Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Religious groups feel cut off from Cuba

Posted on Wed, Feb. 14, 2007

Religious groups in the United States and Cuba have complained that strict U.S. policies make it difficult to build bridges of faith across the Florida Straits.


A wing under construction at St. Brendan Catholic School in Miami harbors a pile of goodwill -- some of it withering in the dank humidity -- that was meant to be delivered to Cuba's needy.

Donated diapers, baby formula, wheelchairs, even Christmas decorations are stacked from floor to ceiling.

But for almost two years, the Archdiocese of Miami has had little face-to-face contact with Catholics in Cuba, a byproduct of tightened travel restrictions for religious organizations imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Rev. Fernando Heria, St. Brendan's pastor and an archdiocese spokesman, said the Cuba-bound goods sometimes expire or rot, so the archdiocese tries to give perishable goods to Miami's needy before they go bad.

The church would send the aid with Catholics who traveled to the communist island or ship it with their humanitarian license, which expired in 2005, Heria said.

''Whenever we limit the flow of communication between people, it serves to alienate us, as opposed to unite us,'' Heria said.

The archdiocese sent about 50 clergy and laypeople a year to Cuba under its religious license but now sends fewer than five. The Catholic umbrella organization had a religious travel license for a decade, but the Treasury Department has yet to answer the diocese's request to renew the license, Heria said.

U.S. Jewish groups would drop in on Cuba's biggest synagogue, Beth Shalom, up to three times a month, bringing care packages stuffed with matzoh crackers, school supplies, and nonprescription drugs for Cuba's Jewish community of about 1,500.

The visits have tapered off to six or seven a year, and donations have dried up, said William Miller, head of Beth Shalom in Havana.

''We've had months without a single group from the United States visiting,'' Miller said in a telephone interview from Havana. ``Being part of the Jewish community means helping your fellow man, and we feel punished for being part of Cuban society.''


The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees licenses for religious travel, tightened the regulations after some groups took advantage of loopholes.

''OFAC became aware that a number of large organizations were abusing their religious travel licenses by soliciting participation beyond their own organizations for trips to Cuba, yielding less control of the travel groups and their activities in Cuba,'' said OFAC spokeswoman Molly Millerwise in an e-mail. The policy was changed in fall 2004, ''in hopes of eliminating such abuses,'' she said.

Before the restrictions, OFAC issued broad licenses that did not limit the number of travelers. Now, umbrella organizations that represent several churches or religions are limited to taking 25 people per trip every three months and must provide OFAC a list of travelers a year in advance.

However, individual congregational churches or synagogues are not limited in the number of trips or travelers, Millerwise said.

''The individual congregations more often know the individuals and are directly involved in planning . . . religious activities in Cuba,'' she said.

Baptist, Presbyterian, Jewish and other religious leaders say the restrictions for umbrella groups are an affront to religious liberty.

''I believe the reinterpretation of the existing religious laws directly restricts my right as an American to practice my religion,'' said Joe Irwin, spokesman for the United Church of Christ's Southeast Pennsylvania Region. ``I think it's offensive, and actually quite scary to Americans that suddenly their right to practice their religion is controlled by the government.''


U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a proponent of current U.S. policy toward Cuba, said some groups that were traveling to Cuba with religious licenses had other agendas.

''Authentic religious travel is permissible under the current Cuba travel guidelines, and some of the groups advocating the loosening of these rules are actually against the embargo as a whole,'' Ros-Lehtinen said in an e-mail through her spokesman. ``They allege that they are prevented from going to the island, but some of the trips may be more oriented toward tourism under the guise of a religious mantle.''

The Miami Herald reported in February 2005 that several Santeria groups were abusing their licenses to take tourists to Cuba. After the report, OFAC sent letters to dozens of organizations, warning them not to abuse travel privileges, and announced investigations into alleged wrongdoing.

Members of several groups said they believe OFAC cracked down because they had been vocal against U.S. policy toward Cuba.


''The State Department, which oversees the Cuba policy and directs Treasury and OFAC, favors particular congregations and particular denominations who, in our opinion, have more of the political bent that is acceptable to the State Department,'' said Mavis Anderson, a senior associate at the anti-embargo, nonprofit Latin America Working group. ``Some denominations have taken strong positions against the embargo [and] are therefore not favored in traveling to Cuba.''

OFAC would not provide the list of groups that have licenses or those that have been suspended. Officials said the regulations are applied even-handedly to all groups.

Rev. Patricia Lloyd-Sidle, Caribbean liaison for the Presbyterian Church (USA), said the new restrictions make it difficult to plan trips because providing travelers' names a year in advance is unrealistic, and changing the list can bring months-long delays.

''It's extremely frustrating because it's hard to sort through what the spirit and letter of the law is trying to achieve,'' she said.

The restrictions have crippled religious organizations' ability to carry out disaster relief in Cuba, said Antonios Kireopoulos, an associate at the National Council of Churches, which advocates against the embargo.

Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, said his group used to coordinate travel for 200 to 300 people a year to Cuba from 20 Baptist churches in the Southeast. He says now, fewer than 100 people a year go from about 10 churches.

Hastey said his religious license was suspended in 2005 because OFAC said some of the churches he represented were not following travel guidelines. Three of five churches OFAC singled out have since obtained new religious licenses, he said.

''What the Treasury Department has done over the past two years is systematically curtail travel by the three principal groups of U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba: Cuban Americans, religious institutions and academic institutions,'' he said. ``Frankly, it has worked. In each of these three major categories, the number of citizens traveling there has been drastically curtailed.''

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