Testimony Before Congress on U.S. Economic and Trade Policy Toward Cuba, May 7, 1998

Year Published
  • 2013
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Prepared Testimony of Thomas E. Quigley
Policy Advisor on Latin American and Caribbean Affairs
United States Catholic Conference

May 7, 1998

Subcommittee on Trade
House Committee on Ways and Means

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity of presenting testimony on behalf of the United States Catholic Conference. My testimony will focus largely on the role and status of the Catholic Church in Cuba and the expressed views of that church as they relate to the themes of these hearings. Of the four focus points for the hearings listed in the Committee advisory, I will confine my comments to just two: the question of the impact on the Cuban people of the present United States policy, and the matter of humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people.

To do this, I would like first to relate to the current debate on U.S. sanctions and U.S. policy toward Cuba by noting something of the recent history of the Catholic Church in Cuba, a history that has seen its most dramatic moment in the visit of Pope John Paul II to the island nation last January. Some observations about that Church both before and following the Castro revolution may help to provide a context for this discussion.

The Church in Pre-Revolutionary Cuba

In the years just prior to the 1959 accession to power of Fidel Castro, the Catholic Church had both great strengths and considerable weaknesses. Although the vast majority of the population was at least nominally Catholic, the number of clergy and religious ministering to the people was severely limited and, as in many other Latin American countries of the time, heavily dependent on personnel from abroad. However, by the early '50s, the various religious orders in the country were outstanding for their educational and social service activities. They not only conducted several hundred schools throughout the country but staffed over 250 charitable institutions, including 52 homes for the elderly, orphanages and hospitals.

Despite the strong participation of many active Catholics, including clergy and religious, in the efforts to overthrow the Batista dictatorship--bishops had called on Batista to resign and had initially welcomed what they hoped would be the re-establishment of democratic rule of law--relations between the Church and the new regime deteriorated very rapidly. The bishops early on protested the brutality of the hurried show trials and the immediate execution of many accused of criminal behavior during the Batista years, and increasingly found themselves forced to criticize, and eventually denounce, the excesses of certain laws imposed by the state as well as the growing influence of the communist party.

In May of 1961, just 37 years ago, following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion the previous month (during which Catholic schools, convents and rectories were occupied), all private schools in the country were definitively shut down and their properties expropriated. In September of that year, 131 priests and religious, including the auxiliary bishop of Havana, Mons. Eduardo Boza Masvidal, were rounded up and summarily expelled on the Spanish liner Covadonga. Much of the Catholic Church in Cuba was effectively shut down, and it was completely shut out of any participation in the life of the larger society. The Church was ostracized, denounced, ridiculed; media campaigns against the Church, and religion in general, became common. So-called scientific materialism, atheism, became part of the state-imposed curriculum in all the schools. To attend Mass, to have one's children baptized or confirmed, to have any open contact with the Church became dangerous, and consequently only small numbers of the most dedicated or courageous Catholics did so. Hundreds, then hundreds of thousands, left, taking with them much of the Church's most active membership. The Catholic Church was reduced to a shadow of its former self.

The Church in Cuba Today

Those who, last January, witnessed the tremendous outpouring of enthusiasm by hundreds of thousands of Cubans and their full-throated participation in the public Masses celebrated by the Holy Father, might be excused for thinking that this is a strong, vibrant, confident community that has history clearly on its side. And they would be right, up to a point. But it would be wrong to imagine that this community, or its leadership, could think of asserting the kind of independent action and even dissident activity--even if it were inclined to do so--that some in the United States seem to believe it should. As U.S. policy makers contemplate the potential for this community, the Catholic Church in Cuba, to greatly accelerate the already existing process of positive change in Cuba, two factors should be kept in mind. One is the statistical reality of that church; i.e., the very limited number of pastoral workers, whether clerical, religious or lay, who are able to play the more active role in the larger society that some here seem to be calling for; the second is the inadequate degree of solid formation in the life and teachings of the Church that most of today's Catholic Cubans yet possess. This is especially true with respect to the social doctrine of the Church.

Profile of the Church in Cuba

What exactly do we understand by the Catholic Church in Cuba? It is, at one and the same time, the largest single institution in the country that is not under the control of the Communist Party; it is the religious institution that, with the possible exception of the much smaller Jehovah's Witnesses, has suffered the greatest persecution by the State and its officially sanctioned atheist ideology over the past three decades; it is a church that is presently enjoying--due in good measure to the papal visit--an unprecedented sense of cohesion, of self-confidence, of hope for the future; and yet it is a church that is largely de-institutionalized and relatively resource-poor, especially in terms of personnel. The active Church of Cuba is a relatively small group of bishops, priests, religious and committed laypersons, the last numbering at most some few hundreds of thousands, some of whom have lived through these nearly forty years, but most who have known only the present government, yet yearn as strongly as their elders for a different society.

