In the last issue of Fire This Time we had a special section about the journey of the 2012 Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba in British Columbia up to the BC, Canada/Washington, US border. However, after entering Washington the 2012 Caravan still had a long ways to get to its destination of Cuba in order to challenge the United States’ blockade.
What is the IFCO/Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba?
Since 1992 the Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba has been challenging the United States government’s economic and travel blockade on Cuba which has been imposed on the Cuban people for over 50 years. This summer was the 23rd Caravan which traveled through Canada, the US and Mexico raising awareness about the US blockade and gathering humanitarian aid to take to Cuba. This year’s Caravan marked the 20th anniversary of the Pastors for Peace Caravans to Cuba. Over the past 20 years thousands of participants and over 30,000 tons of humanitarian aid have been brought to Cuba, building a ‘people-to-people’ foreign policy based on mutual respect, solidarity and friendship between the people of the US, Canada, Mexico and Cuba. From Vancouver, Canada, Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC) has been actively supporting and organizing with the Caravan since 2005. I have had the privilege of sending-off 7 Caravans from BC, but this was the first year where rather than sending off the bus, I actually had the chance to get on and go!
The BC/Washington Border Crossing
In the week leading up to the border crossing the Caravan, organizers with VCSC, and our BC route speaker, Bill Hackwell – from the International Committee to Free the Cuban 5 – had travelled throughout BC to speak out against the United States’ unjust and illegal blockade against Cuba and to collect humanitarian aid. On July 1, 2012 supporters of the Caravan from across BC and Washington gathered at the BC/Washington border to send off 7 caravanistas and a truck full of aid. After a picnic in the park we began our march on the border, with signs, banners, Cuban flags and the truck. The truck and aid were denied entry into the US at the Peace Arch Boarder Crossing, and protestors were sent to the Commercial Truck Crossing. There we continued our chanting and noise making to demand the aid be let through. Negotiations with the US border guards took place late into the night, with the US border guards finally offering to accept the humanitarian aid minus all sports equipment, which they arbitrarily decided was no longer humanitarian aid. Caravan supporters refused to be bullied, knowing that sports equipment has been let through that crossing for close to 20 years. So, we occupied the border and many stayed overnight singing and playing music. We even sent press releases from the parking lot at the border crossing inviting the media and public to join us the next day, July 2, for a press conference and what would be our third attempt at crossing the border. Dozens of news outlets in Canada, the US, Cuba, Venezuela and even Spain covered the standoff at the border. After a very successful press conference, the third attempt to get that humanitarian aid through the border was made. Within an hour the US border guards finally agreed that all of the aid would be allowed through and on its way to Cuba, including the “controversial” sports equipment.
This was an important victory and great way to kick off the 20th anniversary Caravan; however it was only the beginning of our Caravan to Cuba. It was still another 3 weeks before our feet touched Cuba soil.
Travelling thru the United States
After getting the aid safely across the border, we headed to our first Caravan event in Seattle, Washington. From there, those who had crossed the border along with other Caravanistas who joined from the US, travelled down the west coast in two separate buses as routes “A” and “B” of the Caravan. This year there were 9 Caravan routes that participated in over 100 events in 47 states and 6 Canadian provinces.
I was honoured to be the official route speaker for route “A.” We were hosted in Seattle, Bremerton, Olympia, Eugene, Chico, Palo Alto, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, San Pedro, Los Angeles, Tucson, El Paso and Austin. The diversity along the route, from the environment we drove past to the people we met each night was amazing. Each night we had a different event – outdoors, in a church, in a community centre, or in an activist centre. Each night we met new friends, some who have been supporting the Caravan for the last 20 years and many who were attending their first Caravan event.
My favorite part about our travel through the US was meeting new people, especially Cubans or people who have lived in Cuba. First, we met Lois in Bremerton who travelled to Cuba as a missionary in 1949. She lived in Cuba for ten years leading up to the revolution and stayed living there until the 90s. She told us how she had gone to Cuba to recruit people to Christ, but she had been recruited to the revolution and people of Cuba. Second, we met a younger woman in Big Sur, whose family had left Cuba when she was 11. She had bad memories of the Cuban revolution and said that she felt it was criminal that the US government had sent Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba in the 90s, this was the famous case of a young boy whose mother kidnapped him from his father to go to the US by raft. The raft sunk and his mother was killed, Elian, however, was rescued and taken to live with an uncle he had not met before in Miami. Elian’s father and the Cuban people and government fought a long battle to have Elian returned home. It was a bit shocking to hear someone say that is how much they disliked Cuba that a son should have to spend a lifetime without his father. Unfortunately she did not stay for our Caravan event so we could discuss these issues further (I also did not know at the time that I would have a chance to meet Elian in Matanzas during the Caravan and see how happy he is to have grown up there with his father). Third, a few days later, at a rest stop, we met two more Cubans living in the United States, Yoel and Jose, they were taking pictures of our buses. We stopped to chat and one of the first things Yoel said was that he was planning a trip back to Cuba for July 26, an important historical date for the Cuban Revolution. He also proclaimed to us, “I am a Fidelista”. They were so enthusiastic about the Caravan that they offered to stop with us at the next gas station to buy us diesel. True to their word, they donated $150 of fuel to the Caravan. This was great gesture of solidarity and is definitely one of my favorite memories of the Caravan.
