in Cuba and Latin America would best be served by ending the embargo.
He began the drumbeat on December 17th, the day he announced the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, saying “I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”
He repeated his call one month later in his State of the Union Address, saying “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”
Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the message at the State Department on July 20th, during a joint press availability with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and said the momentum he expected joint negotiations to generate as bilateral problems were resolved would help Cuba and the United States “make the most out of this moment [and] not lose the future with respect to the embargo.”
In Havana, after he spoke at the raising of the American Flag at the U.S. Embassy in August, Secretary Kerry returned to the subject of the embargo talking to reporters with Minister Rodríguez, again saying publicly that the President advocates for and supports lifting the embargo, adding, significantly (remember he is speaking in Cuba), “the embargo is a sort of two-way street. It requires both of us to do things.”
Even this week, from the State Department podium, spokesman John Kirby gave the drumbeat a fresh rhythm when he suggested the U.S. might abstain when the U.N. votes on Cuba’s resolution condemning the embargo as a way of taking a position “that you want the law changed.”
The president, the Secretary, and perhaps even the pope know that the U.S. Congress, as it is currently constituted, will not repeal the embargo against Cuba. That will take an election.
Secretary Kerry was not lining up with the hardliners in Cuba when he pointedly stated that both countries will have to work to get the embargo lifted. It’s a two-way street. No one is off the hook.
The administration is not naïve. The effort to overturn this faulty policy needs to build over time. They are wise to seize the opportunity presented by the pope’s visit – and the controversy that could arise if it abstained on the U.N. vote – as teachable moments for the American public.
We are seeing not just a shift in the conversation, but a shift in power. Hardliners aren’t dominating the discussion anymore. It’s isn’t loopy to talk about ending the embargo against Cuba when the pope and the president join in common cause in an effort to make it so. It’s common sense.
Pope Francis Leaves Cuba and Comes to America
Following his trip to Cuba, Pope Francis was welcomed at the White House this week, where he was commended by President Obama for his “invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people,” and then became the first pope in history to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
During wide-ranging remarks Thursday in the House Chamber, the Pope acknowledged the leadership of President Obama for his opening of Cuba when he said:
“I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past… When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.”
Francis, the first pope from the Americas, is the third pope to visit Cuba, and the fourth pope to have come to the United States.
According to Thomas Wenksi, Archbishop of Miami, the trip “has served as a bridge between the United States and Cuba and that the pope would use his experience during his trip to Cuba to inform his visit to the United States,” writes the Miami Herald.
Pope Francis departed Washington D.C. on Thursday and continued his U.S. tour in New York, where he addressed the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.
In his address to the UN General Assembly, Pope Francis praised the “political, juridical and technical advances” of the UN as “…a path towards attaining the ideal of human fraternity.” Pope Francis did not specifically address the U.S. embargo against Cuba. He spoke at length about the environment and equality saying, “Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.” The pope concluded his remarks with the reminder that, “The future demands of us critical and global decisions in the face of world-wide conflicts which increase the number of the excluded and those in need.”
The pope left New York to visit Philadelphia, where he will lead the World Meeting of Families before departing for Rome.
Monday, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. may abstain from voting against a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba at the U.N. General Assembly. To abstain from the vote would lend symbolic emphasis to the administration’s stated positionthat the embargo should be lifted.
Reuters reports the General Assembly’s vote on the embargo resolution will take place on October 27.
Cuba has presented resolutions condemning the U.S. for its embargo before the UN for 23 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. Assembly resolutions require only a majority of votes to pass but are unenforceable according to U.S. News and World Report.
The Obama administration has not decided how it will vote, according to administration officials. The prospect that the administration might not cast its lonely vote against a nearly unanimous position of the world body condemning the embargo has already irked some in Congress who oppose the President’s new policy toward Cuba.
Congressman Jeff Duncan, (SC-3), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Relations, wrote UN Ambassador Samantha Power urging the administration to vote as it has in support of the embargo for the last two decades.
“The idea that the Administration would consider not supporting U.S. law in a multilateral body like the United Nations is stunning and dangerous to the foundation for the rule of law and democratic institutions in our country. Such an action would also undermine our foreign policy efforts to promote the rule of law, democracy, and freedom for repressed peoples around the world.”
Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) also issued statements opposing such an action. “To support a resolution in the U.N. aimed at criticizing U.S. law would not only appease the (Castro) regime, but would ignore sanctions passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton,” Diaz-Balart said.
“Obviously, we have to obey the law,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “[but] it doesn’t mean you can’t take a position that you want the law changed.”
