Caravan to Cuba—July 2003

by W.T. Whitney Jr.

In buses, trucks, vans, and an ambulance—and by plane—we came from over 20 states to the hot, sprawling city of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. For two days, 100 activists taking part in the 14th Pastors for Peace Friendshipment boxed up and labeled supplies intended for Cuban schools, medical centers, and homes for old people. And they received indoctrination into the practice of civil disobedience.

On July 17 the caravan set off across the border and headed for Tampico, Mexico, where the next night they left hundreds of boxes and eight vehicles on a dock there to be shipped to Cuba. On July 19 the caravanistas, now joined by 30 members of Va Por Cuba, a Cuba solidarity group based in Tampico, flew to Havana. Supporters from Canada, England, Holland, and Germany were part of the delegation. This was the largest Friendshipment in several years. Members of the U.S. contingent were proud to be defying U.S. embargo laws and restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Rev. Lucius Walker, the Pastors for Peace leader, spoke about why people are willing to put up with heat, dust, sleeplessness, crowded school buses, along with possible prosecution by their own government, at least for U.S. citizens. U.S. policy toward Cuba, he said, is “outrageous, despicable, mean-spirited, and bullying. We counter our government’s behavior with what we think is the decent and neighborly thing to do.”

He continued, “Cuba is really an amazing country, dedicating its resources to enhance the quality of life of its people. Rather than one more pawn [of] global capitalism, it refuses to allow Western corporations favorable conditions for ripping off its economy. Cuba deserves our support and that of all decent people in the world. I shudder at [the thought of] there being a world without Cuba, the shining example of Third World responsibility. What if every small nation were a Cuba?” He added that Cuba, faced with stepped-up provocations and intimidation, needs support from true friends now as never before.

The Friendshipment delegation visited health centers, schools, and homes for the elderly in Havana and in the eastern city of Bayamo. Government officials, among them Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly, discussed Cuba’s problems, among them the real threat, from Cuba’s point of view, of military aggression from the North. At the Julio Antonio Mella Camp for international visitors, the caravanistas joined members of the 34th Venceremos Brigade for food, political talk, and entertainment. The Brigade this year this year was highlighting its joint challenge with the Friendshipment to U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.

At the end of the week, caravanistas were present at a rally in front of the former Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the attack there by a small band led by Fidel Castro. This time, the Cuban president took note of Cuba’s gains in social well-being, and he castigated the European Union for recent actions taken against Cuba.

Along the way, many U.S. participants found themselves making comparisons between Cuba and their own society. There was talk about teachers’ and nurses’ jobs disappearing in the United States, tuition rising for public colleges, human service organizations going private, jobs being lost, the rich making out, and health care continuing to be tied in with money. They found Cuba, poor and under siege for four decades, prioritizing scarce resources to meet the basic needs of all Cubans.

They learned that to preserve the social gains of the revolution, improvisation had been necessary, especially after the fall of the Soviet bloc and the loss of 85% of its foreign trade. Dollars from joint ventures and tourists go for health facilities, schools, the elderly, and nutrition. Health workers, technicians, and teachers still work abroad by the thousands, and now the Latin American School of Medicine—one of the stops on the Friendshipment schedule—each year accepts 1,500 students from 24 countries, including the United States, for a free medical education. Per capita income in the United States is 25 times that of Cuba, yet there is little difference in infant mortality and life expectancy between the two nations.

Pragmatism and flexibility are hallmarks of Cuba’s socialist project. The visitors learned that too many young people were leaving school early, and now educators pay students to finish their high school and college courses. Families and young people lacking access to dollars are facing undue hardship, and now Cuba trains thousands of disengaged young people as social workers. They are paid while learning how to help their neighbors. Shortages and transportation problems aggravate longstanding conditions of rural isolation, and courses leading to a university degree have been made available to country people through expanded television programming. Educators are paying increased attention to culture—a plea from José Martí—and new schools of art and music are being built, and hundreds of new teachers in the arts are being trained.

Cuban teachers often speak of love for their students, and children’s enthusiasm and attentiveness were readily apparent to caravanistas throughout their travels. One director of a large school of the arts in Bayamo spoke of children's “dedication.” At block parties and schools, and at the July 26 celebration itself, little children were heard to be speaking out with an astonishing self-confidence and clarity.

Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Aldebrón from Presque Isle, Maine—herself an eloquent speaker at antiwar rallies in Maine—appealed to young people in the United States with the thought, “You have no idea of a country unless you go there.” She found Cuban children wanting to talk with her “as a human being, not like in the United States, where often they hold back from playing and from learning about a stranger.”

The 14th Friendshipment Caravan, however, was mainly dedicated to the elders of Cuba. Ninety-year-old caravanista, Irv Wolf was making his 19th trip to Cuba. “Why break a long habit? Cuba is in my blood,” said Irv. Present at a July 26 celebration in 1960, he found people “delirious with joy, free at last of colonial domination.” Forty-three years later he finds a revolution gaining in strength and demonstrating to the world that “the die is not cast”; capitalism need not last forever; socialism is still possible.

The Friendshipment delegation placed a wreath on the statue of Manuel de Cespedes in the central square of Bayamo, his birthplace and home. Cespedes instigated and helped lead independence forces fighting Cuba’s ten-year war with Spain that began in 1868.

That experience was like a vignette providing insight into Cuba’s continuing fight for national independence, and as such, it complemented observations and information gained about the workings of socialism in Cuba. The impression from eight days in Cuba is of a unified people, and it seems likely that widespread, continued dedication to the ideal of national independence contributes mightily to such unity. Strenuous complaining about deprivations and hardship, on the part of discouraged Cubans encountered privately, was accompanied by an abhorrence of U.S. infringements on Cuban sovereignty. And we came across no Cuban who did not hold Lucius Walker and the Friendshipments in high regard.