U.S. priest: Spiritual costs of Cuban embargo have been high

The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba turns 55 in October, and its effects are clear in the dilapidated buildings, scant food supply of Cuban stores and infrastructure around the island.

But what's not easy to see is the spiritual cost. Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the U.S. bishops' Office for the Church in Latin America, said that spiritual cost has been great.

"The embargo has literally put a block between two hands, two sister churches working together," Father Molina said. "The church in the United States is very much a missionary church that goes to very different places around the world, not only to spend time with their brothers and sisters, but also to help them."

The embargo has prevented Cubans from receiving supplies from the U.S., even during natural disasters and emergencies. Financial donations from U.S. church members and groups that want to help pastoral programs for the church in Cuba also have been blocked. But it also has eroded something even more important to the Catholic Church: a spiritual fraternity between Catholics on the island and those in the United States.

"All that has been lost for last 50 years," Father Molina said.

Richard Coll, a foreign policy adviser for Latin America and global trade at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he sees hope, however, and it arrived with the Dec. 17 news that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be restored -- a move facilitated by the diplomatic hand of the Vatican.

"It was a day that marked Cuba," and one largely welcomed by the island's denizens, said Lourdes Maria Escalona, who works at a Catholic formation center on the eastern end of the island.

In April, Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Both countries opened embassies in each other's territory July 20, and on Aug. 14, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the U.S. flag at the embassy in Havana.

The hope now, Coll said, is "that there's no backtracking" by Congress on the flexibility granted to Americans so they can travel to Cuba, which includes permission to travel to the island for religious activities. The greater hope, however, is getting rid of the embargo.

"Certainly the conference (of bishops) in the United States, in conjunction with the Cuban bishops' conference, for many years, has favored that kind of action, the lifting of the embargo," Coll said. Such a move can bring about greater dialogue, commerce and contact with the Cuban people, their government, and foster human rights, freedom and democracy, just as it did in the similar landscape of Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell, he said.

"The more they were able to rely on commerce and engage in dialogue with the West, the more possible it became for their own societies to be able to open up to human rights advances and eventually to a move toward democracy rather than pulling away from the West," Coll said.

Even St. John Paul II, an ardent opponent of communism, favored lifting the sanctions.

"Embargoes," he said while addressing a group of young people during his visit to Cuba in 1998, "are always deplorable because they hurt the most needy."

Any benefits that come from the historic thaw have the potential to affect more than just relations between Cuba and the U.S., Coll said.

"Cuba is a key that unlocks many other doors within Latin America," said Coll. "You can think about the situation in Venezuela, for example ... that's related very much to what's happening in Cuba."

Success with Cuba can lead to success addressing issues such as religious freedom, violence and poverty in other neighboring nations. And that's very much an interest of Pope Francis but it's also not an interest that began with him, Coll said.

"Sometimes in the press, and elsewhere, there's a desire to talk about how Francis is a revolutionary and so different from other popes, but on Cuba policy and on many other issues, including even economic policy, I would argue that Francis is very much in the tradition of Benedict XVI, John Paul II, going back to Leo XIII, so this is a chain ... it really is a pretty unbroken chain," Coll said.

Eduardo Azcarate, a native Cuban who lives in Falls Church, Virginia, said he does not like to get involved in politics and does not like to address the embargo. But the embargo has made it complicated for Cuban Catholics like him to help the church and its members carry out its mission.

"If the embargo did not exist ... it perhaps would help to facilitate an openness of service, of help to the church" in Cuba, he said.

However, he also tries to understand those who favor the sanctions and those who see it as "holding a chip" to "remind the government about the importance of human rights and religious freedom."

Just before Kerry arrived in Havana, a group of activists was arrested and released, following a protest in which they wore masks with the image of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The topic of the embargo almost seems unavoidable for Pope Francis, who will head directly from Cuba to the United States Sept. 22.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the pope speaks about that," Father Molina said, though it may not be a welcome topic in Congress.

