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Lack of license limits UMCOR response in Cuba

Survivors walk down a rubble-filled alley in Holguin, Cuba, after Hurricane Ike struck the island on Sept. 9. A UMNS Web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Ivelis Matthews.

By Linda Bloom*
Sept. 11, 2008 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

Raúl Alegría

United Methodists are expressing frustration over not being able to provide disaster relief to Cubans hit hard by the 2008 hurricane season.

MARCHA, the Hispanic/Latino caucus within The United Methodist Church, is calling upon the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries "to provide funding as soon as possible to the Methodist Church in Cuba so that it can continue and expand its ministry of relief and humanitarian aid to the victims of these hurricanes."

The caucus’s Sept. 9 statement, signed by MARCHA president Raúl Alegría and Bishop Elías Galván, interim executive director, also asked all church members to pray for the Cuban church, Cuban people and those in other Caribbean countries affected by recent hurricanes and tropical storms.

In a statement issued on the same day, the Board of Global Ministries explained why the mission agency, which oversees the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has not been able to respond to two monster hurricanes in Cuba.

"In 2006, the federal government failed to renew the license of the General Board of Global Ministries … to send funds into Cuba for ministries of various kinds. Many other denominations have also lost their licenses," the statement said.

Efforts to provide U.S. aid to Cuba are complicated by a half-century standoff between the two countries, which includes a broad U.S. trade embargo.

MARCHA noted that both the denomination as a whole and the caucus itself has repeatedly called for an end to the trade embargo.

"At this time when Cuba has suffered heavily due to these hurricanes, when many thousands of people urgently need humanitarian aid, and when many of our Methodist church buildings have been destroyed, we clearly need a change in this U.S. policy, even if on a temporary basis to respond to the emergency," the caucus said.

MARCHA called upon the U.S. government to quickly grant licenses to allow religious and other humanitarian organizations to provide aid in Cuba and to allow Cuban-American families to send money to their families in Cuba beyond the currently allowed $300 a quarter.

The caucus also applauded action taken by the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico to pray and raise funds to support the Methodist Church in Cuba.

Cannot act

Gustav hit western Cuba with winds of 150 mph on Aug. 30, damaging or destroying 100,000 houses and crippling the nation's agricultural industry and infrastructure. Hurricane Ike followed on Sept. 9, damaging 200,000 homes and dumping heavy rains on storm-ravaged tobacco and sugar cane crops. At least five people were killed.

"At this time when Cuba has suffered heavily due to these hurricanes, when many thousands of people urgently need humanitarian aid, … we clearly need a change in this U.S. policy." –MARCHA

Despite the widespread need, UMCOR is "stymied in its ability to act" in Cuba, according to the Rev. Sam Dixon, the agency’s top executive. Continued attempts to restore the license have been unsuccessful.

"Without the license, UMCOR/GBGM is not legally permitted to send money directly or indirectly through a third party into Cuba," Dixon said in an e-mail message. "Violation of this license carries severe consequences for UMCOR/GBGM as well as the denomination."

The Board of Global Ministries is allowed to send volunteer teams into Cuba to work with the church there, and the first team sponsored through the board’s Mission Volunteers is expected to arrive on Sept. 19. Legally, however, UMCOR cannot send funds with those teams, Dixon said.

The Rev. Sam Dixon

Church World Service, a U.S.-based ecumenical humanitarian agency, is permitted to send modest amounts of school kits and blankets into Cuba. Action by Churches Together International, the international faith-based disaster response organization to which both CWS and UMCOR belong, is gathering financial support for member organizations that can legally work in Cuba. "UMCOR may not legally support either effort or similar efforts by other partner agencies." Dixon said.

A Sept. 9 news release from the U.S. State Department announced that, in response to Hurricane Gustav, the government had "increased existing authorizations for U.S.-based NGOs to provide larger amounts of humanitarian assistance, including in the form of cash donations, to help address the basic needs of the Cuban people."

Because of the reference to "existing authorizations" and the direction in the release for donations to be sent "to reputable humanitarian assistance organizations that are licensed to send humanitarian aid to Cuba," Dixon was not optimistic about the possibility of UMCOR receiving a limited license.

"We at UMCOR/GBGM are deeply troubled by our inability to respond to the needs of the people of Cuba," Dixon said. "The mandate from the denomination under which we operate and our deeply held desire to serve those in need make this a very difficult experience for us. Our prayers are with the Methodist Church as it seeks to minister to those in need and to all who are in need this day."

Methodists in Cuba are providing some relief but are severely limited financially. Reports on this work of the Methodist Church of Cuba can be found in Spanish and English on the church’s Web site.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Board of Global Ministries

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Methodist Church in Cuba (Spanish)

Cuban Church report in English

Church World Service

MARCHA (Spanish)

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