The concurrence this week of a federal election in Canada with the spurt of diplomatic action around the United Nations General Assembly reminds me that I value political debate, and that the world needs urgent action on multiple, related issues.
What we have in Canada is what Marta Harnecker and others have called “polyarchy”—the alternation of power among elites, or the choice from among the elites of whom we wish to govern us for the next few years. And no: we should not be satisfied with that, but rather build toward a system that ensures that everyone can have a meaningful sense of participation in the social, economic and political decisions that most affect their lives. That means having societies and governments that are strong enough to control the worst excesses of capitalism and flexible enough to embrace diversity.
But, in Canada for the moment, we have what we have. Perhaps the most optimistic view is that some sort of new coalition among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens will be strong enough to achieve solid measures to limit climate change, advance justice for Indigenous peoples, promote a global recovery from the pandemic, and quick action on housing and child care.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, world leaders appeared at the General Assembly podium or via video link. Some emphasized the UN Charter, with its affirmations of national sovereignty and self-determination, and (rightly) criticized the sanctions applied by powerful states against the more vulnerable. Others promised new action to try to enforce their version of a rules-based international order (that is: the corporate-led, neo-liberal one).
Again, amidst the contradictions, one has to look for signs of hope. U.S. President Joe Biden, beset by divisions in his own party and fallout from his border patrol’s gross mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, promised “relentless diplomacy” (an improvement, I hope, from “endless war”).
Biden held two online summits: one to try to advance action on climate goals, and the other to advance action on Covid vaccines—including the urgent need for a waiver that would allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines. Biden promised a new contribution of 500 million doses to the global effort, raising the U.S. commitment to 1.1 billion doses. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Biden’s pandemic summit, promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing program, by the end of next year. Critics say the contributions are insufficient.
Monroísmo vs Bolivarianismo
A few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for a summit in Mexico City, in part, at least to strengthen the forum as a counter-weight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro proposed replacing the “Monroe Doctrine” (promoted by the early 19th century U.S. President James Monroe—”America for the Americans,” meaning the United States and reflected today in the actions of the OAS) with a “Bolivarian Doctrine” that would uphold both the unity and the autonomy of the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, with CELAC as a space for common action.
Brazil and Colombia (led by the region’s two most conservative presidents) stayed away, but others either came or sent representatives. There were flare-ups over different approaches to human rights protection and economic policy, but in the end, the leaders issued a common declaration and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
When protests broke out on Sunday, July 11, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, to talk with protesters about their grievances—something the presidents of Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti never did despite months of protests in their countries.
In the wake of the protests, Cuba’s churches called for dialogue. The Catholic bishops warned against “a rigidity and hardening of positions” and encouraged “mutual listening.” The bishop of the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church, María Griselda Delgado, said: “There will always be divergences, diverse opinions, different thoughts; there is the richness and integrity of being a People. It is necessary to raise the value of dialogue to seek understanding.” (Several of the church statements are posted in English on a Facebook site related to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) On Aug. 6, the Cuban Council of Churches and leaders of its member churches met with President Díaz-Canel, along with the Student Christian Movement and other ecumenical groups.
Like many Canadians, I made my first visit to Cuba as a tourist. That was in 1992, at the height of the “special period” when Cubans faced hardship as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sought new ways to engage with the rest of the world.
Canadians visited Cuba; Cubans came to Canada. The relationships were lively: rooted in love and mutual respect, and not immune from political and religious controversies. We learned together and taught one another in formal and informal settings—academic exchanges (faculty and students), congregational twinning, and participation together in international settings (World Social Forum, Hemispheric Social Alliance, World Council of Churches, ACT Alliance, and others). And we worked with U.S. churches to help maintain and strengthen their ties with Cuban churches in the face of official U.S. hostility to Cuba. My occasional conversations with Cuban government staff and politicians were friendly and informative.
All of those efforts are about building bridges, sharing stories, promoting dialogue. We could even find common ground with the government of Canada’s “constructive engagement” policy approach to Cuba and, for many years, collaborate in official development assistance projects.
And so, I welcome the voices of those Cuban churches that work in favour of dialogue and realistic approaches to solving problems.
Theology in Revolution
For the Cuban churches, the years following the Cuban Revolution were challenging. The new government was suspicious of churches that had aligned themselves historically with the elites or that operated as “missions” that were dependent on U.S. support. The government restricted religious activity. Many ministers and priests left the country, though there was more enthusiasm for the revolution among lay people. Atheism became official state policy and religious believers were discriminated against in employment and education.
Some among those who stayed—or, as in the case of Presbyterian theologian Sergio Arce Martínez, returned—developed a “theology in revolution” in the 1960s. Arce was concerned not with a God “up there,” but rather with God “down here” as experienced in human history, especially in the revolution against poverty, exclusion and imperialism. Christians from other parts of the world attended the 1966 Tricontinental Congress in Havana, and then the Cultural Congress held in Havana in January 1968. That event was attended by several Catholic priests whose declaration was read aloud by Fidel Castro at the closing.
Elsewhere, other processes were underway: the Roman Catholic Church’s II Vatican Council (1962-65) and the meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín in 1968; the growth of Christian base communities; Priests for the Third World in Argentina in 1966; the World Conference on Church and Society, held in Geneva in 1966, that identified the close relationship between peace and justice; and emergence of the National Organization for Social Integration (ONIS) in Peru in 1968, the Golcanda group in Colombia, also in 1968, and Christians for Socialism in Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1971. All of these currents—including the Cuban Revolution itself—influenced each other and played a role in the articulation of liberation theology by Gustavo Gutiérrez and others in the early 70s. The confluence of those processes, plus the Catholic Church’s articulation of the “preferential option for the poor” in the late 70s, and patient work by Christians in Cuba to overcome the revolutionary government’s early distrust of organized religion, resulted in the Communist Party’s decision in 1991 to drop its requirement that party members be atheists. More Cuban Christians began to attend worship and join churches.
Use and abuse of organized religion
The U.S. government has made no secret of its intent to use religious groups to subvert the Cuban Revolution. Most blatant in this regard was the May 2004 Report to President G.W. Bush by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. The commission promised to use religious organizations in “building a free Cuba.” It also proposed to “differentiate the leadership of the Cuban Council of Churches” from its members (p.64).
Read now, almost two decades later, the report is as ludicrous as other Orwellian lies from the Bush era, like the ones about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Afghans would welcome foreign invaders.
Even so, you can see the effects of the approach in the attacks today on the Cuban Council of Churches in responses to its social media posts.
With graver consequences, networks of conservative Christians oppose gender equity, same-sex marriage and Trans rights as if they were attacks on the “traditional family.” Any criticism of the fundamentalist view draws charges from the U.S. government that Cuba is attacking religious freedom. (I’ll look at LGBTI rights in a future post.)
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.