"The challenge is that we're going to be heading into 2016, which is a presidential election year, and I think that most candidates are going to be very cautious and most members of Congress are going to be very cautious about taking any action," Coll said.

But the pope may see it as a priceless opportunity for world diplomacy, Father Molina said, and as another step in the path of his predecessors.

At a recent panel of policy advisers in Washington, Demetrios Papademetriou, president emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said directly or indirectly, the subject of the embargo will come up during his U.S. visit.

"Even if the pope does not say the words Cuba directly, he will probably say something about facilitating dialogue and opening up within Latin America," he said. "After all, let's not forget that this is a pope that understands, has lived all his life, has preached, became a cardinal, in Latin America. He has lived with these issues."

U.S. Judge Orders Cops Who Killed a Homeless Man to Stand Trial

After a four hour stand off with 19 police officers, James Boyd was shot dead because he was believed to be making “threatening moves.”

A judge in the southern U.S. state of New Mexico ruled Tuesday that the police officers who shot and killed a homeless man with schizophrenia in 2014 must stand trial for his death.

Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez from the Albuquerque Police Department will now be prosecuted for the death of James Boyd, who they shot and killed while trying to evacuate him from his illegal camping spot in the Sandia Mountains.

The evacuation turned into a four hour stand off between 19 police officers and Boyd, and ended with Boyd being shot several times.

An alarming video of the standoff taken from one of the officer's body cams has been circulating the internet. The video shows Boyd speaking to police officers in a mild manner some 30 feet away, then bends over to gather his belongings and appears to be ready to follow the officers. A policeman's voice is then heard saying, “Do it” and a flash device is fired at Boyd, which disorients him.

Police then start running towards him shouting, while Boyd seemingly pulls out two knives from his pockets and refuses to drop them. Boyd – who suffered from schizophrenia – then turns his back to police, at which time officers fire several times.

More alarmingly, as police approach Boyd, who is now lying face down on the ground, you can hear his barely audible voice say, “I can't move” and “Please, don't hurt me anymore.”

However, when he fails to put his hands near his head as the officers demand, they continue to fire on him.        

Pro Tem Judge Neil Candelaria said Tuesday that there was probable cause for the case against Perez and Sandy.

Special prosecutor Randi McGinnn accused the officers of approaching the campsite with the intent of confronting the homeless man with a “paramilitary response” that created a dangerous situation, reported the Washington Post.

The two officers, however, argue that their actions were justified, saying Boyd put the officers' lives in jeopardy when he wielded two knives in the air and made “threatening moves.”

  • Published in World

CONCACAF Makes Draw for Pre-Olympic Tournament

The draw for the Pre-Olympic Soccer Tournament for the North, Central American and Caribbean Confederation (CONCACAF) was made Tuesday here, and it was determined that the current champion, Mexico, was placed in Pool B. The Mexican team will meet Honduras, Haiti and the winner between Guatemala and Costa Rica, for one of the tickets for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.

At the tournament, scheduled for October 2-13 in several cities in the United States, the Pool A will be composed of the host country, Panama, Canada and Cuba to compete against each other.

The first two of each key will be qualified for the semifinals , which will be played on October 10 at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, seeking to get the pass to the finals and direct tickets to the Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, the winner of the match for the third place should win in a playoff with Colombia for its move to Rio de Janeiro-2016.

  • Published in Sports

Leahy advocates for further normalization of relations with Cuba

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Monday that the United States’ travel ban against Cuba contradicts American ideals. Those ideals ought to be promoted abroad, Leahy said, by lifting the trade embargo against the Caribbean country.

Leahy delivered his remarks to a small group of reporters gathered at his Burlington office on the heels of his return to the United States after witnessing Americans on Aug. 14 raise their flag over an embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years.

Leahy accompanied Secretary of State John Kerry last weekend to Havana for the official opening of the U.S. Embassy. Leahy has led efforts in Congress to normalize relations with Cuba.

