Cuba: a mini-compendium of Catholic social doctrine

| Jason Adkins | April 14, 2016 | 4 Comments

Integrating Cuba more deeply into the family of nations has been a major priority of the last three popes. Each of these popes has visited Cuba, and Pope Francis’ personal appeal to President Obama and Raul Castro has led to breakthroughs in diplomatic and cultural relations, the release of political prisoners and the removal of many travel restrictions between the two nations.

Additionally, the Church now has more space to live its mission, and there is slow progress toward greater protection of human rights.

Yet the chief source of Cuba’s isolation — the U.S. trade embargo — remains in place.

In the Church’s advocacy for an end to the trade embargo, her social doctrine comes alive in the compelling application of its principles to this concrete reality.

People over ideology

The need to transcend ideology and focus on the dignity of the human person and the common good is a cornerstone of the modern papal social encyclicals. Cubans, however, have suffered greatly from ideological brinkmanship over the past 60 years.

In an effort to destabilize Cuba’s repressive Marxist regime, the United States imposed a trade embargo in 1960. But as the U.S. bishops have noted, the “principal effect” of this embargo “has been to strengthen Cuban government control and to weaken an already fragile civil society,” harming the poor and vulnerable far more than government elites.

Ideological grandstanding has allowed the policy to persist despite evidence that the embargo has actually worked against its purported aims while bringing additional hardships onto a suffering people.

Rather than sacrificing the well-being of human persons on the altar of ideology, the Church proposes that both nations forge a new future for Cuba, rooted in the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Cuban people. This would include greater respect for religious liberty and a more open political and economic system that protects the nation’s right of self-determination.

International peripheries

Pope Francis has repeatedly called all of us to reach out to people on the peripheries to share the joy of the Gospel and to work for their well-being. This “theology of encounter” is a re-presentation of the Church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and can be analogized to the international community and its member nations.

Cuba, in isolation from the international community and with deep internal difficulties, is certainly at the peripheries of the global community, and its people suffer as a result. Therefore, the Church is justified in putting so much effort into fostering greater encounter and collaboration between the United States and Cuba.

Restoring Cuba’s status as a full-fledged member of the international community would benefit all parties, and not merely in a material sense that considers only the exchange of economic goods. Just as each member of society is endowed with unique gifts to contribute to the broader community, nations are each called to contribute their gifts to the community of nations. Ending the United States’s isolation of Cuba will allow each nation to work together more fully to pursue justice and peace, which is at the core of the principle of solidarity.

Engagement, encounter

Though the Church remains concerned about conditions in Cuba and human rights violations, the USCCB believes that “[i]mproving the lives of the Cuban people and encouraging democracy and human rights in Cuba will best be advanced through more, rather than less, contact between Cuban and American peoples. . . . Removing the barriers to free commerce with Cuba, and thus deepening the trade relationship, is also another step toward greater engagement.”

Engagement and encounter with those at the margins, rather than isolation and exclusion. These are long-standing principles of Catholic social doctrine that become clearer to us in Pope Francis’ exhortations and the Church’s Cuban diplomacy.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and arecently named member of the Engage Cuba Minnesota State Council. Become a member of the Catholic Advocacy Network by visiting


Ask Congress to end the Cuba embargo

Embrace engagement with Cuba, not isolation

The USCCB has long called upon Congress to end the trade embargo with Cuba and establish full diplomatic relationships. The bishops are convinced that engagement, not isolation, will help the people of Cuba achieve greater freedom, human rights and religious liberty.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference is grateful for the leadership of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), who are the lead sponsors of bi-partisan bills in each chamber of Congress to end the embargo.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) already co-sponsors Sen. Klobuchar’s bill (S. 491), but we need our representatives to support the House version. Please contact your congressperson and ask him or her to co-sponsor the Cuba Trade Act (H.R. 3238).

Not sure who represents you in Congress? Call (202) 225-3121 or visit

Learn more about Catholic social teaching and Cuba by reading the USCCB’s “Backgrounder on Cuba.”

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Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • Charles C.

    The president opens full diplomatic relations with Cuba, lifts most travel restrictions, praises them in speeches, calls for new policies of openness and a raft of other good things.

    Cuba’s response? Speeches announcing that they don’t need anything from the US, that the US is racist and terrible, and that they will continue and even increase their detaining of political dissidents. Is the plan of the US Bishops to lift all sanctions, and start giving more and more aid to Cuba, hoping that some day it will become a little more free? Carter tried it in 1977, Cuba launched the Mariel boat lift. Bush started lifting travel restrictions in 2003, then reimposed them after increased repression of dissidents. In 2009, Obama lifted family travel restrictions. Cuba then arrested and sentenced an American aid worker to 15 years. (He got out in 5.) And in June of last year, just one month, there were 630 political arrests.

    All past experience shows us that if you make a concession to the Cuban dictators, you get more repression.

    And are Cuba’s troubles the result of the US not trading with it? The rest of the world trades with Cuba, if you want a Cuban cigar just drive up the road to Canada, they trade with Cuba. Their government says they don’t need anything from us, and why would they, the rest of the world trades with them.

    Cuba is a closed, Communist dictatorship. Assume you put a hotel there. The workers and their wages will be chosen by the party, so will the room rates. The government will take what it wants from the hotel income. Visitors will be watched for “Anti-state” activity, and most certainly will not be standing on street corners declaiming democracy to the population.

    There are several other reasons why this idea of violating American law in order to make the Cuban Communist Party more powerful is a bad one. But the rule has been there for 20 years:

    “According to US law, Cuba must legalize all political activity, release all political prisoners, commit to free and fair elections in the transition to representative democracy, grant freedom to the press, respect internationally recognized human rights, and allow labor unions. Since Cuba has not met these conditions, the embargo should not be lifted.”

    Dreams that we can get the Castro’s to change the government and reduce the power and control they have by giving them money is as sound an idea as bribing a child with candy to stop crying. No smart parent adopts that as a policy, but Communists (and other people who relish greater state control), and Social Justice Warriors think it’s just peachy.

    Yes, I want Cuba to be brought into the Western world as a respecter of rights and freedom, I just get frosted when people suggest policies which will pretty much insure the defeat of those goals. Why give up a Communist dictatorship when the US is willing to give you billions whether you do or don’t?

  • Charles C.

    The first cruise ship from the US to Cuba just arrived. On the dock was a Cuban waving an American flag. He was arrested.

    Another warm, fuzzy, well-meaning plan which didn’t survive in the real world.

  • The Carter Administration chose to conduct foreign policy based on moral grounds as opposed to the Real Politik method of Nixon, Ford and Kissinger. It is not moral nor beneficial to the United States to do anything that will continue a well-entrenched Communist regime that oppresses its people. The Castro brothers were even upset when the USSR removed nuclear missiles from Cuba. We have a real problem with enemy identification in this country.

    • Charles C.

      Dear Mr. Taylor, forgive me for not seeing your comment earlier. I agree with both your general point about enemy identification, and your specific point about Cuba.

      I wonder if part of our problem is an unwillingness to say “This is wrong, and this is right.” We seem to be strong on the subjects of tolerance, kindness and understanding; so strong that we are coming to tolerate anything.

      Moral outrage is being diverted from things that are truly evil, towards vague, “feel good” causes such as global warming, or moving the population of the entire world into the United States and Europe so they can each have “a better life.”

      “Enemy identification” and “Evil identification” both seem to be lacking, with the result that we will succumb to evil while swatting at trivia.