In fulfillment of its humanitarian mission, and with the involvement of U.S. churches, CWS has for many decades maintained close relationships with the people and churches of Cuba. A little over a year ago I traveled to Cuba with a delegation of distinguished religious leaders.
Our delegation met with religious and government officials, both Cuban and American. I noted a consistency in all of these talks about greater openness, intentional collaboration, easing of tensions, Cuban domestic policy shifts, and the prospects of a more hopeful future. There was a feeling of warmth that felt like a genuine thawing of earlier Cold War relations.
The visit to Cuba was made possible by an important change in U.S. travel rules. After five years of advocacy with the Bush and Obama Administrations by CWS and its member denominations, President Obama granted U.S. religious organizations a “general license” for travel to Cuba. He also liberalized travel restrictions for several other categories of “people to people” travel, although ending the ban on ordinary tourist travel will require Congressional action.
I’m convinced that it is time for the Obama Administration to take additional steps toward restoring a normal relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Accordingly, in a recent letter to President Obama, I asked the President to adopt policies and actions that reduce tension and increase dialogue between the two governments.
One long overdue action would be to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Cuba was added to the list in 1982 on the grounds that it provided direct support for leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America and advocated for armed revolution in the region. However, this has not been the case for many years.
CWS has also called on the Obama Administration to enter into renewed dialogue with the Cuban government on a range of issues. The Administration has refused such conversations until Cuba frees USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned for the past three years on charges of trying to undermine the Cuban state. We have urged the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross. But we have also urged the U.S. government to make Mr. Gross’ release a priority item in discussions with the Cubans, rather than a precondition for such talks.
Bold actions toward normalizing the relationship between our two countries will benefit both Cubans and Americans. For example, the churches in Cuba are flourishing. Ending the hostility between the U.S. and Cuban governments, and taking major new steps toward normal relationships, can help further enhance a climate in which the Cuban churches continue to grow in numbers and in freedom. Improved relations can also have a humanitarian impact, especially in eastern Cuba where anemia and malnutrition among children remain problems.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba was 51 years old on February 7, and its intended purpose has not been realized. The time to construct a new relationship between these two nations has surely come. Contact Secretary of State John Kerry and help make this happen.
Rev. John L. McCullough is President and CEO of CWS.