Timely Story: Dr. Kinnamon, President Castro & US Relations with Cuba

Written by Hannah Crivello
January 22, 2015

This past month marked a historic moment in the United States? relationship with Cuba. Our school?s very own Dr. Kinnamon was intimately involved with President Castro and the nation?s relationship with Cuba?including a few visits to the country, an audience with President Obama on the topic of relations with Cuba, and a private audience with Castro for well over two hours in 2011. The Seattle Times featured Dr. Kinnamon in their report of local responses to the breaking news, and we?re happy to feature some of the historic photos that were taken by Castro?s very own grandson as Dr. Kinnamon visited Castro along with a guest translator. Read the Seattle Times feature, here. The story is shared below, in Kinnamon?s own words.

This powerful account reveals how faith leaders can truly join pivotal conversations about social and political issues in roles much that of Dr. Kinnamon?s with the National Council of Churches. Other groups include those like the school?s local partners in Seattle--The Church Council of Greater Seattle. Many of our Divinity, Pastoral Studies, and Transformational Leadership students are contributing to similar conversations at local, national, and global levels.

Dr. Kinnamon took time to share the nuances and details associated with this story in his own words:

"There is an important back story to the welcome news that President Obama is taking significant steps toward normalized relations with Cuba, a story of the role played by the Protestant churches in both countries. ?The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), which I served as General Secretary from 2008-11, first called for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba as early as 1968, and for full resumption of diplomatic and trade relations in 1973. ?Over the past half century, the Council has worked with its Cuban counterpart to maintain contact between our churches and to educate our church members on the issues at stake. ?Leaders of the NCC, including myself, repeatedly called for the release, or at least a review of the sentencing, of the ?Cuban Five,? whose sentences for espionage were deemed unjust by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. ?It was one of my predecessors at the NCC, Joan Campbell, who helped facilitate the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. ?Whenever representatives of the Council met with U.S. legislators or White House officials, Cuba was usually on the agenda.

My first trip to Cuba (by way of the Bahamas, since direct travel was still prohibited) was in 1991. Cuba was in the midst of great financial hardship after losing its major trading partner, the U.S.S.R., and church leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gathered in Havana in order to highlight our concerns and to show solidarity with the Cuban people. ?My last trip there, this time as NCC General Secretary, was in November of 2011. Because of the Council?s efforts to promote normalized relations, I was allowed to meet with Allen Gross, the American incarcerated in 2010 for allegedly smuggling illegal telecommunications equipment onto the island. ?Mr. Gross had already lost one hundred pounds, and, while not physically abused, was clearly suffering from his imprisonment. ?Subsequently, I met with President Raul Castro for two and a half hours in his office, during which I pressed him to free Mr. Gross for humanitarian (and political) reasons. ?This, I argued, would remove a major obstacle to action by President Obama and would place Cuba on the moral high ground. The churches, for our part, would intensify our overtures to gain the release or resentencing of the Cuban Five and to end the trade embargo. ?Without divulging President Castro?s specific comments, I can say that I returned to the U.S. with some hope of positive developments and communicated this to appropriate staff at the State Department.

People who know this story often ask if I raised the question of the Cuban government?s record on human rights during conversations with President Castro, Foreign Minister Rodriquez, and other Cuban leaders. ?The answer is yes. ?The NCC has never refrained from speaking out about the matter of political prisoners in Cuba (or the United States). ?But it is also important to keep in mind the role of the church in such a situation, which is not to claim diplomatic expertise or mandate, but to strengthen relationships between churches in the one body of Christ and between people in God?s interdependent creation. ?In my judgment, and that of the NCC as a whole, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been counterproductive when it comes to promoting political change; has, overall, been very harmful to the Cuban people; and has prevented churches from providing full support for one another. ?Thus, we rejoice at the signs that this policy is now changing?and at the release of Allen Gross and all of the Cuban Five.

I also give thanks for the role played by Pope Francis in helping effect this change. ?Behind this, however, is fifty years of often-unreported struggle on the part of Protestants and Orthodox through national councils of churches in the United States and Cuba. ?This story, too, deserves to be told."