Getting together in McAllen, Texas
After Austin all 9 Caravan routes were on the move towards orientation in McAllen, Texas. When Route “A” arrived at the church, there were already 6 brightly painted vehicles packed with humanitarian aid that had arrived. Orientation in McAllen was a chance to meet the over 50 people who had gathered together to support the Caravan, to manifest and pack the aid, cook meals, and discuss plans for the border crossing from the US into Mexico, where we would be breaking US law and openly declaring that we were going to Cuba and taking humanitarian aid with us. People of all ages and abilities leant a hand in the heavy work under the hot Texan sun and at night spent time resting and getting to know one another.
On July 19, it was time for caravanistas to head to the border. We went in two fronts, a driving contingent and a walking contingent. The main group crossed at the Hidalgo bridge with enthusiastic chants calling for the end to the US blockade and travel ban of Cuba, as well as demanding the release of the Cuban Five held in US prisons. The vehicles entered at the Pharr Bridge, where the US authorities detained six computers. However, the rest of the aid, including seven vehicles along with medicine, medical equipment, incubators, an x-ray machine, school supplies, sports equipment and other important items.
Travelling thru Mexico
When we crossed the border into Reynosa, Mexico we were greeted by enthusiastic Mexican solidarity organizations. We also had 10 caravanistas joining us from Mexico. We left Reynosa as a line of brightly painted vehicles travelling down the highway. We stopped overnight in Victoria, where everyone got a chance to enjoy some delicious Mexican food and get a good night’s sleep. The next morning we were on the buses to Tampico, where we entered the port along with the port workers and spent the afternoon unloading the humanitarian aid from the buses and loading it in to shipping containers. It was a lot of work, but everyone pitched in according to their ability, and we got the job done. We checked in to our hotel for the night, dreaming of our departure to Cuba this next morning.
Our arrival in Cuba
We landed in Havana and got to walk off the plane directly onto the tarmac. We were greeted by a gauntlet of Cuban journalists and friends from the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP). We went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre for a dynamic welcoming program. There was speeches, singing, dancing and video. One of the videos that was especially moving was about the friendship between the late Reverend Lucius Walker Jr., the founder and director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, and Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban revolution. After the event everyone was invited outside for a performance by a live band and dancers on stilts and it was all wrapped up with some delicious Cuban cake.
Our visits in Cuba
We spent 6 days in Havana and each caravanistas was given the choice to visit either Santa Clara or Matanzas for 3 days. The program in Cuba included visits to the Jose Marti Monument in the Plaza of the Revolution, to a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), to the House of Africa, to the House of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America), to the House of Friendship, and to the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Tribunal. We also attended a few educational workshops with family members of the Cuban 5, students from the Latin American School of Medicine, experts on Cuba`s environmental planning and a director from the Ministry of Foreign Relations. We also visited a hospital, a clinic, and other institutions where they explained how the US blockade negatively impacts their work. We were amazed by some spectacular cultural performances by different Cuban children’s groups, the musical group “Cubanos en la Red” and a stunning outdoor concert by a Cuban choir. Our trip also included free time to explore on our own and a day at the beach. By the end of the 9 day tour, many of us were ready to stay in Cuba, but our important reverse challenge against the US blockade and travel ban was still to come.
Our Reverse Challenge
We flew back to Tampico and did a day-long drive up to the US/Mexico border. The reverse challenge is an important part of the Caravan because Americans who have travelled on the trip have broken US laws by travelling to Cuba without a license. A press release from IFCO/Pastors for Peace published after we crossed the border explains our experience, “Caravanistas were chanting "Cuba sí! Bloqueo no!" and "We've been to Cuba and we want you to know it!" as they entered US Customs, openly declaring their refusal to seek or accept a license from the US government to travel or bring aid to Cuba. US border authorities demanded the caravanistas provide extensive information about their travel to Cuba, but in a united front, caravanistas refused to comply. "This kind of tactic of forcing people who travel to Cuba to "name names" is pure McCartheyism," said Lisa Valenti, who has participated in all 23 Caravans. "The US government subjects no other country in the world to such draconian travel restrictions. Why? What is the threat of a small island neighbor 90 miles away that offers free health care to the world?" added IFCO Co-Director Gail Walker.” As we made our way through the border we celebrated our important stand against the US blockade against Cuba and all of the events and media coverage that had brought this issue into the minds of people across Canada, the US and Mexico. Once we were all through, we began to say our goodbyes and many committed to be back on the 2013 Caravan to keep challenging the United States inhuman policy towards Cuba in their communities throughout the year.
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