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PC(USA) advocacy offices urge end to Cuba embargo

Washington and UN offices call on senators, Biden administration to oppose ‘failed,’ ‘inhumane’ policy

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Cuban flag  as depicted by Juan Luis Ozaez via Unsplash

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Prior to a meeting with the U.S. State Department, Catherine Gordon of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness was part of a group that met with partners working in Cuba to get a sense of current conditions in the island nation. 

“One of our partners just broke down into tears talking about the food shortages, the price of food, the inability to get visas,” said Gordon, Associate for International Issues. “Usually, their parishioners will turn to these leaders to get help, and so it’s really distressing for the church leaders because they can’t do anything to help.  

“I’ve been working on Cuba for 20 years. I’ve never seen partners this distressed about just the situation on the ground there and the difficulties they’re facing.” 

That distress is why the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s combined advocacy offices — the Office of Public Witness (OPW) on Capitol Hill and Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN) — are both making a big push to end the United States’ trade embargo against Cuba, often referred to as a blockade.  

On Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly will once again vote on a resolution condemning the embargo. The United States and Israel are routinely the only nations to oppose the resolution.

Sue Rheem

“The resolution passes each year with almost unanimous support from member states at the United Nations with the exception of the U.S. and one or two others joining to vote no,” says Sue Rheem, Presbyterian Representative to the United Nations. “In 2019, then U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, stated that it was U.S.’s sovereign right and by voting no it was protecting its sovereignty.” 

A June 6 letter from the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba, translated by the Rev. Dr. Valdir França, Area Coordinator for Latin American and the Caribbean for Presbyterian World Mission, makes a plea for ending the blockade, calling it “an inhumane law.” 

the Rev. Dr. Valdir França

“While politics is being played trying to suffocate the Cuban government with coercive measures of an economic nature, the real effects are on the population, which is who suffers the most from the lack of food, medicine, etc.,” the letter, signed by the Rev. Dora E. Arce Valentín, Moderator, and Rev. Edelberto Valdés Fleites, General Secretary of the church. “The blockade has been a harmful but failed tool for many years and after several U.S. administrations. 

 “The extraterritorial nature of the blockade laws denies the possibility of a normal commercial exchange between Cuba and the rest of the world and makes the acquisition of any material, medicine, food, etc. almost impossible and if it is achieved it is most of times at higher prices …” 

The United States continued to oppose or simply abstain from voting on the resolution, even during the administration of President Barack Obama, who made historic moves to open relations with Cuba and allow trade, travel, and communication. In 2014, Obama announced his most sweeping changes, with moves toward normalizing relations including establishing an embassy in Havana with an ambassador. He also called on Congress to enact legislation to end the embargo, calling it a failure. 

“It was one of the high points of my work in the office, when that happened,” Gordon said of the steps toward normalizing relations. “It was that historic.” 

In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved new policy on Cuba considering what appeared to be the opening of relations between the countries. 

But Congress did not lift the embargo, and during President Donald Trump’s administration, the 45th president rolled back the Obama administration’s advances in relations with Cuba. 

President Joe Biden campaigned on a platform of returning to Obama-era Cuba policies, but Gordon, Rheem, and others say they are not seeing that yet. 

Catherine Gordon

“The Biden administration could make the changes if they want to,” Gordon said. But in its first months in office, she has noticed that the administration tends to make moves when it knows it has support from Congress and the public, like when it reversed course on raising caps on immigration to the United States.  

So, the Office of Public Witness is calling on Presbyterians and anyone else who is concerned to let their Congressional representatives and the Biden administration know they support lifting the embargo on Cuba. 

“We are called as Christians to seek right relationship and reconciliation with our neighbors by amplifying the voices of our Christian partners in Cuba calling for an end to the blockade,” an Action Alert from the OPW says. “The United States should re-engage with Cuba, a neighbor only 90 miles off our shores, rather than continue to pursue failed strategies that inflict harm on Cubans and do not further the goals of human rights, justice, and freedom. … Opening diplomatic channels between the U.S. and Cuba will protect religious freedom and human rights and ending the embargo would represent real progress toward reconciliation.” 

The alert includes tools for readers to contact their senators and the White House. 

“Encourage your senator to co-sponsor the bipartisan Freedom to Export to Cuba Act and push the Biden administration to lift travel restrictions, remove Cuba from the list of ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism,’ and rebuild diplomatic relations,” the alert says. 

Much of the resistance to change in policies is rooted in politics that go back to the Cold War and mid-20th century and endure in older politicians and first-generation Cuban Americans who favor a hardline approach to Cuba.  

While the embargo was started as an attempt to control the spread of communism, there are now additional pressures on the administration to keep it in place, including winning elections in Florida and the strength of the Cuban American vote to determine those election results, Gordon noted. 

Rheem said a shift at the White House and in Congress would produce a shift at the UN, because U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield takes direction from the Biden administration. 

The letter from the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba concludes, “We ask you to accompany this process in prayer for the Cuban people, who are ultimately the ones who suffer the consequences of this policy, and we also ask you within your possibilities to make pronouncements and actions that make this problem visible.” 

Read more: 

A Nuevo Momento: New Hopes and Realities in Cuban-American Relations: Presbyterian Policy on Cuba from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy 

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