Cuba I – The U.S. blockade is a failure

A recent article The Guardian begins with the proposition: “If the U.S. really cared about freedom in Cuba, it would end its punishing sanctions.” Yes, but I would argue that the U.S. cares nothing for Cuba: only that it cease to present a model of how to set social priorities for the common good ahead of narrow economic ones that benefit a wealthy minority, and that it cease to offer a pretty good model of human and ecological development that advances largely outside the global capitalist system.

The whole point of sanctions against Cuba (usually referred to more generally as the blockade or the embargo) has been to cause sufficient dissatisfaction so as to provoke regime change. 

“The blockade was not simply, as many believe, the cutting of an umbilical cord with the United States,” Colombia’s Nobel-prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez wrote 1975. “It was a ferocious attempt at genocide promoted by a power almost without limits, whose tentacles appear in any part of the world.”

The U.S. logic for the blockade was identified in soon after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in a memorandum written by Lester Mallory, deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, to his superiors on April 6, 1960 while Dwight Eisenhower was still president: “The majority of Cubans support Castro.… The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” [Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State.]

With dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington escalated measures intended to strangle Cuba, including the Torricelli Act (1992), Helms-Burton law (1996) and a portfolio of measures announced by G.W. Bush (2004). These measures included severe restrictions on financial transfers (including those by U.S. churches to Cuban churches) along with travel and exchanges of all kinds.

The administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) allowed increased travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. This was an attempt to “change” Cuba by encouraging grassroots contact that would spread new ideas in Cuban society. But what happened was that the minds of U.S. visitors were changed: they returned and advocated for an end to the embargo and for a more profound understanding of what has gone on in Cuba since the Revolution in 1959.

Late in the Barack Obama years, some sanctions were eased, diplomatic relations restored, and the U.S. president visited Havana in March 2016. His successor, Donald Trump, instituted 243 new measures against Cuba.

The new administration of Joseph Biden (the 11th president since Eisenhower) refuses to dismantle the sanctions, including those imposed by Trump. Among other things, those measures severely restrict remittances from and travel by Cuban-Americans to their homeland and visits by Cubans to the United States. 

After more than 60 years of trying, the strategy has failed. In June, the U.S. blockade was again condemned by 184 nations in the United Nations General Assembly, this time with only Israel supporting the U.S. position. Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil abstained.

In the wake of scattered protests in Cuba on July 11, Biden’s gang added even more pointless sanctions. Much that is said and written about Cuba in the weeks since those protests is full of insight. See, for example, articles by Rick Salutin and Vijay Prashad who both compared Cuba’s situation with that of Haiti, which still suffers the consequences of the punishment France exacted after people held in slavery liberated themselves in the 1804 revolution. (Haiti was forced to pay the equivalent of about $25 billion in today’s dollars to compensate the former slave-holders, a debt that wasn’t fully paid until 1947, almost a century-and-a-half later.)

But there is also a lot of drivel emanating from the U.S. state department and the Miami exiles that shows up in mainstream media. Solutions will not come from north of the Straits of Florida, but rather from processes within Cuba. 

Every country on the planet encompasses different opinions just now about responses by governments to the pandemic. In that sense, Cuba is not different—though the government’s capacity to act efficiently is limited by that one simple fact: that the blockade continues. In effect, the United States has used the pandemic as an ally in its effort to suffocate the Cuban revolution.

Cubans struggle with income lost from the U.S. ban on remittances. The tourist industry suffers as the pandemic inhibits travel. Blackouts derive from the U.S.-induced crisis in Venezuela that has sharply reduced the supply of petroleum-based energy. There is inflation that is related to a complicated currency reform. 

On Feb. 18, 2021, U.S. and Cuban churches wrote to Biden, asking him to restore travel, remittances and trade with Cuba; to remove Cuba from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism;” to rescind Trump’s mandate to use extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton law; and to rebuild U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba. 

Meanwhile, Cuban scientists developed Covid vaccines (Soberana and Abdala, which each require three doses for maximum protection), but the blockade hampers production and slows delivery of syringes and personal protective equipment. 

Difficulties notwithstanding, by Sept. 2, Cuba had administered at least one dose to 5.7 million people among a total population of 11.3 million. Of those, 4.6 million had received their second shots and just over 4 million their third. Vaccinations of adolescents and children began Sept. 3, using the Soberana-2 vaccine.

