These words would be repeated over nearly a half-century as the Board of Pensions struggled to pay pensions owed Cuban Presbyterian church workers after the Cuban revolution. In 1960, the U.S. government placed an economic embargo on Cuba, which had seized the property of U.S. corporations. Suddenly, more than 50 Cuban Presbyterian church workers were separated from their pension benefits.
The Board was forced to deposit the church workers’ monthly benefit payments in U.S. accounts — accounts that the retirees were not permitted to access.* Despite years of service to the Church, during which, collectively, the church workers accrued nearly a million dollars in benefits, they could not receive what was owed them.
The denial to unblock the funds appeared in letters from the Chief of Licensing for the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury Department to Frank Maloney, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The injustice of the situation did not sit well with Maloney, who is retiring from the Board of Pensions this month, after 40 years of dedicated service to the Church.
“It just didn’t seem fair,” Maloney said of the Cuban Presbyterian church workers’ plight. Many Cuban pastors and other church workers, after long participation in the Pension Plan, would live out their retirements in poverty while their pension assets were “stuck” in U.S. accounts. And many were not eligible for Cuban government benefits because they continued to work for the Church after the revolution.
During many of those years, Maloney, an accountant by training, worked tirelessly to reconnect the members, or their beneficiaries, with the money they were owed. He was joined in the effort by Jean Hemphill, the Board’s legal counsel; Ernesto Badillo, a Regional Representative for the Board; and, in the past year, Maria Perry, a member service representative, among others. Together, these good shepherds tried to cut through the red tape — the myriad regulations that constitute the embargo — to pay the blocked pensions.
“We really hoped the U.S. government would be more open to transferring the funds of our church workers, but we were repeatedly thwarted,” said Maloney. “So we kept pleading our case, staying in front of OFAC, and gathering documents to prove our Cuban plan members’ entitlements.”
Almost from the beginning, Maloney received offers from several presbyteries involved in humanitarian efforts in Cuba to transport pension monies. But the law prohibited the Board, and the presbytery representatives, from making pension payments to Cuban nationals in cash. Maloney said he was unwilling to put individuals or the Board of Pensions in jeopardy to achieve the goal. “We had to find another way,” he said.
Maloney and Hemphill visited U.S. lawmakers to plead their case but encountered a strong anti-Castro Cuban lobby in Congress. So they worked on developing relationships with officials in the U.S. Treasury and State departments, and their efforts gradually yielded results. Over time, the government began easing the process of getting licenses for payments to Cuban nationals. (Under the embargo, a license is required to make payments to Cuban nationals or to release money from accounts held in their names in the United States.)
The pace of change, however, was “glacially slow,” Maloney said. Even when the government licensed the Board to pay part of the monthly pension benefits to U.S.-based relatives of Cuban pensioners or their beneficiaries in the early ’90s, progress was scant because many of the Cuban retirees had no relatives in the United States. The Board continued pushing for permission to send funds directly to Cuba.
In 1994, the Board seemed to inch forward when it received a license to pay the Cuban retirees directly up to $100 per month in pension benefits. But there was another challenge: U.S. banks were prohibited from doing business in Cuba, and the exchange rates were “very steep,” Hemphill noted.
Meanwhile, church advocates for the Cuban retirees were expressing growing frustration and dismay. Maloney, in an attempt to form relationships with the advocates, provided them with updates whenever a new license was granted and met with the Cuban delegations at every General Assembly, seeking to help them understand that the Board was doing everything in its power to reunite these members with their pensions.
And they were. Maloney and Hemphill persisted in appealing to OFAC, making trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with Treasury and State department officials face to face. And, in 2006, the government licensed the Board to pay Cuban nationals up to $500 per month and granted a travel license so Board staff could research the whereabouts of the pensioners or their survivors and instruct them on how to set up accounts to receive the payments.
In 2010 new regulations were released that allowed the unblocking of pension accounts for the benefit of deceased pensioners’ heirs. Hemphill remembers the day that happened. “We said, ‘You’ll let us pay the beneficiaries but not the pensioners who earned the pensions? That’s not just! Our pensioners should not have to die before they can get paid.’”
The Board filed new license applications asking to unblock the accounts of living pensioners.
Ultimately, the Treasury Department agreed, and issued licenses, in 2012 and again in 2013, to unblock individual accounts and enable the payment of money owed to the remaining 23 of the original 50-plus Cuban retirees or their heirs.
By this point, the biggest challenge was the passage of time. To obtain a license to unblock an account, the Board needed to provide documentation — a lot of it — proving the identities of the account holder and his or her beneficiaries. But living Cuban plan members were in their 90s or older and difficult to track down; many were deceased. Moreover, numerous records had been destroyed during the revolution.
Enter Badillo, who had received government permission to travel to Cuba in 2006 to uncover the identities of beneficiaries and prove their relationship to deceased account holders. This trip, which Badillo made with the Reverend David Cassie, then Executive Presbyter of West Jersey Presbytery, yielded important information. The Board identified many individuals and gathered documents that were later needed to obtain individual licenses to unblock accounts.
In May 2014, Badillo again traveled to Cuba, this time between the chemotherapy sessions he was undergoing. “I will admit it was hard on me,” he said. “But it just was so important to go there and make sure we found these people.” Perry accompanied Badillo in this all-out effort to close the final 23 pension accounts. In the years since Badillo’s 2006 trip, he and Perry, among others, had translated the wills, affidavits, and birth, marriage, and death certificates tied to many of the closed accounts. Now Badillo and Perry were interviewing and developing working relationships with IPRC contacts, researching records, and gathering original documents needed to satisfy OFAC’s requirements for granting licenses to release pension money.
Despite the toll on Badillo, he and Perry, assisted by IPRC members, managed to track down 21 of the 23 people they were looking for. The Board has again filed for additional licenses. Most of the pension money in blocked accounts is in the process of being distributed (or soon will be); a few cases are still pending, awaiting the submission of documentation.
“Frank Maloney has kept at it since the day I walked into the Board’s offices in 1992,” Hemphill said of his leadership on the Cuban pension issue. “For him, it was always a matter of justice.”
“The hard work and remarkable dedication of Frank Maloney and others at the Board of Pensions make it even more of an honor for me to lead this agency,” said Frank Spencer, President of the Board of Pensions. “In his 40 years of service to the Board, Frank Maloney has always demonstrated integrity and fairness in his approach and decision making, but clearly the Cuban pension payment issue became a personal mission for him.”
The Board is still searching for the last two of the original 50-plus Cuban church workers who participated in the Pension Plan. “The Board of Pensions never forgets its obligations to plan members for whom we hold money in trust, no matter how large or small the amount,” said Maloney.
So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
For an account of Cuban retirees’ faithful reactions to the unblocking of their long-embargoed pensions, read The Widow’s Might: Cuban Presbyterian spends long-blocked pension to buy her church a house.
*Cuban Presbyterian churches, before they became the independent Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba (IPRC), were once part of the Synod of New Jersey of the former United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.; many of those who served in these churches before the IPRC was formed earned credits in the pension fund currently administered by the Board of Pensions.