U.S., Cuban religious leaders press humanitarian case for prisoners’ release

November 13, 2014

U.S.-Cuba delegations

Pictured (left to right): The Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, Cuban Council of Churches President; Rabbi Elhanan Sunny Schnitzer Executive Director of the Cuba America Jewish Mission; Elizabeth Palmeiro, wife of “Cuban 5” member Luis Medina; McCullough; René González, “Cuban 5” member freed by the United S —courtesy of Church World Service

NEW YORK

The Rev. John L. McCullough and two fellow religious leaders ― including Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons ― traveled to Cuba recently for the latest in a series of meetings emphasizing the humanitarian reasons for release of American Alan Phillip Gross from prison in Cuba, and of the three members of the “Cuban 5” still in prison in the United States.

These prisoners’ release not only would end the suffering of four separated families, McCullough said, it also would enable the United States and Cuba to move forward on other steps to normalize relations between the two countries and, ultimately, end the now 54-year-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. 

McCullough is president and CEO of the humanitarian agency Church World Service.  McCullough says CWS has advocated for decades for an end to the embargo “out of our mission to end hunger and poverty.  While the Cuban government has begun to make significant reforms, economic conditions in Cuba for most people are deteriorating again. Lifting the embargo will help the Cuban people and benefit the United States as well.”

Traveling with McCullough, a United Methodist minister, to Cuba Nov. 2-5 were the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Rabbi Elhanan Sunny Schnitzer, executive director of the Cuba America Jewish Mission. 

“Rabbi Schnitzer has been providing missional support to the Cuban Jewish community for years, and knows Alan Gross. The Rev. Parsons’ interest in Cuba comes from the prominence of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba,” McCullough said. 

Alan Gross is the former U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly five years, unjustly according to the U.S. government. The “Cuban 5” were arrested in 1998 in Florida and subsequently convicted and sentenced in procedures that have been widely criticized as unjust on espionage conspiracy charges. Two of them have been released after completing their sentences, and three remain in U.S. prisons. 

McCullough, Parsons and Schnitzer, along with leaders of the Cuban Council of Churches, met in Havana with Cuban government officials, including Cuban first vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel; with officials of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, including Chief of Mission Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and with Cuban religious leaders. 

“Is it audacious on our part to ask the Cuban government for the release of Alan Gross, and the U.S. government for release of the remaining ‘Cuban 5’?  Yes,” McCullough said, “but if you don’t ask you won’t get.  By asking, perhaps we will help to create a little more flexibility on both sides. We hope our mission is contributing to a different quality of understanding about the situation’s urgent humanitarian dimensions.”

The U.S. religious leaders, along with Cuban Council of Churches President the Rev. Joel Ortega Dopico, a Presbyterian minister, also held a private pastoral meeting with family members of the “Cuban 5” and with René González, “Cuban 5” member released by the United States in 2011 after he completed a 13-year sentence. Fernando González, released in February of this year, was unavailable to meet with the delegation.

“We also asked to visit with Alan Gross. Though appreciative of our interest, he indicated that the only visitor he would accept is his wife,” McCullough said.

McCullough’s November trip to Cuba is the latest of several attempts to win the release of the prisoners from both U.S. and Cuban prisons, and to extend pastoral support to the prisoners and their families.

In October, McCullough led a delegation that also included the Rev. Carroll Baltimore, president emeritus of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches and a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to make a pastoral visit to Antonio Guerrero, one of the “Cuban 5.” 

Guerrero is being held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Mariana, Fla.  Visits with the two remaining “Cuban 5” detainees, Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández, are still being scheduled. Labañino is to complete his sentence in 2024, while Hernández is serving a double life sentence.

And last February, CWS hosted a Cuban Council of Churches delegation visit to Washington, D.C., for meetings with members of the U.S. Congress, U.S. State Department, Cuban Interests Section and American religious leaders to advocate major actions toward a closer relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

On Nov. 1, before flying to Cuba, the U.S. delegation met in Miami with Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Gerard Wenski.

“As archbishop of Miami, a city with a large Cuban-American population, he supports good relations between the United States and Cuba and has led many delegations to Cuba,” McCullough said.  “He was very encouraging of our efforts.”

For his part, Cuban first vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel lamented that there is deep pain and suffering on both sides of this conflict, and expressed the hope that soon the hurting will end.

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