On January 14th the White House posted on its website some substantial policy changes that President Obama has ordered into effect.
Although many aspects of the economic embargo are actually written into law (such as in the Helms-Burton Act of 1996) and are not subject to changes in presidential policy, I have seen over my ten years of ministry in Cuba a loosening of some restrictions under Clinton, then a substantial tightening under Bush, and now a dramatic loosening of restrictions as they relate to religious travel and remittances to Cuba.
Specifically, the President has ordered the State Department, Homeland Security, and the Treasury Department to make the following changes that are significant to evangelical groups:
1) To create what is called a “general license” allowing religious groups to travel to Cuba.
2) To create a general license allowing religious groups to send money to Cuba in support of religious activities.
These are both very significant changes and on the surface appear to erase the substantial role the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) – a part of the Treasury Department – has had in determining how many people and how much money churches and mission agencies can send to Cuba each year.
Currently, for example, I have to apply for an annual Cuba Travel License by providing the names, addresses and phone numbers of no more than 25 people who will travel to Cuba as part of our ministry. I have often said that I feel like a baseball manager who has to deliberate over filling out a line-up card, since I have substantially more than 25 people who are interested in traveling to Cuba to assist in conferences, retreats, camps, and other events.
The travel license only allows us to spend in Cuba whatever money is necessary to cover our travel expenses. In order to pay for the conferences and other activities, we have to apply for another permit in order to spend money in Cuba for ministry purposes. That is also an annual permit, and we have to provide OFAC with our projected budgets and the names of the persons receiving the funds.
President Obama has now apparently eliminated these two specific licenses or permits by declaring that the trips and remittances can be accomplished through a “general license.” That means that no specific document or permit is necessary.
It remains to be seen how that will work when missions teams return from Cuba and go through US Customs. Will they simply declare, “I was on a missions trip”? Or will they need to carry with them a letter from their church or missions organization?
What also remains to be seen is the response from the Cuban government to these changes. It is still necessary for individuals and groups ministering in Cuba to obtain the religious worker’s visa (Visa D-8) from Cuba. Will visas be made available if there is an influx of groups? That may be the case for churches and organizations who are already ministering in Cuba, who are “known entities” to the authorities and have established some credibility. However, groups who are new to Cuba will be under scrutiny, especially since the White House press release lists as one of the purposes of these policy changes to “promote [the Cuban people’s] independence from Cuban authorities.”
I just mention that as a reminder that the US government is not first and foremost concerned that those who minister in Cuba as representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ have a more free and unencumbered process by which to do so. Their latest policy changes may indeed have that positive impact on missions but the aim of the changes is ultimately political in nature. Please keep in mind that as ministers of the Gospel we have a much higher calling.