These are the Cubans we are talking about when we ask if the Church can be a force for social change in Cuba. According to the generally accepted figures, some four million of Cuba's eleven million citizens may be considered at least nominal Catholics today. But this reasonably large number of what might be called cultural Catholics, while certainly disaffected by much of what has taken place under the present regime, confine their religious expression largely to the private sphere, to their devotion to God as represented, for example, in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which formed such a dramatic backdrop for the papal Mass in Havana, and to his mother under the essentially Cuban title of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre. Popular religiosity, a widespread phenomenon throughout most of Latin America, is not to be dismissed as unimportant to the ethos of a people, but neither is it easily harnessed in the cause of any particular social or political goal.

Within the eleven dioceses that make up the Church in Cuba, there are thirteen bishops, some 291 priests, divided roughly equally between diocesan clergy (144) and members of religious orders (147). (These figures are from January and so some of the new visas granted to foreign clergy and religious in the light of the papal visit may be now have pushed the figure over the 300 mark--the first time since 1961.) There are some 33 deacons, that is, members of the clergy but not priests; most if not all are married men. There are 26 religious brothers, non-ordained members of religious congregations or orders, and 24 members of secular institutes. And, of great importance, there are now some 538 religious sisters. This totals 925 "official" personnel of the Church in Cuba.

Quite an increase when one considers that for most of the past three decades, there were at any given time about 200 priests and 200 sisters, as contrasted with the roughly 800 priests and 2,000 sisters at the time of the revolution. But still a woefully inadequate number of church "professionals" for over four million Catholics, never mind the now eleven million-strong Cuban population.

Besides the numbers, country of origin is also a relevant factor, especially in today's Cuba. Of this total of 925 full-time church personnel, only 381--less than 40 %--are Cuban-born. For the clergy, the ratio is more equal, as virtually all of the diocesan priests (144) are Cuban-born, as are several of the religious priests (147), and recent years have seen a fairly dramatic up-tick in ordinations of Cuban seminarians, somewhat greater than the numbers lost to death or retirement.

The foreign-born pastoral workers, coming from 33 countries, representing the universal charity of the Church, are a great sign of international solidarity and provide--as they have done for generations--an immeasurably important service to the people of Cuba. But their "non-Cubanness," especially given the hyper-nationalism of the present regime, could potentially represent a problem. The recent decision of the Cuban government not to renew the visa of the American Capuchin, Fr. Patrick Sullivan, obliging him to leave the country at Eastertime, offers a telling illustration. No charges were, or could be, brought against him; but because his behavior was considered as not conforming sufficiently to what is tolerable for foreigners, he was invited to leave.

Formation of the Cuban Laity

In addition to the limited personnel resources of the Church, the debilitating effects of three decades of oppression and marginalization cannot be ignored. The reforms and renewal in the Catholic Church effected by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and the extraordinary meetings of the Latin American episcopates in Medell¡n (1968) and Puebla (1979), were slow in penetrating the protective covering the Cuban authorities had thrown up around their island.

Cuba's bishops, priests and religious, of course, were fully attuned to these developments but their ability to convey them to the masses of the faithful was severely limited.

After the 1979 Third General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopates in Puebla, Mexico, the Cuban bishops determined to set in motion a process of ecclesial reflection and analysis that would result in a kind of "Puebla meeting" for the Church in Cuba. This event, called ENEC , the Cuban National Church Gathering (Encuentro Nacional Eclesial Cubano), took place in 1986. It was the first major church event of its kind since the Catholic Congress of 1961 and has been followed, most notably, by three national "social weeks," convened by the Cuban Justice and Peace Commission. The documents from these meetings offer an important window onto the social and political thinking of some of the most active members of the Church in Cuba.

One is struck, in reading them, of the strong emphasis given to the task of formation in the Church's social teachings, of the need to continue strengthening the work of formation at the level of the Christian base communities, of formation in solidarity, of building up the Christian community. The concern for the human rights and dignity of every person, especially for what are termed the "new poor, which exist in every society" is a recurring theme In no way, however, should these Christian activists be confused with the explicitly political dissident activists who are the focus of attention of international human rights groups.

Dissidents and the Church

Church leaders with whom I have spoken have the greatest respect for these individuals, many of whom have served long sentences in Cuba's jails for their dissident activity, often confined solely to their expressed opinions. These are the people the Pope spoke for in his moving remarks on the "world of suffering" at the leprosarium of San L zaro: "These prisoners of conscience suffer an isolation and a penalty for something for which their own conscience does not condemn them. What they want is to participate actively in life with the opportunity to speak their mind with respect and tolerance. I encourage efforts to reinsert prisoners into society." It would be a mistake, however, to interpret the Church's strong defense of Cuba's human rights activists as an endorsement of widespread dissidence or a call for active opposition to the present regime. It would not only be a mistake but a very dangerous misinterpretation of how the Church views its role in today's society.