In days and weeks ahead, I will share some thoughts about Cuban history, religious issues that impact political debate, approaches to development and participation in Cuba, gender equity and LGBTI rights, and the broader struggle to overcome imperialism.

In Afghanistan, Colombia and everywhere, we must all become artisans of peace

A banner at the June 2010 protests against the fenced-off meetings of the G8/G20 in downtown Toronto. Photo: Jim Hodgson

While I was working to improve my French in Ottawa decades ago, I occasionally attended Mass in francophone parishes. One Sunday, this line got my attention: « Heureux les artisans de la paix… » (Mt 5:9, Jérusalem). Instead of “blessed are the peace-makers,” the text said “artisans of peace.” I love that. It implies arduous, loving work that will produce something both beautiful and useful.

As Taliban fighters move on to Kabul, and the rights of women and girls are again threatened, I feel anguish for all who have died, those who will die, and for all the lives ruined in this ill-conceived war. 

And I have to say: the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks should and could have been managed differently.

In 2001, Sept. 11 was a Tuesday. On Friday that week, I had lunch in a Toronto restaurant with Central American friends who had worked their whole lives for justice and peace and lost family members in the struggle. TV screens were showing the interfaith service underway at U.S. National Cathedral in Washington.

Led by President George W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham, the service left me scandalized—discourse about enemies, not a word about love or peace—and feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of the war that everyone knew would follow. U.S. Navy Chanters at beginning and end. The closing hymn was The Battle Hymn of the Republic—“Glory, glory, hallelujah… His truth is marching on… terrible swift sword”—giving Christian blessing to the war. Then a benediction, that we might bear the days to come with strength. The recessional included the tolling of a bell and the colours of the various military services being removed. The political and military establishment returned to work, to duty. 

And so began the War on Terror, what Bush kept calling a Crusade.

A week later, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) sent letters to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and to members of churches in Canada proposing a different approach.

The dogs of war were howling loudly, so the letters were scarcely noticed at the time. But today, as Taliban troops move closer to Kabul, they are prophetic voices crying in the wilderness (John 1:23). Their relevance today is in their warning against imperialist adventures and articulation of alternative approaches. These are lessons the world still needs to learn.

First, the letters insisted that perpetrators of terrorist crimes must be brought to justice, and that due legal processes must be followed. To the Prime Minister, the CCC said: “We acknowledge that in international relations due process is not always clear, but we remind you that the United Nations and its Security Council are the essential custodians of international due process.” 

The letters acknowledged global interdependence. The letter to church members said: “Whatever action is taken must fully acknowledge that we live in an interdependent world. It is no longer possible to believe that we can live in an island of fortified safety in an otherwise unsafe world.” It added:

“Co-operative international efforts to prevent terrorism must be supplemented by co- operation in developing a broad range of agreements that provide for the security of all. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, legal limits on small arms possession and transfers, and other international mechanisms are vital building blocks for a world community that cares for the security and safety of all of its citizens.”

The letters deplored the targeting of people of other faiths. “We therefore encourage Christians throughout Canada to join together with people of other faiths to offer solidarity and courage. Above all let us find a common voice in calling for security and safety for all the world’s people.”

The letters encouraged attention to root causes and a “justice and peace” perspective in the face of terrorist actions:

“It is not morally or spiritually acceptable to speak lightly of war. A campaign against terrorism is necessary, but only in the context of a broader commitment to justice. In the past, a single-minded campaign against communism in Afghanistan helped create conditions of terror in Afghanistan, including support to the now accused Osama bin Laden; it spawned the Taliban; and it contributed to enormous instability in Pakistan. So also an unthinking military campaign against terrorism could have immense unforeseen consequences if not guided by due processes of law, appropriate limits to force, and pursuit of justice for all.”

The letter to the Prime Minister was signed by: Janet Somerville, the CCC general secretary (and one of my former editors at Catholic New Times); Ernie Regher, the director of Project Ploughshares; David Pfrimmer, chair of the CCC’s justice and peace commission; and Bishop André Vallée, CCC president.

Instead of complex, long-term strategies of peace-making, a war strategy was followed: defeat the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network militarily and rebuild core institutions of the Afghan state. But the United States and its NATO allies failed to destroy either group, or to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. 

