On my first trip to Cuba in 2022, I met Jorge González Nuñez, president of the Movimiento Estudiantil Cristiano de Cuba (MEC). I asked how he would describe the situation the Cuban people were living in, impacted by the U.S.’ decades-old trade embargo and other policies introduced by the administrations of former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, from a theological perspective. His answer stuck with me.
“The Cuban people are going through a crucifixion,” he said without hesitation. “It is hard to have hope.”
He paused and then added, “But there is resurrection.”
This past Thanksgiving, I returned to Cuba with a delegation of the Student Christian Movement of Canada and the World Student Christian Federation - US to visit and learn from Christians on the island. Hosted by our Cuban counterparts in the MEC, we met pastors, parishioners, nightclubbers, communists, and many others. Having been to Cuba a year earlier, I was curious to see what, if anything, had changed.
Even in our short week, the challenges of Cuban society were clear. Yet we were also able to see a small sample of how Cuban Christians are making substantial contributions to their communities, despite the dire economic challenges posed by U.S. policy.
It’s strange to be a Christian born in the most powerful empire in the history of the world, an empire that — despite the objections of nearly every other country — is capable of economically isolating a country with a population about the size of Ohio’s. Visiting Cuba, seeing the effects of that isolation on Cuban citizens, and meeting Cuban Christians contributing to the survival and health of their communities, has made it clear to me that Christians in the U.S. have a unique responsibility to help end the embargo keeping Cuba on the cross.
Impacts of the blockade
I was born in the U.S. in 1990, two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For nearly every year of my life, starting in 1992, the majority of countries in the United Nations have voted overwhelmingly against the U.S. maintaining its trade embargo against Cuba, first imposed in 1960. On Nov. 2, 2023, 187 countries did so again, for the 31st time.
But the U.S. and Israel voted against the non-binding resolution, with Ukraine abstaining, and since the U.S. is the one imposing the embargo, it will remain in effect.
“Embargo” is a polite, diplomatic word. In Cuba and elsewhere, the measures that economically isolate Cuba are often referred to as a “blockade.” In 2018, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated that the blockade has cost the Cuban economy $130 billion, a number that has grown considerably in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions, given that tourism makes up a large part of Cuba’s economy. Advocating for the 2023 U.N. resolution opposing the blockade, Cuba’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla, told the United Nations that in the previous year alone the blockade cost Cuba $4.867 billion.
A blockade by the world’s biggest economy is punishing enough. But beginning in 2017, the Trump administration imposed even more sanctions on Cuba and added Cuba to the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) list in 2021, eight days before Trump left office. The SSOT designation makes it more difficult for Cuba to make and receive payments, work with foreign scholars and researchers, and even receive humanitarian aid.
One cited reason for Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list was its refusal to extradite members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) of Colombia to their home country at the request of the right-wing Colombian government in 2019, following the ELN setting off a car bomb at a police academy in Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá. The ELN members were in Cuba as participants in peace talks with the Colombian government. The focus of these meetings was to end violence that has affected Colombians for decades. Norway, which also sponsored the peace talks, agreed with Cuba’s decision not to extradite the ELN members, affirming this choice was faithful to the terms of the process. Of course, the U.S. government did not provide any of this background in its rationale for adding Cuba to the SSOT. (Adding a layer of hypocrisy, the U.S. itself has a history of sponsoring terrorism against the Cuban government and its citizens.)
All together, years of haphazard and damaging policies, enacted at various levels of the U.S. government, have accomplished nothing more than making daily life for average Cubans exceedingly difficult.
Yeast in the dough
The problems in Cuba are real — and getting worse. Inflation is rising rapidly as food, fuel, and medicines shortages persist. As Reuters reports, Cuban government officials have publicly explained that a lack of basic medical supplies, like cotton and gauze, has led to a decline in surgeries. Production of some food staples has declined by as much as 80 percent compared to rates before the economic crisis due to Cuba’s ability to only “acquire 40% of the fuel, 4% of the fertilizer and 20% of the animal feed required,” according to Cuba’s Agriculture Minister. Defenders of the blockade insist that it does not affect food and medicine, but this is evidently untrue. Blackouts are increasingly common, as we discovered in the middle of an evening meeting when the power suddenly cut out. “This is normal for us,” one of our hosts explained, as the meeting resumed in the dark.
Because of these conditions, more people are emigrating from Cuba than ever before — especially young people. They are not only taking important skills and knowledge that the country needs with them, but they are also leaving behind friends and family, ultimately disintegrating the necessary bonds people need to endure a blockade.
As one young Cuban explained to me, while he loves his country and would prefer to remain in it, he has watched every one of his friends emigrate, leaving him alone amid all the other challenges of daily life. He is considering moving to another Latin American country in 2024, a choice that feels more compelled than freely made.
Although Christians are not able to fill all the gaps, their presence is making a tangible difference for many Cubans amid an economic crisis with no end in sight. The MEC provides a welcoming place for young people across Cuba, hosting trainings on gender and sexuality, discussing the realities of migration, and exploring how to cultivate hope and increase citizen participation.
In Havana, the Centro Memorial Martin Luther King distributes medicine, hosts popular education workshops, and publishes books on liberation theology, politics, and more. In the city of Matanzas, an ecumenical seminary prepares the next generation of Christian leaders to reflect on their faith as well as the political and economic challenges of their country. The Presbyterian churches that hosted our delegation offer clean drinking water to their communities through filtration systems sponsored by sibling churches in the U.S.
