With a big majority of people in the U.S. in favor of normalized relations with Cuba –and 85% opposed to the Washington's travel ban– it's important Congress feels the pressure of public opinion. The Latin American Working Group plays a central role in coordinating information and action about current developments in the U.S. Congress. To learn more and to get on the LAWG mailing list (valuable, though low-volume, updates), contact:
January 31, 2006
Dear Cuba Policy Advocates:
Greetings! We need your help in educating your members of Congress and in getting them to sign on to an important letter to the Department of the Treasury/OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) from Congress. This letter deals with the increasing difficulty that church denominations and their mission agencies are having in receiving travel licenses from OFAC. Details are outlined in the letters below.
Please call your member of Congress (House members only; we hope a Senate letter will be forthcoming also) with this message: As your constituent, I urge you to sign the McGovern/Flake/Lee letter to the Treasury Department to maintain religious and faith-based travel to Cuba. Republicans should contact Lance Walker in Congressman Jeff Flake's office (R-AZ); Democrats should contact Cindy Buhl in Congressman Jim McGovern's office (D-MA) or Jamila Thompson in Congresswoman Barbara Lee's office (D-CA). The deadline for signature is COB, Thursday, February 16, 2006.
You can find your Representative's contact information at www.house.gov, or you can be transferred to her/his office by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121.
Following is a copy of the Dear Colleague letter that Reps. McGovern, Flake, and Lee have sent to their colleagues in the House. Below that is the letter to the Department of the Treasury/OFAC that will be sent once congressional signatures have been collected.
Please help us make this a weighty letter with more than 100 congressional signatures! Your call to your Representative is important! And let us know if you make a call or send an email. It helps us track the effectiveness of these messages.
Latin America Working Group
DEAR COLLEAGUE LETTER:
Maintain Religious and Faith-Based Travel to Cuba
We invite you to join us in signing the attached letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow, expressing concern about issues of religious freedom related to recent changes in U.S. Treasury Department regulations licensing travel to Cuba by church personnel.
Religious freedom was a key principle to the founders of the America, and we are concerned that new interpretation of the regulations governing religious travel to Cuba threatens that principle. Recently, a number of national church denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the American Baptist Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, as well as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. have been denied renewals of their long-standing licenses to travel to Cuba to work with sister churches.
These denials negatively affect the ability of U.S. churches to exchange, encourage, and commune with their faith partners in Cuba. In fact, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the branch of the Treasury Department responsible for administering licenses for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, has indicated that the national church bodies are denied licenses because only local congregations are considered "religious organizations" under this new interpretation of existing regulations. We are very concerned by any attempt by the U.S. government to dictate what level of a church can be considered a religious organization.
In many denominations, individual congregations are understood to be local expressions of the national church; they are not independent organizations. The national churches act on behalf of the individual congregations throughout the country to coordinate matters of mission, education, and the Church's presence on a global scale. As you are well aware, many individual local congregations lack the capacity, resources and experience to navigate alone the complexities of governmental bureaucracy and cultural barriers that can impede their participation in international mission. Therefore, the new interpretation of the restrictions are not only prejudiced against most national mainstream denominations and heads of communion, but it also has a discriminatory impact on many local churches, including many that are located in communities of color.
A policy that decides which part of the body of a church or religious institution can engage in mission and which cannot, curtails religious freedom, impairs the ability of local congregations to participate in global mission, and politicizes the outreach of the church.
In addition, the churches being denied new or renewed licenses are, by and large, the religious organizations that have had the most long-standing ties and relationships with their partners of faith in Cuba. It is these ties which have slowly helped spread understanding and strengthen the ties between people from the United States and Cuba. We believe it is important to recognize the power of faith based organizations to affect positive change in the world and not place obstacles in the way of these religious partnerships.
We hope you will join us in raising these issues with Secretary Snow and in seeking explanations and clarifications of these new interpretations impeding religious travel to Cuba. Should you have any questions or wish to join the letter, please contact Cindy Buhl (Congressman McGovern) at 5-6101, Lance Walker (Congressman Flake) 5-2635, or Jamila Thompson (Congresswoman Barbara Lee) 5-2661. The deadline for signature is COB, Thursday, February 16, 2006.
James P. McGovern
LETTER TO THE DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY/OFAC:
February 16, 2006
The Honorable John Snow
Secretary of the Treasury
U.S. Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20220
Dear Secretary Snow:
We are writing you to respectfully request that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury please provide us with the official new Cuba travel regulations being applied to religious organizations, a clear explanation for the rationale behind the changes, and an explanation of any new interpretation of prior regulations.
Over the past several months, we have become aware that a number of long-established national U.S. religious institutions, who in the past have received licenses from OFAC allowing them regular travel to Cuba to develop and maintain relations with church counterparts there, are now suddenly being denied their licenses for reasons that fail to make sense and do not appear well-founded. We are disturbed that OFAC appears to be defining what is and is not a religious organization, and that its operating definition appears to be prejudiced against recognized, mainstream national religious institutions. For your background and review, we are including a brief memo summarizing some of the decisions to deny licenses to religious organizations.
