Bishops’ committee faces backlash over call for Cuba to be removed from terrorism sponsor list

USCCB United States Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington, D.C. | Credit: Farragutful, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) committee chairman’s call for the U.S. government to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism has sparked a swift backlash from various quarters.

On Tuesday, the USCCB released a letter by Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, in which he urged U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “remove Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.” 

In his letter, Zaidan cited the position of his predecessor, Bishop David Malloy, who in the same capacity opposed the designation made by the Trump administration in January 2021. 

Cuba is currently on the U.S. government’s list of State Sponsors of Terror along with North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Countries are added to the list if they have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

Zaidan echoed Malloy’s 2021 statement that “for decades, in conjunction with the Holy See and the majority of the international community, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged collaboration and mutually beneficial relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as the full lifting of the economic embargo against the island nation.”

Zaidan’s letter was welcomed by Cuba’s embassy in the U.S., which denounced the “harmful consequences” of Cuba’s inclusion on the list. More than 250 progressive organizations worldwide also recently ramped up the campaign to get Cuba removed from the list, asserting that Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism but rather “a state sponsor” of “health,” “peace,” and “liberation.”

However, Zaidan’s letter also sparked a swift negative reaction from dissident and pro-democracy leaders opposed to the Cuban regime.

In an interview with CNA, Yuri Pérez, an exiled Cuban dissident and director of Latin American Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, argued that the USCCB committee was “advocating for the regime.”

“There are two different issues,” Pérez said. “One is the embargo and sanctions, which are tools the U.S. government uses to pressure the Cuban government to change,” he explained. “The terrorist list is more factual,” he said. “It’s based on regime behavior.”

Pérez said there is “a lot of pressure for the Biden administration to take Cuba off the list,” but “to make that decision, the regime has to change its behavior. And it hasn’t changed its behavior.”

One factor in Cuba’s inclusion on the list, Pérez said, is that it harbors terrorists on the island. 

“An easy step for the regime to get off the list would be to expel those people and surrender them to the countries seeking them,” he argued.

Jason Poblete, an attorney, Catholic, and president of the Global Liberty Alliance (GLA), said in an interview with CNA that the USCCB committee’s letter was “disconnected from reality.” 

Poblete said GLA has specifically worked with the Catholic Church in Cuba on human rights and religious freedom issues. The U.S. bishops, Poblete argued, “should respectfully stick with matters of faith and not issues related to national security.” 

Poblete noted the reasons for classifying a country as a state sponsor of terrorism are largely classified by the State Department. 

“Most Cuban priests I deal with are supportive of the designation,” he said, even though they do not know the specific reasons for it.

Jason Poblete of the Global Liberty Alliance. Credit: EWTN News Nightly / Screenshot
Jason Poblete of the Global Liberty Alliance. Credit: EWTN News Nightly / Screenshot

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Poblete dismissed the notion that the U.S. embargo of the island is contributing to its ongoing crises. The embargo allows for vital products such as food and medicine, he said. 

“The problems in Cuba are nothing to do with the embargo,” he said. “It’s a totalitarian police state. I wish the bishops would take that into account before they write things like this.”

Along with allegations of terrorism support, Cuba’s communist government has long been criticized for its chronic human rights violations. The group Human Rights Watch, for example, says the Cuban government “continues to repress and punish virtually all forms of dissent and public criticism” and employs “arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics.”

Pérez, meanwhile, said lobbying efforts to remove Cuba from the list are likely to intensify in the coming months, especially if President Joe Biden loses the presidency. Advocates, he argued, would work to push the Biden administration to strike Cuba from the list before the Democrat leaves the White House. 

“Expect a flurry of activity if Biden loses before he transitions,” he said.  

The USCCB did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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