President Obama and President Castro will separately address the UN General Assembly on September 28. This will be President Castro’s first trip to the U.S. since the Cuban revolution.
As U.S. and Cuba move toward civil aviation agreement, Priceline mulls expansion into Cuban market
U.S. negotiators will travel to Havana for talks with Cuban counterparts on September 28-29 to discuss key issues in reaching an agreement on regular commercial air service, including aviation safety and security, as well as code sharing between Cuban state-owned carrier Cubana de Aviación and carriers from the U.S., Reuters reported.
The U.S. delegation will be led by Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Charles H. Rivkin, the State Department announced Tuesday.
Regularly scheduled commercial air service between Cuba and the U.S. has been suspended since the early 1960s. “Currently, American air carriers, such as American Airlines, lease aircraft to U.S. based charter travel services that have U.S. government license to serve the Island,” as Examiner.com explained this week.
While tourist travel to the island remains prohibited by the U.S embargo, the Obama administration has periodically taken steps since 2009 to expand the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba – offering Cuban Americans the unlimited right to visit their families, and gradually loosening restrictions on people-to-people travelers and business travel.
As the New York Times reported this week, “Regulations issued by the Department of Commerce in September allow American companies to establish offices and premises in Cuba and airline crews to stay overnight on the island. They also allow the sale of equipment related to aviation safety to Cuba.”
Such steps have increased visits by U.S. travelers to Cuba, boosted revenues to the growing share of Cuba’s economy comprised of private businesses and self-employed workers, and increased interest among air carriers and traveler bookers in serving Cuba’s market.
In fact, the number of those Americans visiting Cuba through Sept. 2 topped 100,000, similar to the total who visited in all of last year, newly reported statistics indicate.
On Sunday, Priceline Group Inc. announced that it is exploring opening bank accounts and establishing offices in Cuba, according to Reuters.
Priceline is the world’s leading online travel services company. Leslie Cafferty, Priceline Group Vice President of Global Communications told Reuters that, “We are exploring all of these new options and hope to have operations up and running soon.” Priceline subsidiary, Kayak, the travel search engine site, began publishing Cuba hotel and flight listings in January 2015.
A civil aviation agreement between Cuba and the U.S. would be an important step forward in enabling travel between the two countries. The talks, which start Monday, reflect the negotiating framework announced by Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, at their joint press conference following the flag raising at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on August 14th.
Pope Francis emphasizes reconciliation and open-mindedness in visit to Cuba
On September 19,Pope Francis flew from Rome to Havana, Cuba, the first stop on a week-long trip touring the island and three U.S. cities. This marked his third journey to the Americas and his tenth journey abroad since his election in 2013.
Pope Francis is the first Latin American pope, and is considered enormously influential in the region for his role in U.S-Cuba normalization, peace talks between Colombia and the FARC, and mediation between Chile and Bolivia over access to the sea. Gianni La Bella, an expert in Rome on Latin American Catholicism, told the New York Times, “There has never been such resonance for the papacy in Latin America…You could almost say that Francis is considered as an alternate United Nations in the region.”
President Raúl Castro greeted Pope Francis at the airport, calling the pontiff’s visit to Cuba a “transcendental and enriching experience for our nation.” This marks a high note in the Cuban government’s relationship with the Church, which has improved markedly in recent decades.
Cuba was declared an atheist state by Fidel Castro after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In the early 1990s, Cuba’s Communist Party halted its ban on religious believers joining the Communist Party. Previous papal visits to the island by John Paul II in 1998 and Benedict XVI in 2012 precipitated the reinstatement of Christmas and Easter as national holidays. Cubans are now building the first Catholic Church on the island since the revolution.
Lopez Oliva, a historian of religion at the University of Havana, explained the growing importance of the Catholic Church as “the largest non-governmental organization in Cuba.” The Church provides job training and has advocated successfully for the release of political prisoners.
On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit, Cuba announced that it would free 3,522 prisoners, the largest such release since 1959. As The Guardian reports, this action follows the pattern of previous papal visits: almost 300 prisoners were released prior to Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, and a further 2,900 were released prior to the 2012 visit by Pope Benedict.
On Sunday, the 78-year old pontiff said Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. After Mass, Pope Francis had a “friendly and informal” meeting with former president Fidel Castro where they exchanged books on religion reported CNN.
Addressing political matters, Pope Francis advocated for moving U.S.-Cuba rapprochement forward, urging political leaders to “persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities … as an example of reconciliation for the entire world,” according to Reuters. Francis called the process of normalization between Cuba and the U.S. “a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue” adding that a “system of universal growth” had prevailed over “the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties” according to theWashington Post.
