Religious leaders press Obama on high-level dialogue with Cuba
Group also presses for easing of travel restrictions, other measures
May 19, 2014
A group of U.S. religious leaders ― including Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons ― is asking President Barack Obama to take a number of actions to improve relations between the United States and Cuban governments.
The 16 leaders from a variety of Christian traditions appealed to the president to:
- Open high-level dialogue to address “a wide range of issues”;
- Permit more “people-to-people” travel from the U.S. to Cuba;
- Remove Cuba from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list of the U.S. government; and
- Permit U.S. citizens to support Cuba’s burgeoning small business and cooperatives sector prompted by recent economic reforms in the island nation.
Similar measures are the subject of several overtures to the upcoming 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA), June 14-21 in Detroit.
In their letter, the group praised the president’s U.S.-Cuba policy changes in 2011 and his call for a more comprehensive Cuba policy update late last year. However, the group wrote, “we have been disappointed with the pace of change in U.S. policy. This issue had become more urgent with the recent hunger strike by imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross…”
Gross’s imprisonment in Cuba and the U.S. imprisonment of “The Cuban Five” (though two have been released) on widely discredited espionage charges are two key sticking points in current U.S.-Cuban relations.
The full text of the religious leaders’ letter to Obama, dated May 7:
Dear Mr. President:
As religious leaders in the United States, we are writing to you to express our hope that you will take bold executive action to improve the relationship between our nation and Cuba.
We welcome the changes to U.S.-Cuba policy that your administration made in 2011. And late last year we were delighted to hear you call for an update in U.S.-Cuba policy. You stated that we must continue to be thoughtful and creative in our approach to Cuba.
However, Mr. President, we have since been disappointed with the pace of change in U.S. policy. This issue has become more urgent with the recent hunger strike by imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross to highlight his plight and to urge high-level action by your administration to secure his release. With the support of our Cuban church partners, and in recognition of the vulnerable situation of Mr. Gross, we call upon you to enter into immediate good-faith discussions with the Cuban government at the highest levels. These discussions must take into consideration the concerns of the Cubans about U.S. policy, including the imprisonment of the remaining three members of the Cuban Five.
In addition, we firmly believe that programs such as the ZunZuneo (Cuban "twitter") project are ineffective and misguided. Our faith partners in Cuba consistently tell us that positive engagement with the Cuban government is much more helpful to them and their congregations than covert actions.
The need for bold action to update our policy was underscored for us during a recent visit here in Washington, DC by six Cuban church leaders. For many years, U.S. and Cuban churches have worked with one another toward common goals. Our relationships have been strengthened as religious freedom in Cuba has improved and church membership has grown. Thus, we join our Cuban counterparts in urging your Administration to take major new steps toward pursuing a policy of engagement and normalization. Such a policy shift will benefit the churches and civil society in Cuba, in addition to going a long way in achieving the release of Alan Gross.
We urge you to:
- Open up a high level dialogue between the United States and Cuba to address a wide range of issues, including the issue of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five.
- Issue a general license to permit people-to-people travel in all categories.
- Remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, an unnecessary irritant in an already tense relationship which undermines the credibility of the list itself and harms our relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
- Open the opportunity for U.S. citizens to support the emerging small business and cooperative sector in Cuba by permitting U.S. citizens to buy from, sell to, or provide investment or technical assistance to Cuban small businesses and cooperatives.
We pray for the full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, while understanding that a Congressional vote to end the embargo is not likely in the near future. In the meantime we believe that these steps will benefit both the U.S. and Cuban peoples. We urge you to seize this moment of opportunity to improve relations between the United States and Cuba.
Rev. Paula Clayton Dempsey, Director of Partnership Relations, Alliance of Baptists
Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA
Shan Cretin, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee
Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada
Rev. Joel Boot, Executive Director, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Stanley J. Noffsinger, General Secretary, Church of the Brethren
Rev. John McCullough, President and CEO, Church World Service
Very Rev. John Edmunds, ST, President, Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Diane Randall, Executive Secretary, Friends Committee on National Legislation
The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth D. Miller, President, Provincial Elders’ Conference, Moravian Church Northern Province
Very Rev William Antone OMI, Missionary Oblates USP
Jim Winkler, General Secretary and President, National Council of Churches, USA
Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church