Church Pressure Leads To Easing of Cuba Sanctions

WASHINGTON—President Clinton's decision to ease some U.S. sanctions against Cuba, announced March 20, was an outgrowth of renewed activism by U.S. religious groups, especially the Catholic Church, aimed at reaching out to Cuban people in the wake of Pope John Paul II's January visit to the island nation.

At the same time, the Administration's decision was also driven in part by concerns about U.S. relations with a post-Castro Cuba. “We're reaching out to the people of Cuba to make their lives more tolerable,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at the time the sanctions were eased. “We have to look beyond Castro.”

The Pope—who condemned the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the communist island as “immoral,”—the U.S. Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches and other religious organizations that have long sought an easing of U.S. sanctions, gave the Administration the “political cover” that enabled it to take a tiny step toward thawing U.S.-Cuba relations.

“We are pleased to know that President Clinton has been listening to the growing clamor of the Churches,” said Rev. Rodney Page, executive director of Church World Service, the relief arm of the National Council of Churches. “It is our deepest hope that the reinstatement of direct flights will help reunify Cuban families here and abroad, as well as guarantee the swift delivery of critical food and medicine to a people who have suffered mightily under the U.S. embargo.”

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia called the change in policy “a step in the right direction.”

“The decision to permit direct humanitarian flights to Cuba will allow life-saving food and medicines to reach the island,” he said. “This and the ability for Cuban-Americans to send money to relatives in Cuba will strengthen the Cuban people not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually.”

Cardinal Bevilacqua said Clinton's decision “slowly opens the door of hope for the people of Cuba, which will allow them, in the words of our Holy Father, ‘to build a future of ever greater dignity and freedom.’”

The Administration's action will make providing humanitarian aid to Cuba easier to arrange and less costly to accomplish. The changes in policy will include:

l Licensing direct humanitarian charter flights to Cuba, to make it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives and for humanitarian organizations to provide assistance quickly and less expensively.

l Permitting U.S. citizens and residents to send up to $300 per quarter to family members in Cuba.

l Streamlining and expediting licensing for the sale of medicines and medical equipment in Cuba.

Church groups hailed Clinton's easing of restrictions that had blocked Cuban Americans from providing financial aid to family members in Cuba.

“Cuban Americans will once again be free, as they should always be, to send needed financial aid directly to their family members in Cuba,” said Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference's committee on international policy.

Religious groups wasted no time responding to the eased situation. On March 23, the first part of a stockpile of $6 million in medical aid collected by the New York City-based Catholic Medical Missions Board left the United States for Cuba.

While Clinton acknowledged he was taking the steps to “build further on the Pope's visit” to Cuba, religion's role in U.S.-Cuba relations began long before the historic Jan. 21-25 papal trip.

Since Cuba's economy plunged into a free-fall in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, U.S. religious leaders have taken the lead in providing humanitarian aid to the island and in calling for an end to the economic embargo aimed at toppling Castro.

Castro has reciprocated by loosening restrictions on religious worship and by changing Cuba's constitution in 1992 to make the nation a secular rather than atheist state.

Last year, most of the major U.S. religious organizations backed bills in the House and Senate aimed at lifting U.S. restrictions on the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. After the Pope's visit, U.S. religious leaders, especially the Catholic clergy, stepped up their efforts to pressure the U.S. government toward change.

Archbishop McCarrick, who had earlier pressed for an end to the ban on direct flights, welcomed the president's new policy, but said he “looked forward to further initiatives both to assist the Cuban people and to advance reconciliation and better relations between them and the people of the United States.”

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York also welcomed the easing of restrictions on humanitarian aid, but questioned the continued restriction on travel between the United States and Cuba. Speaking at a Spanish-language Mass of thanksgiving March 20 for the Pope's visit to Cuba, the cardinal referred to his own participation in the papal trip, and recalled meeting a woman who was able to see her family in Cuba again after 40 years.

“Why should there be such restrictions? Is that good? Is that human? Is that what God wants?” he asked at the Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

The day before the Administration announced its Cuba policy changes, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston repeated his call for a new relationship between the United States and the island. “The lack of medicines more quickly and cheaply attainable from the United States severely restricts the treatment that can be provided [in Cuba],” said Law. “The effect of the lack of sufficient food threatens the most vulnerable members of the population, the young and the old. The people of Cuba deserve better than that from us.”

The aid shipped to Cuba March 23 is part of $6 million in drugs and medical supplies collected from the nation's major pharmaceutical companies by the Catholic Medical Mission Agency just prior to the Pope's visit. Responsibility for the huge shipment was transferred to Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which works with Cuba's Caritas to distribute humanitarian aid.

Kate Higgins, Catholic Medical Mission Board's associate pharmaceutical coordinator, said she traveled to Cuba last November to assess the medical needs of the island. Upon returning to the United States she discovered the drug companies were more than willing to meet those needs, she said. Higgins collected nearly $1 million of insulin, enough to “take care of every person in Cuba who has diabetes for the next six months.” She also tapped the drug companies for another $5 million in assorted antibiotics, vitamins, nutritional supplements, bandages, gloves and “a variety of basic supplies.” Chris Gilson of CRS said the organization applied Feb. 10 for a special license to ship the aid directly to Havana. On March 20, the date Clinton announced his new Cuba initiative, Gilson was still waiting for the permit. Impatient with the Administration's lack of response, Gilson moved about $1 million of the medicines through Canada. The rest remained in a warehouse in Queens, N.Y. “Worse than the financial expense is the time loss,” he said. On March 23, however, just a few days after the president's announcement, a refrigerated airplane took off from Miami with part of the shipment's insulin, which must be shipped cold. Other flights were scheduled for later in the week.

Kenneth Hackett, executive director of CRS, said the Clinton Administration's change in policy was encouraging to all who saw signs of new hope for Cuba during the Pope's visit there. He said his agency would ship more than $5 million worth of medicines and medical supplies to Cuba as soon as possible.

The easing of sanctions wasn't universally praised, however. The Cuban American National Foundation said the Administration was sending the wrong signal to Castro.

“Nothing has changed on the part of the Cuban government,” spokeswoman Ninoska Perez told Reuters news service. “Repression has not changed. Nothing in the Cuban government has changed.”

The Cuba Committee for Democracy voiced support for the Administration's action, but said humanitarian aid alone would not end the suffering of Cuba's people. The group encouraged Congress to lift broader bans on sales of food and medicine.

In an interview with the Cable News Network, Castro said Clinton's announcement seemed positive and that he hoped the changes could be “helpful and conducive to a better climate” between the two countries.

Ana Radelat writes for Religion News Service. CNS contributed to this story.