Statement on Cuba in Light of the Papal Visit, January 30, 1998

Year Published
  • 2018
  • English

January 30, 1998

Together with other members of the USCC Committee on International Policy and staff of the Conference, I have just returned from a most moving and, I truly believe, historic event, the visit by our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II to the Church and people of Cuba. It was a visit that not only provided new hope and energy for the Church in Cuba, enabling the faithful to express their religious beliefs in a climate of ever greater freedom, but may also have marked a positive advance in the long sought for goal of reconciliation among the Cuban people, both within Cuba and with the Cubans in the diaspora. It is our hope that the visit will also mark a new phase in the relations between our two countries, so deeply in need of reconciliation.

As bishops of the Church in the United States, we feel strongly called to express our convictions about possible implications the visit may have for the conduct of our country's policy toward Cuba. No other country in the world looms as large in the minds of the Cuban people and their government as does the United States. No other country has had, and continues to have, such a turbulent and mutually hostile relationship with Cuba as does the United States. And no other country outside of Cuba itself has within it such a large concentration of Cuba's sons and daughters. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to take a fresh look at the issues that continue to divide us, and see if it is not time for fresh initiatives to promote the goals of reconciliation among us.

As a Conference, our overarching concern has been and continues to be the freedom of the Church in Cuba to exercise its threefold ministry of free and open worship, of prophetic preaching, and of Christian service to the needy. Within this essential framework of religious liberty and respect for fundamental human rights which we call upon the Cuban government to assure, we turn to the policies of our own government. The central U.S. policy issue is, of course, the decades-old economic sanctions imposed by our government against Cuba. As far back as 1969, the Cuban bishops called for the dismantling of the trade embargo, a move that was publicly supported by the USCC in 1972. It was only in this decade, however, that circumstances have made such appeals even remotely possible.

The moral principles governing Catholic teaching on economic sanctions in general, and on Cuba specifically, are well known. The Cuban bishops have repeatedly expressed their opposition to "any kind of measure that, in order to punish the Cuban government, serves to aggravate the problems of our people." Observing that embargoes are acts of force, the bishops addressed provisions of the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act, stating that any embargo that prevents essential foods and medicines from getting to people in need is "morally unacceptable, generally in violation of the principles of international law, and always contrary to the values of the Gospel."

After the passage of the so-called Helms-Burton Act in 1996, the Cuban bishops expressed their concern that the law runs the risk of "making even more difficult the likelihood of finding peaceful means to lead to the reconciliation of all Cubans." Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana added that "Any economic measure that aims to isolate a country and thus eliminates the possibility of development, thus threatening the survival of people, is unacceptable."

And in his departure remarks at Jose Marti Airport on January 25th, Pope John Paul stressed that, in our day, "No nation can live in isolation. The Cuban people therefore cannot be denied the contacts with other peoples necessary for economic, social and cultural development, especially when the imposed isolation strikes the population indiscriminately, making it ever more difficult for the weakest to enjoy the bare essentials of decent living, things such as food, health and education. All can and should take practical steps to bring about changes in this regard."

The officials of our government repeatedly affirm their readiness to at least modify aspects of the embargo, to take some practical steps, in response to clear signs of a greater opening within the society and increased respect for basic human rights, including religious freedom. While we make no predictions on how lasting some of the expressions of openness shown by the Cuban government prior to and during the papal visit may prove to be, it is an undeniable fact that important changes did occur over this past year: allowing for the door-to-door missions conducted by the dioceses to talk about the Pope's visit, permission for a number of open-air Masses, including hitherto forbidden religious processions, granting a larger than previously allowed number of visas for foreign priests and religious to minister in Cuba, a limited amount of access to the state media, even re-instating Christmas, at least for this past year, as a national holiday, and other expressions of a more open official attitude toward the rights and freedoms of believers.

As welcome as these changes are, it is obvious that they fall far short of the measure of a just society repeatedly outlined by the Holy Father. But they are steps along a better path and should be acknowledged as such. In our view, therefore, it is clearly time for the United States also to take some practical steps of its own and test whether the hopes enkindled by the papal visit can lead to real improvements in relations between our two countries.

First of all, we call upon the President to rescind the onerous and evidently meaningless ban on direct flights to Cuba, requiring all passenger traffic and humanitarian aid to transit third countries en route to Cuba. This ban was lifted for flights related to the papal visit these past weeks, for which we are indeed grateful. But as humanitarian agencies here, such as Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Medical Mission Board, plan their next shipments of critically needed medicines and other aid to the Cuban Church's relief and development agency, Caritas Cuba, they are still faced with the excessive added costs that third country transit imposes.

Secondly, only a very small part of the nutritional and health needs of the Cuban people can be met by these periodic infusions of humanitarian aid from private donors from other countries. The Cuban people need these commodities from abroad, including from the United States, without excessive prohibitions and restrictions. The present socio-political system, privileging those with power and ready access to hard currency but leaving great numbers of the poor with inadequate access to food and medicine, will not be changed overnight. The demands of elementary social justice, however, call upon us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Ending the restrictions on the sale of food and medicines, as legislation currently in both Houses of the U.S. Congress calls for, would be, in our view, a noble and needed humanitarian gesture and an expression of wise statesmanship on the part of our elected leaders.

It is our fervent hope and prayer that the encouraging, inspiring and, we hope, transforming words spoken by the Holy Father in Cuba will continue to strengthen and give hope to the Cuban people, especially our brothers and sisters in the faith. And we pray that his powerful and eloquent calls for a more open, participative and just society, for a liberation "that reaches its fullness in the exercise of freedom of conscience, the basis and foundation of all other human rights," will be ever more heeded by the civil authorities. We urge and look forward to further hopeful signs of positive developments within Cuban society that could lead toward the needed rapprochement between our two countries and reconciliation among all our peoples.

The Holy Father summarized his goal for the visit as offering the "opportunity to strengthen not only the courageous Catholics of that country but also all their fellow citizens in their efforts to achieve a homeland ever more just and united, where all individuals can find their rightful place and see their legitimate aspirations realized." We stand with the Cuban people in their just hopes for full civic, political and religious freedom. 

Statement on Cuba in the Light of the Papal Visit
Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick
Chairman, USCC Committee on International Policy

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