Presbyterians meet with Cuban delegation during UN High Level Talks

Cuba accompaniment affirms ‘Nuevo Momento’ policy statement from 222nd General Assembly

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

A reporter from Cuba interviews the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts, World Mission’s regional liaison for the Caribbean. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Along with a group of ecumenical partners, a delegation of PC(USA) associates met with a Cuban delegation at the United Nations 78th General Assembly High Level Week to discuss topics that included economic sanctions, climate change, and how to deepen the partnership between PC(USA) and its sister church the Iglesia Presbiteriana — Reformada en Cuba — the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC). The Cuban delegation included President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the foreign minister, and the Cuban ambassadors to the United States and the UN.

The roundtable discussion was part of an annual consultation with the Cuban mission held in conjunction with the UN General Assembly meeting. It featured opening comments by President Díaz-Canel, where he addressed the hardships faced by Cubans as a result of the long-standing blockade, which has complicated the delivery of humanitarian assistance since 2019 when the U.S. placed Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. He called for reforming financing systems and ramping up support for sustainable development and climate action. Díaz-Canel also welcomed exchanges between the churches in the U.S. and Cuba and expressed gratitude for the religious partnerships and communities on the island as well as the church’s contributions in assisting vulnerable families in Cuba.

PC(USA) attendees included World Mission regional liaisons for the Caribbean, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts, Latin America & Caribbean area coordinator Tracey King-Ortega, and Sue Rheem, director and representative to the United Nations for the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN). They were joined by ecumenical partners representing the National Council of Churches, United Church of Christ, Church of the Brethren, the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, World Council of Churches, Caritas Internationalis, Catholic Relief and ACT Alliance.

Despite the significant political and ideological differences between the U.S. and Cuba, PC(USA) attendees found the opportunity for learning and listening to the Cuban delegation to be tremendously valuable for nurturing relationships in the region. Cintrón-Olivieri noted the context of the meeting was much more than listening to what the Cuban president had to say, but to see and learn from others in the faith community doing similar work.

Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, World Mission’s regional liaison for the Caribbean, said the meetings afforded opportunities to “listen, learn and connect.” (Contributed photo)

“As regional liaisons we listen and nurture relationships, interpreting the context and situation of the places within the region to church partners as well as congregations in the United States,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “This meeting provided an important opportunity to do just that: listen, learn, and connect. First, with the extraordinary work of education and advocacy Sue Rheem and her team are doing at the PMUN, and to build relationships with those present at the meeting. We lifted the importance of the relationship in partnership and mutuality with the IPRC and the ministry they embody in their communities. Listening and learning are the foundation of any relationship, and relationships are at the core of lasting, positive change. We hope that this meeting was such an occasion for all who were present.”

“We are aware of the tremendous political and ideological differences between our nations, but that should not be a stumbling block to stop our church in its efforts to walk alongside the people of Cuba, particularly by supporting the witness and mission of our sister church, the IPRC,” said Capella-Pratts.

The PC(USA)-IPRC partnership stretches back to 1890. Underpinning the ongoing collaboration with Cuban partners is the mandate by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the PC(USA) report, “New Hopes and Realities in Cuban American Relations: A ‘Nuevo Momento.’”

The report calls for a “better and fairer relationship” than the U.S. and Cuba has shared before and since the 1959 revolution and supports the self-determination and initiative of the Cuban people. Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Celebrating the life of the IPRC and maintaining a fruitful partnership
  • Supporting IPRC’s legal standing as a Christian church
  • Honoring the social achievements and democratic values of Cuba while encouraging full civil liberties
  • Supporting the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.

“It was a privilege to accompany our PC(USA) delegation to meet with the Cuban president to share the lived experiences of our church partners serving their communities and for the opportunity to dialogue with a head of state for greater understanding, peace, and reconciliation between our two peoples,” said Rheem.

“The president addressed the hardships faced by the Cuban people because of the decades-long blockade. However, he also highlighted advances Cuba has made in achieving gender equality, science and technology, education, initiatives for young people, and combatting racism. He welcomed the exchanges between U.S and Cuban churches and expressed his appreciation of the church’s contributions toward assisting vulnerable families in Cuba.”

King-Ortega noted the president was very aware of the role that churches in the community play in filling in the gaps that exist, and that meetings such as this one help amplify “faith in action.”

“There was a discussion about financial obstacles in place because of the embargo, so in faithful partnership with the IPRC we want to share resources with the church so they can carry out their community projects and serve the community better. It’s not as simple as just sending them money,” said King-Ortega.

In light of a foreign policy that does not appear to be changing soon, where does the ecumenical community go from here in its relationship to Cuba?

“We’ll continue to walk alongside the people of Cuba, supporting their witness and our sister church, which is what the ‘Nuevo Momento’ mandate is all about,” said Capella-Pratts. “I find it of great significance that our visit to the Cuba Mission in New York took place in the context of the International Day of Peace, September 21st, which is a date (and I’m quoting here from the UN website) ‘for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace.’”

Currently itinerating the U.S. as part of the International Peacemaker Program is the Rev. Alison Infante Zamora, IPRC’s Synod moderator and a member of the Presbytery of Matanzas. He is sharing his lived experience through stories about the realities of Cuba to congregations in Louisiana, Florida, New Mexico and Michigan.

The Cuba Partners Network will hold its annual gathering Oct. 24-27 in Maryland.

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