Since the mid-80s, the Church (as well as other sectors of the society) has enjoyed an increased freedom and ability to function more openly than in the previous decades. Except for the brief set-back in the early 90s, following the events in Eastern Europe, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent "special period" of economic hardship, the "space" available to the Church has continued to widen. Large numbers of people throughout the island have been re-discovering their religious roots or approaching the churches for the first time--this is true for all religious bodies in Cuba--and it is once again acceptable for people to express their faith commitments openly.

The Role of Caritas

The Catholic Church repeatedly refers to its threefold mission in society: its liturgical function, that is, the freedom to worship God freely and openly; its charitable function, the right to provide material assistance to the poor and needy; and its prophetic function, that of proclaiming the Gospel in all its dimensions, including the denunciation of evil, including evil for which the state is responsible. Throughout the revolutionary period, the Church has enjoyed a relative freedom of worship; public processions and other religious expressions have been proscribed, but most of the churches have remained open. The once outstanding role of the Church in providing help to the poor and infirm had been greatly reduced until the early 1990s when the state welcomed the development of the Caritas offices in each of the nation's provinces. Caritas is the Church's development and relief agency and is part of a worldwide network of such agencies, many of which provide donations of food, medicine, building and other materials to Caritas Cubana, thus enabling the Church in Cuba to resume more of its traditional role in providing direct help to the needy. It is arguably the largest, completely independent non-governmental organization in Cuba today.

Some in this country would like to see Caritas assume a much greater role, perhaps oversee the distribution of large amounts of privately donated foodstuffs and medicines, or serve as an accepted end -use monitor for U.S. authorized sales of such items. Caritas is prepared to do what it can to alleviate the very real sufferings experienced by many in Cuba today, but it has made clear that it will not and cannot be harnessed to a political program, whether in support of or in opposition to the present government. And it has also made clear that its own institutional limitations (there are barely 30 full-time Caritas workers throughout the island at present) make any rapid increase in its workload unlikely.

The Church and Economic Sanctions

It is well known that the Church supports the imposition of sweeping embargoes only under very strict conditions. As aggressive acts, embargoes are required, in Catholic social teaching, to meet stringent requirements. Among other conditions, they should be applied only after less coercive measures have been tried and failed; the harm caused by sanctions should be proportionate to the goals sought; they should be temporary in nature, targeted against the aggressor and not directly against innocent civilians, and should always be part of a larger political and diplomatic effort to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Few will argue today that the U.S.-imposed embargo against Cuba meet these or other criteria. They have been in effect for an inordinately long time, they have apparently achieved little of their intended effect, and have almost certainly contributed to the worsening of the standard of living of the average Cuban citizen. What they have done, according to many analysts, is provide convenient cover for the regime by enabling every shortage of food, medicine and other basic commodities to be attributed to the United States "blockade."

In 1992, the Cuban bishops wrote: "Total embargoes that affect the flow of products essential for the people, including foods and medicines, indispensable for the population, are morally unacceptable, are generally in violation of the principles of international law, and are always contrary to the values of the Gospel." While the U.S. embargo may not qualify as a " total" embargo, its deleterious effect on the flow of goods essential for the people seems undeniable.

In their major pastoral letter of 1993, the bishops deplored "the sad experience of foreign interventions in our national affairs," both that of the Soviet bloc, the end of whose subsidies had by then become the major source of the "special period" of austerity, and that of the United States, whose "embargo, trade restrictions, isolation, threats and the like" continue to disadvantage the average Cuban. "We bishops of Cuba," they went on, "reject any kind of measure that, in order to punish the Cuban government, serves rather to aggravate the problems of our people." And following the passage of the 1996 "Libertad" Act (Helms-Burton), the 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."

Finally, as we know, the Holy Father twice made reference to economic sanctions during his visit to Cuba in January. Both instances placed equal if not greater criticism on similar limitations on people's freedom imposed by the Cuban government, but the sharp criticism of the U.S. sanctions was unmistakable. The Cuban bishops highlighted the point in their post-visit assessment: "In the same line of his social teaching, in referring to the restrictive economic measures imposed on Cuba from outside, [the Pope] called them clearly unjust and ethically unacceptable."


The U.S. Catholic Conference urges the Congress to take appropriate steps to end the present restrictions at least on the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. The Cuban people, as Archbishop Theodore McCarrick said in his January 30, 1998 "Statement on Cuba in the Light of the Papal Visit," need access to such commodities as food and medicine from abroad without excessive prohibitions and restrictions. "The present socio-political system," he wrote, "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."

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


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