Church World Service CEO lauds Obama’s new Cuba travel policies

January 18, 2011

Washington, D.C./New York, NY – The head of faith-based humanitarian agency Church World Service says Friday’s White House decision to ease travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba for religious, educational and cultural exchanges signals “the beginning of a new era of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Under the new U.S. policy guidelines, religious and higher education organizations will hold general licenses, which require no application to or specific clearance by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for “purposeful” travel between the two countries.

In a letter to President Obama today, the Rev. John L. McCullough, CWS executive director and chief executive officer, expressed appreciation and “profound joy” on behalf of the agency and its 37 member communions and partner ecumenical organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean.  In addition to granting general licenses for religious travel to Cuba the executive order allows remittances to religious institutions in Cuba in support of religious activities.

“At this time of rapid growth among Cuban churches your prescient and important action will finally allow U.S. churches and ecumenical institutions to accompany, support and mutually benefit from unrestricted fellowship with our Cuban church partners,” McCullough told the President.  “It will enable relations that are more than just historic, but which are vital also to the wellbeing of our churches and the ministries we serve.”

The relief, development and refugee assistance agency leader underscored the value of more open doors and enhanced spiritual and educational exchange between the two countries, saying “Churches across the theological spectrum in the United States and Cuba will welcome your Executive Order.  This is a critical time to open the doors to allow greater people-to-people engagement of all kinds and at all levels between the two countries.  Such exchanges cannot help but bring mutual benefit and greater understanding to the people of the United States and Cuba.”

“I believe that in time we will realize this as the beginning of a new era of relations between the United States and Cuba,” he said.

McCullough also urged a continuation of efforts toward ending the economic embargo against Cuba and normalizing relations between the two countries.  “While we applaud this critically important step forward by President Obama, at the same time we hope it will lead to a more historic step forward – a constructive end to the embargo, which will require Congressional action.

“An economic embargo should never be characterized as normal relations between nations, and yet that has been the case between the United States and Cuba since 1960,” he reminded.

Obama’s directive: issued on an MLK moment

McCullough said it didn’t escape his notice that the timing of the President’s executive order coincided with Martin Luther King Day, “a somber moment in which we reflect[ed] on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic work for social justice.”

From New York today, McCullough cited King’s statement, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”*

He further acknowledged President Obama’s “decisive action to put an end to an unfortunate period of restriction on religious fellowship and mission, unworthy of our democracy and counter to the interests of our nation.  We welcome the new era of openness and pray that it will eventually be extended to include the opportunity for full engagement between the peoples of the United States and Cuba.”

* Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story (1958), Martin Luther King