In his criticism of the travel ban, Leahy cited Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who has long pushed for its end.

“I think Senator Flake, who is a Republican, said, as far as travel back and forth, he said, ‘I don’t mind if a communist country tells me that they won’t let me in. What I mind is if my country, a free country, tells me I can’t go to this other country, the only country in the world we have restrictions [against visiting].’

“We can go anywhere – Iran, we can go to North Korea, assuming they’ll let you in, but not Cuba,” Leahy said. “We should have students going back and forth, businesses going back and forth,” Leahy said.

The travel ban eased in January to now permit certain types of visits by United States citizens.

The United States government allows exemptions to the travel ban for United States citizens conducting any of 12 activities that include journalism, religious promotion and education.

One Vermont educator agreed with Leahy’s assessment that even this more permissive travel embargo affronts the freedoms Americans prize. The re-opening of the United States embassy last Friday promises a shift in that stance that he said Americans and Cubans alike should welcome.

“It’s not just about Cuba, and how this will change Cuba, it’s about our rights as U.S. citizens to travel freely,” University of Vermont music professor and director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Alexander Stewart said. “I’ve always found it outrageous and offensive that our government could tell us we can’t go somewhere we wanted to go – that’s a real infringement, I think, on our rights.”

Leahy said that further progress toward normalization of Cuban relations with the United States may offer opportunities for Vermont’s farmers, and potentially its dairy farmers in particular. These effects are likely to be slight, however, owing to the island country’s small economy, Leahy said.

Leahy played an instrumental role in negotiations between the two countries leading up to last week’s events, and in December of last year he flew to Cuba as part of a small group that returned aid worker Alan Gross from a Cuban prison to U.S. soil.

Leahy touched on a number of other subjects during a 45-minute press conference Monday morning in downtown Burlington.

As the most senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy said, he will secure funding to clean up pollution in Lake Champlain.

“I’ve always been able to get the money in the past, as long as I’m in the appropriations committee I’ll keep getting it,” he said.

Gov. Pete Shumlin and the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans last Friday to reduce by 34 percent the maximum daily amount of pollutants that may enter the lake.

Leahy also said he considers fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders one of only a few likely presidents among those in the race today.

“I’m very proud of Bernie, and I’ve told him that, and I’ve said so publicly,” Leahy said.

“I think there’s only two or three, maybe four people running now who are viable candidates for the presidency, and Bernie Sanders is one of them,” he said.

Leahy said his feelings toward Sanders would not alter his long-standing endorsement of Sanders’ primary opponent Hillary Clinton.

  • Published in Now

Potential Black Jurors in U.S. Face High Rejection Rate

The new report based on almost 10 years of monitoring hundreds of criminal trials confirms the existence of a racial biais when selecting juries.

Prosecutors chose to strike out Black prospective jurors at three times the rate of non-Blacks in Louisiana, revealed a report issued in August by Reprieve Australia – a finding confirmed at the larger national scale by the New York Times on Sunday.   

Selecting juries in criminal trials allows the prosecutor to use a limited number of discretionary “peremptory challenges” to strike prospective jurors from the panel. In the case of Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office, in the 332 trials analyzed between 2003-2012, this power was exercised 46 percent of the time against a Black juror, while three times less – 15 percent – against a white juror.      

What Reprieve Australia found in the state of Alabama is witnessed across the country: in Alabama or North Carolina, the New York Times explains that prosecutors struck Black jurors at double or triple the rates of others.        

This kind of discrimination bears a significant impact on the sentence of the trial, said Ursula Noye, a researcher quoted in the New York Times report.         

"Not one defendant was acquitted in a trial where there were two or fewer Black jurors," Noye writes. "The acquittal rate in the 49 trials where the number of Black jurors was three or more, was 12 [percent]. In trials with five or more Black jurors, defendants are acquitted 19 [percent] of the time." 

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hear in the fall this year the case of a 1987 death penalty sentence ruled against a 19-year-old Black man in Georgia, as prosecutors excluded every Black prospective juror.