To the best of our understanding, the only relevant textual change to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations has been the addition of a paragraph, added on March 31, 2005, to section §515.566(b) which states:
"If you are applying on behalf of a religious organization, a license, if issued, will only authorize up to twenty-five (25) individuals to travel to Cuba per trip and will permit no more than one trip per calendar quarter. The license will be valid for no longer than one year."
It appears that the significant increase in the number of religious applications denied by OFAC is based either on a) the new text included in this paragraph cited above, which was added with no advance notice, period for public comment, or explanation to many of the churches; or b) on a new set of internal OFAC guidelines that have not been made available to the general public, including religious institutions and Members of Congress. Given this lack of clarity, we would very much appreciate receiving your response to the following inquiries:
1. Religious organizations that are considered "national" and not "local" are now being referred to section §515.566(b) which has historically been used for "religious activities by individuals" or "religious organizations that do not qualify under the criteria set forth in §515.566(a)". These national religious organizations have always traveled under licenses applied for under the guidelines set forth in subsection §515.566(a). As no language has been changed in this section, why do these organizations suddenly not qualify to apply under this section, whereas local congregations may qualify? For most denominations, individual congregations are the local expressions of these national institutions. Why is OFAC making distinctions among different organizational levels of the same religious institution? We would appreciate receiving your explanation of the rationale behind this change.
2. National religious institutions are now being considered under section §515.566(b), which was originally designed for individual applicants traveling for religious purposes. Apparently OFAC is considering these applications under this section because the section has a clause that permits applications "on behalf of a religious organization that does not qualify under the criteria set forth in §515.566(a)." Neither the regulations nor any published guidelines state specific reasons why a religious organization would "not qualify" under §515.566(a). We believe it is very important for religious organizations to be able to understand clearly the regulatory framework and apply under the appropriate categories. Therefore, we would appreciate you explaining the differences between churches and religious organizations that can apply under section (a) and those that must apply under section (b). Please explain as well the rationale for the distinctions that OFAC is making.
3. The paragraph in question states that licenses granted to religious organizations under section §515.566(b) "will only authorize up to 25 individuals to travel to Cuba per trip," no more than four times per year. The lack of clarity in this sentence has caused considerable confusion for many religious organizations. Please explain if OFAC is requiring that no more than 25 individuals can travel in a year, or if OFAC means to permit up to four trips, each of which could have up to 25 new individuals (meaning that the applications could include up to 100 names).
Whether OFAC intends to limit the total number of licensed travelers to 25, or to 100, please explain the rationale for limiting the number of individuals that a religious organization can take to Cuba, given that the purpose of the trip is to engage in full-time religious activities while in Cuba.
Please explain as well if changes to the list of names can be submitted to OFAC for timely approval before the trip if new individuals want to join the group after the application has been submitted?
Section §515.566(b) requires that the applicant "identify all proposed travelers" (name, address, phone, etc.). However, licenses granted to other religious organizations under section §515.566(a) do NOT require the listing of specific names in advance. As it appears that local congregations still qualify under section (a), we must ask once again why are religious institutions at their national level being treated differently than the local expressions of these same institutions? Why is OFAC making such distinctions among organizational levels within the same religious institution?
The restriction on the number of travelers along with the requirement to "identify all proposed travelers" will make it difficult for national church organizations to comply with the new restrictions. During the time between submitting an application to OFAC and the trip departing for Cuba, there will occasionally be a turnover in church personnel and/or changes in church relationships. Whether a trip to Cuba is being organized at the national or local organizational level of the religious institution, the final list of participants on any given trip can only realistically be finalized on a much shorter timeline. The new regulations requiring the final list of travelers more than a year ahead of time excessively burden religious organizations and restrict church-to-church contact.
In addition to these questions requesting clarification of the regulations, we also respectfully ask that OFAC take into consideration the serious impact of these recent developments.
National U.S. religious institutions and their local congregational expressions have developed strong ties to religious communities in Cuba. They view these ties as essential relationships that exist between believers of a common faith across the globe. The level of religious organization has no bearing whatsoever on the nature or significance of this religious, spiritual, and institutional relationship.
We understand the complicated political reality that exists between the United States and Cuban governments. However, we believe it is inappropriate and unacceptable for politics and government to serve as a hurdle and now as a barrier to faith-based connections between individuals. If anything, these connections foster greater religious freedom in Cuba and contribute to a severely-lacking free-flowing exchange of ideas between the two countries.
Thank you in advance for your serious consideration of these inquiries. We await your prompt response and hope to continue a discussion with you about these important faith-based issues.
[Members of Congress]
cc: Mr. Robert Werner, Director
Office of Foreign Assets Control
U.S. Department of the Treasury