Policy Issues. In the year since the Pope's historic visit to Cuba, US-Cuba policy has been a major concern of USCC.
The Dodd Bill: There were several initiatives in Congress seeking to modify or end the US embargo on Cuba. Our principal focus was on the Dodd-Warner bill S.1391 (and the similar Torres-Leach House bill HR1951) which sought to lift the ban on the sale of medicines and food to Cuba. The bill eventually served as an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill and initially won passage but was then defeated by an amendment to the amendment.
The Helms Bill: The Cuban Solidarity Act of 1998, introduced by Senator Helms on May 14, called for the provision of $100 million over four years in U.S. government aid for "victims of political repression" in Cuba, the aid to be delivered "through the Catholic Church and truly independent relief organizations in Cuba like Caritas." The problem here is that the Church in Cuba takes great pains to distance itself from any effort to politicize its charitable work and will not allow Caritas to become an agent of US policy. On the day that the Helms Bill was proposed, the Cuban Bishops' Conference issued a statement saying that "the Catholic Church in Cuba, through Caritas, has distributed humanitarian aid to the population sent by various sister churches, international aid agencies, individuals and private groups, but it has never distributed aid coming from governments. We will continue working in this way in the future."
Bipartisan Commission: Two important private initiatives moved forward during the year. The first was a proposal for a high-level bipartisan commission, similar to the Kissinger Commission on Central America in the 80s, to examine all aspects of US-Cuba relations. Once a number of former Secretaries of State and other foreign policy figures got behind it, Sen.Warner (R-VA) and a dozen of his Republican colleagues publicly asked the President to convene such a commission. USCC formally endorsed the concept.
On January 5, as Secretary Albright announced several modest initiatives for increased contact with the Cuban people, the bipartisan commission proposal was undermined.
CFR Task Force: In November, the Council on Foreign Relations convened an independent task force on US-Cuba relations, composed of Cuba specialists and prominent political, academic and other figures, to consider a draft report that proposed a broad variety of steps that could now be taken by the US. Many of the proposals which won approval from this very diverse group could go a long way toward healing some of the divisions in our society, including within the Cuban-American community. Thus far, only minor parts have been adopted by the Administration.
The New Initiatives: Five minor alterations to the present sanctions regime, derived partly from the CFR Task Force, were announced January 5: any US resident can now send funds to people in Cuba; two-way exchanges of people to people contact will be encouraged; the sale of foods to independent NGOs and emerging private sector groups is authorized; charter flights to cities other than Havana and from cities other than Miami will also be authorized; and direct mail flights to Cuba will be sought.
The initiatives have so far been met by some with indifference or even criticism for possibly closing the door on any significant shifts until after the 2000 elections; others have welcomed them as small steps that may pave the way for further advances in the nearer future.The Cuban government has generally denounced most of the initiatives. Since some of the measures depend on Cuban acquiescence or cooperation, their implementation is by no means assured.
The Church in Cuba. Church people in Cuba are accustomed to say, in response to the question of what has changed since the Pope's visit, that the Cuban government has not made any real changes but that there have been tremendous changes in the minds and hearts of the Cuban people, and not just the Catholics. While that is the greater truth, the year's end saw a few concessions that were at least of symbolic importance.
The most significant was the re-establishment of Christmas as a national holiday, occasioning a telegram from the Pope to Castro, thanking him for the gesture. Tied to this was granting 15 minutes of air time to Cardinal Ortega to speak about the meaning of Christmas, recounting the Gospel of Luke. State TV also carried a part of the Pope's Christmas message in which he spoke of Cuba. Further, the state granted visas for some 40 pastoral workers, 19 of them priests, and allowed the free distribution of a million copies of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and the publication of John Paul II in Cuba: Report and Project, a 216 page memorial of the visit.
USCC Responses. Over the course of the year, Archbishop McCarrick, Chairman of the Committee on International Policy, issued some six statements on Cuba; the Conference gave Congressional testimony on two occasions and staff made several public presentations, visited Cuba twice, and published articles on Cuba. We continue to monitor the situation carefully and look for opportunities to persuade the US government of the futility, not to say immorality, of the present embargo. In the view of many experts, the US hardline is a great gift to Fidel Castro, providing him with the all-purpose excuse for every failure of the present economy. For us, the more important point is, as Cardinal Ortega said recently, the embargo "hinders the work of the Church and retards the development of the country."
We should use every opportunity to communicate our views to Members of Congress that the embargo has failed in its goals, is repudiated by the entire world, and has succeeded only in harming the most vulnerable while leaving those in power completely untouched. It is time for new thinking and new policy on Cuba -- which supports human rights and religious liberty for the Cuban people and builds bridges between our two societies.
For further information, Tom Quigley: (202) 541-3184; fax (202) 541-3339; e-mail email@example.com