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Cuba May Restrict Visits by Florida United Methodists
The change may result in fewer or more tightly controlled visits from Florida United Methodists to Cuba.

Whitaker made the announcement at the conclusion of a special meeting of the conference at Florida Southern College to decide on the purchase of a new Florida United Methodist headquarters building. The several hundred delegates representing some of the conference’s 740 churches readily approved the deal to buy the former Holland & Knight office building on Lake Wire (see related story).

Before adjourning the meeting, Whitaker asked for a moment to report on his trip last week to Havana. In January, the Cuban minister of religious affairs, Caridad Diego, had requested a meeting with Whitaker and Cuban Methodist Bishop Ricardo Pereira to discuss the “covenant” agreement that has been in effect between the two Methodist groups since June 1997.

The covenant, signed by Whitaker’s and Pereira’s predecessors and approved by the Cuban government, allowed for a formal re-establishment of relations that were broken in 1960 when the new regime of Fidel Castro expelled all U.S. missionaries. Under the terms of the agreement, regular exchange visits took place between Florida and Cuban Methodists, and United Methodists in Florida were able to send money and material assistance to the church in Cuba.

According to the Rev. Larry Rankin of the Florida Conference office, Florida United Methodists have averaged about two dozen visits per year to Cuba since the covenant was signed. However, those visits were unexpectedly halted by the government a few months ago.

Whitaker said Diego assured him and Pereira the government would allow the relationship between Florida and Cuban Methodists to continue but with changes.

“The government of Cuba has made the decision the time of the covenant has come to a conclusion. It doesn’t want that term used,” he said.

Whitaker said “problems” had arisen from the government’s perspective, which Diego would not discuss. He said Pereira thinks the Cuban government is concerned about the relative freedom some American citizens have had while visiting Cuba. Pereira will negotiate a new arrangement with the government and report the terms to the Florida Conference, but future visits are on hold until a new agreement can be reached. There was no indication when that might be.

“There probably will be fewer caravans, but they will be allowed to continue. I think also the visits will have to be organized through (Pereira’s) office,” Whitaker said. “As Bishop Pereira told me, ‘In Cuba, we have learned to be flexible.’”

In an interview following the meeting, Whitaker said the meeting with Diego had been respectful and that she expressed the desire for the relationship to continue, but apparently some unspecified incidents during the exchange visits had caused concern in the higher echelons of the Cuban government. In addition, the covenant’s uniqueness — an arrangement without parallel between other religious groups inside and outside Cuba — seemed to pose difficulty.

“The government had the view the covenant was some sort of special privilege other churches didn’t have. They wanted to remove the perception there was no special privilege,” he said.

Whitaker said the Florida Conference had sent about $72,000 in relief to the Methodist Church in Cuba after three hurricanes struck the island last summer. The funds “made a big difference in their recovery,” he said.


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