In April 2002, President Bush announced a version of the post-World-War-II “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, promising substantial financial aid. But development efforts were under-funded and U.S. attention shifted to that other perceived enemy: Iraq. 

What was needed in Afghanistan was not war, but a long, slow process of engagement, dialogue, community development, facilitation of victim-offender reconciliation: solidarity instead of imperial interference. You don’t have to like the Taliban to begin a conversation—but that might not have been the starting point anyway. It’s pretty clear that people in Saudi Arabia—a key U.S. ally and supplier of oil—bankroll the Taliban, al-Quaida and factions in Pakistan, promoting a fundamentalist version of Islam that is not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. 

Inter-religious dialogue has a role here too. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the G20 Interfaith Forum, an event usually held just ahead of G20 meetings to look at issues of religion and sustainable development. It may be uncomfortable for their representatives to listen to people like me talking about LGBTI rights in a conversation about religious freedom, but from such encounters over time, change happens. And the United States needs to develop more honest relationships with its “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, engaging them on human rights, knowing that change won’t happen immediately but over time. Looking the other way doesn’t help Afghans or anyone else.

This week, I have been reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, And the Mountains Echoed. Like his earlier novel, The Kite Runner, he sweeps across Afghan history and geography. On page 127, he writes of war, wars, “many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain.”

We must all become artisans of peace.

When elites see their wealth threatened, they move heaven and earth

On Nov. 11, 1979, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero preached on Mark 12:38-44, The Widow’s Offering: Jesus watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

Colombia’s president sends more troops to Cali to try to quell a month of protests. The British magazine The Economist invites a resurgence of U.S. imperialism to thwart the Mexican president’s option for the poor. The six-decade-long U.S. blockade of Cuba is so severe that the country cannot obtain sufficient syringes to protect its population with the vaccines it has developed.

And I think of the words of St. Oscar Romero on Nov. 11, 1979, when he offered a warning about money when it becomes an idol:

It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

Next Sunday, June 6, Mexicans and Peruvians head to the polls. In Mexico, these mid-term elections—the national legislature and many state and local races—are marred by violence: at least 35 candidates of various parties have been murdered. In Peru, it’s the second round of voting to elect a new president: from the left, Pedro Castillo stands a reasonable chance of defeating Keiko Fujimori, despite her powerful, rich supporters.

The Economist’s attack on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) in startling. There are reasonable grounds to debate this policy (the pandemic response) or that development plan (the tourist train in the Yucatán peninsula that is opposed by Indigenous people in the region), but The Economist argues that he is a populist comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and that democracy is threatened:

Mr. López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

Left: Cartoon by Israel Vargas, The Economist, May 27, 2021. Right: cartoon by El Fisgón, La Jornada, May 29, 2021. (“The Economist: The magazine of the True Oligarchy.”)

It then goes further, suggesting that the United States get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs:

The United States needs to pay attention. Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings.

So, what is a populist anyway? 

A Venezuelan friend who lives in Costa Rica, José Amesty, says populism is a term used by elites when they do not understand what is going on. I would refine that slightly and suggest that it is a term used by elites and technocrats to describe political movements that reject their narrow economic priorities—maintaining their own privileges—by putting social goals first. 

Amesty cites AMLO: “supporting the poor, supporting elderly adults, supporting youth: if that is to be populist, then add me to the list.” AMLO stands in the tradition of Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary Mexican president who in the 1930s led a land reform that put half of the farming land in the hands of local community councils (ejidos) and who nationalized the petroleum industry.

Populism is one of the least useful terms in our political lexicon. I think we’re clearer when we use tags that are generally understood: left (social democrat, socialist, communist), centre (liberal), or right (conservative, traditional, elitist, militarist). Better yet: actually describe the content of political platforms. What does this candidate stand for? With whom do they stand? 

The government of Iván Duque in Colombia and the candidacy of Fujimori in Peru are projections of traditional elites trying to hold on to their power and economic privileges against diverse social and political movements that would empower people who have usually been locked out of power: the rural and urban poor, Indigenous and descendants of Africans, women and LGBTI people. 

In that sense, democracy in Latin America is not so much being threatened as it is still being invented.