  • Published in World

Heart to Heart International will head to Cuba soon to deliver medical supplies

The United States government took a major step forward in its mission to normalize relations with Cuba when on Friday it opened the first U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Havana since 1961.

Now a medical mission group in Lenexa is preparing for a Cuba trip of its own.

Heart to Heart International, a nonprofit that collects medical supplies for disaster relief and other medical relief around the world, has collected enough basic medical supplies to fill a 40-foot-long container.

As soon as the Cuban government gives its approval, which could be as early as September or October, a team of workers from the group will travel to Florida and board a ship to Cuba to personally deliver supplies that include catheters, syringes, rubber gloves, diapers, thermometers and antibiotics to a pediatric hospital that is in desperate need.

Materials will be delivered to Hospital Pediátrico William Soler in Havana, where, according to Heart to Heart CEO Jim Mitchum, physicians are sometimes forced to improvise.

  • Published in Cuba

Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. sees long road to normal ties

Josefina Vidal receives a check from the United States for $4,085 once a year, rent money for the U.S. naval base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. But Cuba refuses to cash the checks, made out to a nonexistent Treasurer, because it sees the U.S. occupation of Guantanamo as illegal.

Former leader Fidel Castro used to stuff them into a drawer and Vidal says they are now stored in archives “like a historical document,” a symbol of the bitterness between the two countries for over half a century.

“I receive them personally, year after year,” Vidal, the director of U.S. affairs for Cuba’s Foreign Ministry and its lead negotiator in bilateral talks with Washington, told Reuters in an exclusive interview. “We have a collection.”

With the two countries now putting aside their Cold War-era rivalry and restoring diplomatic relations, many old bilateral conflicts are now being pulled out of storage for negotiation.

Both sides see a chance for quick progress on some relatively simple issues, possibly including a civil aviation deal, but others will take years and may never reach an agreement.

On one side, Cuba wants back the 116 square km of land at Guantanamo Bay in eastern Cuba.

It also wants an end to the U.S. economic embargo, no more radio and television signals with anti-communist programming beamed into Cuba, and a halt to U.S.-financed “democracy programs” that Cuba says are aimed at toppling the government.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration says Guantanamo is not up for discussion, and its goal of lifting the embargo faces strong opposition inside a Republican-controlled Congress.

Washington will also press Cuba on issues of human rights, democracy and other personal freedoms.

Secretary of State John Kerry called on Friday for “genuine democracy” in Cuba and the United States wants the extradition of some U.S. fugitives living on the island.

What the United States frames as human rights, Cuba sees as internal security, and it insists it will only make political changes according to its own needs. It also says it cannot hand over fugitives who have been granted asylum.

Vidal recognizes the difficulties ahead but says Cuba is willing to tackle all the issues, no matter how hard. “I prefer not to be pessimistic,” she said in an hourlong interview Friday, when Kerry was in Havana to raise the U.S. flag at the recently reopened American Embassy for the first time since 1961.

Kerry also said the path toward normalization will be arduous but that reopening embassies was an important step.

“There will continue to be issues on which we disagree or where they may not yet be ripe for transition or discussion or transformation,” Kerry said. “We’re biting off a lot right now. This is a big agenda.”

The two sides will set priorities and timetables on an array of issues with a bilateral commission that will meet for the first time in September.

Vidal said a civil aviation agreement, under which U.S. and Cuban airlines could win landing rights in each other’s countries, is one area where a deal could be reached soon.

She also said Cuba is willing to discuss areas of conflict, such as the 5,913 claims from Americans whose properties were nationalized after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

The two sides would begin talks with a huge gulf between them. A Cuban law links negotiations on property claims to Cuba’s own claims for damages caused by the embargo and other U.S. aggressions.

Vidal said damages amount to more than $300 billion as of the year 2000, an amount far beyond the value of the U.S. property claims or what Washington would ever consider paying.

