HAVANA, Jul 24 2006 (IPS) — The latest plans by the U.S. government in its policy towards Cuba will have a heavy impact on the humanitarian efforts of religious organisations that work with needy sectors in this Caribbean island nation.
A recent report by the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba recommends that U.S. groups – including the Church World Service, a humanitarian and relief arm of the National Council of Churches (NCC) – be banned from providing humanitarian aid to Cuban organisations that according to the administration of George W. Bush have ties to the government of Fidel Castro.
The report released on Jul. 10 calls for tighter restrictions on the “export of humanitarian items, other than agricultural or medical commodities, to ensure that exports are consigned to entities that support an independent civil society and are not regime-administered or -controlled organisations, such as the Cuban Council of Churches.”
To maintain that the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) is controlled by the government “amounts to a deliberate disregard of the history of the work of Cuban churches and of the CIC itself,” Reverend Rhode González, president of the Council and pastor of the Christian Pentecostal Church, told IPS.
The CIC, founded in 1941, currently links 43 Protestant churches, ecumenical institutions and “fraternal associates” and observers like the Jewish community in a call to service rather than simple evangelisation, said González.
The CIC’s efforts around the country range from community gardens and the use of renewable energy sources to broad support for the elderly, the disabled, and the victims of natural catastrophes like hurricanes.
“This work will be limited if we don’t receive humanitarian aid,” regretted González, who said the Church World Service “has been a very stable and dynamic source of resources for over 60 yearsàreacting swiftly and effectively in case of need.”
The pastor underlined that the CIC is autonomous in its decision-making, although she explained that in order to carry out their mission, the churches must have good working relations with government institutions.
“We see it as normal and logical to interact with all of the organisations that form part of the life of the nation,” said González. “We work together, based on the need to reach the neediest, in a timely manner.”
To illustrate, she pointed out that the CIC receives some 400 wheelchairs a year from foreign organisations like the Dallas, Texas-based group Joni and Friends, and that these are distributed through the Cuban Association of Physically Disabled Persons (ACLIFIM), which has more than 60,000 associates.
But “We are afraid that this aid will be cut off too,” said González, the first woman president of the CIC.
She said the problems with aid from the United States began in 2004, when the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba issued its first report.
The Commission was set up by the Bush administration to suggest ways for Washington to accelerate a transition to democracy in Cuba once Castro, 80, is no longer on the scene. In its first report, in 2004, the Commission outlined specific steps to stiffen the embargo against Cuba.
González said that up to that time, the four-decade conflict between Washington and Havana had not had any impact on the CIC’s relations with churches in the United States.
“As Christians, we have the mandate to love and to serve, but as a church, we must not allow our actions to be restricted by the tensions between the powers that be,” said González.
In a statement from Washington to foreign reporters accredited in Havana, Caleb McCarry, who was named Cuba Transition Coordinator by the Bush administration, said the Commission’s new recommendations are consistent with U.S. policy, which has been to support the sending of humanitarian aid directly to religious organisations in Cuba.
He said that what the report states is simply that aid should be sent directly to churches in Cuba, rather than to organisations like the Cuban Council of Churches, which he asserted has ties to “the regime.”
McCarry answered questions during a videoconference organised last week by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to provide information on the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba report.
The report’s recommendations drew an immediate response from the World Council of Churches (WCC), which in a letter to President Bush called it a “remarkably aggressive interference in religious matters” and a breach of religious freedom.
“We strongly feel that it is completely inappropriate for the U.S. government, or any government, to determine who is and who is not a legitimate national council of churches and to restrict or deny Christian fellowship and humanitarian assistance to any particular national church council, including the Cuban Council of Churches,” added WCC Secretary-General Samuel Kobia in the Jul. 11 letter.
The Commission’s report also calls for the creation of an 80 million dollar fund to support civil society groups opposed to the Cuban government over the next two years.
In addition, the report suggests measures to keep aid from being sent through third countries, recommends restrictions on religious travel to Cuba, and calls for a review of the rules regulating the sales of U.S. medical equipment to Cuba so that it is not used in Havana’s health assistance programmes abroad.
It also recommends the establishment of a working group to help enforce the economic sanctions on Cuba, the creation of a coalition of countries to work towards a transition to democracy, and contacts with donor nations and multilateral lending institutions with the aim of creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support a future democratic government.