Observing all these efforts, I often thought of Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of God to yeast leavening flour (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21): Christians mixed into the challenges of Cuban society, attempting to help it rise. The effects of that work are certainly visible, and a little yeast goes a long way — but the blockade keeps adding salt to the mix, preventing the dough from rising.
A history of punishment
Defending a U.S. vote to uphold the embargo at the U.N. in 2023, Ambassador Paul Folmsbee explained: “Sanctions are one set of tools in our broader effort toward Cuba to advance democracy and promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.” Apart from the absurd position that artificially keeping a populace in poverty is an effective human rights strategy, the U.S. has never imposed a debilitating economic blockade on the many right-wing dictators across Latin America and the Caribbean who were responsible for murdering multitudes; on the contrary, the U.S. usually funded and aided these dictators. A more likely reason for these policies is that the U.S. simply cannot allow room for an alternative economic and political system so close to its borders.
The initial rationale for the blockade was laid out starkly in a famous 1960 memorandum from Lestor Mallory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs: “The majority of Cubans support Castro,” Mallory admits, noting a lack of political opposition, and concluding that the only way to erode support would be “through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Mallory then recommends a strategy of “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and [the] overthrow of [the] government.” Although the blockade has not managed to accomplish its ultimate goal of overthrowing the revolutionary government, it has succeeded in its secondary goal: immiserating the population.
The blockade is the most enduring feature of U.S. intervention in Cuba, but it is hardly the only example. Most U.S. citizens know about the failed invasion of Cuba’s Playa Girón, or what U.S. citizens call the Bay of Pigs, in 1961. Less known is the U.S.’ plots to assassinate Fidel Castro — the number of which is 634, according to Cuban official Fabian Escalante — and its work with exiles responsible for bombing planes and hotels, killing innocent people both in Cuba and in the U.S. So much for human rights.
Bombs and assassination plots may not be the U.S.’ preferred strategy these days, but the slow, constant violence of the blockade continues. It would take congressional action to remove some of the biggest components of the blockade, but both former President Barack Obama and Trump demonstrated that the executive branch can significantly change the conditions for an entire country of people with simple policy adjustments, for better and for worse.
Biden indicated he would return to a path of normalizing relations with Cuba during his campaign, and while he’s eased some restrictions on travel and commerce, he’s left Trump’s most damaging policies in place with no sign of changing them. His administration continues to list Cuba on the SSOT list, even though Cuba was removed from the list by the Obama administration, and there is bipartisan agreement in the U.S. intelligence community that the designation is incoherent.
On Dec. 14, 2023, the Intercept reported that while the Biden administration told Congress it would begin a review of Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list, “in a private briefing last week on Capitol Hill, State Department official Eric Jacobstein stunned members of Congress by telling them that the department has not even begun the review process.” A statute requires that the review must take six months before overturning the decision. The report did not indicate that the State Department was beginning the review, but even if it started on the day of the briefing, the earliest the designation could be removed is June 2024, meaning that such a decision would coincide with the 2024 presidential campaign.
U.S. policy toward Cuba has never been about justice or human rights, but in the 21st century, this policy is also something of an anachronism, ideologically belonging to a Cold War framework. It might seem like the enmity between the two countries is too ingrained to imagine normalization without one or the other budging on its economic and political model. As Cubans themselves often point out, however, the U.S. enjoys a close trading relationship with Vietnam, which is still governed by its Communist Party, despite the U.S.’ notoriously brutal two-decade war on Vietnam, costing the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers — and many, many more Vietnamese casualties. Surely the antagonisms between Cuba and the U.S., whatever they might be, are far less difficult to overcome.
Justice and reconciliation
In his book The Great Message, Cuban Presbyterian pastor Daniel Izquierdo Hernández, one of our hosts in Havana, highlights the importance of solidarity visitors from Christian churches in the U.S. Those visitors naturally ask, as our delegation did: “What should we do when we return?”
“Our response went in two directions,” he writes. “On one hand, to ask them to support us in prayer, in our ministries, and work together as a church. On the other, to tell their countrymen about their experience and help transform the situation with a cry to change enmity into peaceful coexistence.”
It does not usually get a lot of press, but Christians in the U.S. have a history of opposing the blockade against Cuba. The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, representing 37 ecumenical communities, has long supported an end to the blockade, joining its voice with the Cuban Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Many denominations in the U.S. also regularly call for an end to the embargo and other harmful policies toward Cuba, working in coalitions with other groups. In March 2023, 21 faith groups signed a letter to Biden calling on him to remove Cuba from the SSOT list, and several mainline denominations regularly urge members to write to their representatives demanding an end to the blockade.
Although the Catholic Church has had a more complicated relationship with the Cuban Revolution, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all called for an end to the embargo, and each pope has visited the island. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also called for an end to the embargo.
While Cuba’s resources are becoming more scarce, my encounters with Cuban people living under the blockade have been experiences of generosity, hospitality, and warmth. Defying my home country’s attempts to separate U.S. and Cuban citizens, by traveling to the island and sharing meals, bus rides, and conversation, I have found Cubans to be quick to invite people into their reality, openly talk about politics and history, and welcome all who are interested in the unique contours of Cuban life and culture. Cubans are peaceful, brilliant, and creative people who deserve to have the room to decide for themselves, without economic pressure, what kind of political and economic arrangement they want, even if it’s not the same arrangement that the U.S. government wants.
Despite the U.S.’ history of violence, Christians in Cuba are determined to contribute to peace. They are counting on Christians in the U.S. to do the same — and to pressure our government accordingly by writing to and meeting with our elected officials to demand that they repeal policies of isolation and regime change.
It’s time to take Cuba and its people off the cross. Let’s end the blockade.