Talks on direct mail, environmental protection and battling drug trafficking will resume, Vidal said, building on deals already reached in oil spill mitigation and sea search-and-rescue cooperation.

On the most sensitive issue of political reforms, Vidal said Cuba will not give up anything to placate hard-line opponents of Obama in the U.S. Congress or anti-Castro exiles in Miami. “No matter what we do or stop doing, these people ... are just going to ask for more and more and more. They don’t what what’s good for the Cuban people. They want revenge.”

  • Published in Now

Russia-Cuba Trade Turnover Unaffected by Western Sanctions

According to the Russian diplomat, Moscow and Havana are discussing joint projects to improve trade between the two countries, particularly in the production of biopharmaceuticals.

"The Russian-Cuban plans of increasing the trade turnover are not dependent on the Western sanctions policy with respect to our country," Alexander Stepunin explained.

"The trade turnover between Cuba and Russia, its structure and volume, have not undergone any significant changes with the introduction of Western sanctions against Russia," Stepunin said, adding that quantitative and qualitative trade indicators remain more or less the same.

Over the past year and a half, the United States, the European Union and their allies have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia, accusing it of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Moscow has firmly denied any involvement in the Ukrainian conflict and has introduced a ban on food products from countries that targeted it with restrictions.

In contrast, Cuba’s relations with the West have improved after US President Barack Obama had announced in December 2014 his administration’s intention to normalize relations with Havana.

According to the Russian Embassy in Cuba, the political situation of the past year and a half has not significantly affected the flow of tourists between Russia and Cuba, although it has recently declined slightly.

"This [the drop] is most likely related to the internal situation in Russia, the fall of the ruble and its influence on the population’s income. But if we look at this from the perspective of western sanctions against Russia, this problem does not have a significant influence on the Russian-Cuban tourist flow," Stepunin said.

Cooperation between Cuba and Russia will stay strong regardless of the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana, Alexander Stepunin said.

"This period, since December 17 and up until now, showed that despite a Cuba-US thaw our relations were not damaged. They are developing, they are on the rise, they are enhancing."

Russia Urges US to End Economic Embargo Against Cuba

Russia calls for an end to the US trade embargo against Cuba as it hampers a full restoration of relations between the two countries, the press attaché of the Russian Embassy in Cuba told Sputnik.

"We have been calling both in the framework of the United Nations and international gatherings for the Cuba economic blockade to be lifted by the United States, which is still in place even though a normalization of diplomatic relations has been announced," Alexander Stepunin said.

Stepunin pointed out Russia’s long-standing and ongoing support for Cuba in negotiating with the United States as an equal partner.

"For Cuba, a thaw [in relations] with the United States is very important," he said.

The reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba is a victory for the island nation, the diplomat said.

"We consider the rapprochement of America and Cuba as Cuba’s victory because it [Cuba] had fought for that for a long time, [fought] for a fair treatment on the part of the United States. Naturally, it is very important [for Cuba] as they are close neighbors," Stepunin said.

"The Cubans are ready to further normalize relations with the United States, but only on conditions of preserving its national sovereignty, so they [the Cubans] are not ready to give up their rights," Alexander Stepunin said.

The diplomat added that Havana would not agree to concessions that could undermine its national interests.

Beginning in 1959, when US-Cuban relations deteriorated, Havana repeatedly protested the US military presence on its territory and stopped accepting payment for the lease.

In late January 2015, Cuban President Raul Castro called on the United States to return the Guantanamo Bay region to Cuba.

"They understand that this issue is complicated enough to be discussed, but they will never give up on it," the press attaché stated, adding that Cuba consistently voices their position regarding the return of the Guantanamo Bay region at every international event. "Unless this issue is settled, development of relations with the United States seems problematic," Stepunin explained.

On Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba to participate in a flag-raising ceremony at the US embassy in Havana. Kerry’s arrival will mark the first official visit made by a US secretary of state to Cuba in 60 years.

  • Published in Cuba
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