Speaking to young people in Havana, Francis urged open-mindedness and empathy in remarks that echoed the theme of reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba:
“Let us not close in on the culture of ideologies. When I have my ideology, my way of thinking, and you have yours, I close in on the ideology… If you think differently than I do, why shouldn’t we talk? Why do we throw stones over that which separates us, that which makes us different? Why don’t we shake hands over that which we have in common?”
On Monday, Francis left Havana and flew to Holguin where he celebrated Mass in Holguin’s Revolution Square and acknowledged the “efforts” and “sacrifices” of those supporting the Catholic Church in Cuba. The pope encouraged listeners to challenge selfish and materialist principles in society, according to the BBC.
Next, Pope Francis traveled to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city, where he celebrated Mass Tuesday morning at Our Lady of Charity shrine, dedicated to Cuba’s revered patron saint. In Santiago de Cuba, Pope Francis called on his audience “…to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did.”
Francis departed Cuba on Tuesday for the United States, where he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base for his official welcome.
Reuters reports that Cuban police authorities detained dozens of dissidents to prevent them from attending papal events throughout Cuba. Among the dissidents detained was Miriam Leiva, a journalist and founding member of the group Ladies in White.
Leiva wrote in an open letter on Wednesday that she had been detained on two separate occasions on her way to see the pope, despite her invitation to attend evening prayers with Pope Francis at the Havana cathedral from Veceslav Tumir, secretary of the Nunciatura Apostólica in Havana. Leiva claims that 150 Cubans throughout Cuba were harassed and detained during the papal visit.
Reuters adds that other dissidents were confined to their homes during the papal events.Individuals who broke through security and attempted to approach the pope were detained. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported 768 short-term detentions last month, the highest monthly total this year.
Pope Francis did not comment on dissident arrests while in Cuba. In an interview while flying to the United States, the pontiff said he does not know exactly what happened with the dissidents, but expressed his desire to “to meet all people.”
On Wednesday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, the top commander of the leftist Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), shook hands in Havana in a momentous gesture of reconciliation. President Raúl Castro hosted the meeting and joined his hands with theirs. Reuters reports that Colombia’s government and FARC rebels expect to reach a peace agreement within six months after three years of negotiations hosted by Cuba and co-guaranteed by Norway.
At a ceremony in Havana, President Santos announced that, “The chief of the FARC secretariat and I have agreed that in no more than six months this negotiation should come to an end and we should sign a final agreement.” Conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC has continued for 51 years, making it the longest running conflict in the Western Hemisphere. The conflict has resulted in 220,000 deaths and displaced millions of individuals.
As documented by Virginia Bouvier in Colombia Calls, the announcement was stage-managed to convey the significance of the agreement reached by the two sides.
“From the Palacio de Convenciones in Havana, a special ceremony, carefully choreographed and rich in symbolism, unfolded with all the major players dressed in white…Raúl Castro, Cuba’s President of the Council of State and the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba was flanked by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on his right and FARC Commander-in-Chief Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (aka “Timochenko”) on his left.
“Also present were Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; the representatives of the Colombian government and the FARC-EP peace delegations; and representatives of Cuba, Norway, Chile, and Venezuela, the nations that served as guarantors and accompanied the process. The moderator turned the floor to Rodolfo Benitez and Dag Nylander, guarantors from Cuba and Norway, respectively, who read the joint communiqué that the peace delegations had crafted.”
Colombia’s government and the FARC announced the formation of a truth commission, a deal on reparations for war victims and an amnesty agreement for combatants who did not commit war crimes. The U.S. News and World Report highlights that, according to the agreement, “Rebels that confess abuses to special peace tribunals, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive a maximum 8 years of labor under unspecified conditions but not prisons. War crimes committed by Colombia’s military will also be judged by the tribunals and combatants caught lying will face penalties of up to 20 years in jail.”
The Washington Office on Latin America reports that “negotiators still must define what “disarmament” means, how fighters are to be demobilized, how to turn accords into law, and how to guarantee a ceasefire while all of that happens.”
Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, and Peter Guzman, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Community Foundation in Las Vegas, describe why they support a change in policy toward Cuba. Peter explains “our love for the Cuban people must always be stronger than our anger for the past.”
This short documentary explores Cuba’s paquete distribution. The paquete is a bundle of data that producers sell to Cubans who want to access news, TV shows, and applications available on the internet but prohibited by Cuba’s government.
This Sunday, chef Anthony Bourdain will showcase Cuban cuisine and culture with the Season 6 premiere of his “Parts Unknown” series, starting at 9pm EST.
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