LOS ANGELES – In the 27 years that Los Angeles has hosted the Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba organized by Pastors for Peace, Gail Walker had never been able to attend. Walker, who is executive director of Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), has been with Pastors for Peace ever since her father, the late Baptist Rev. Lucius Walker, founded it in a hospital bed in Nicaragua after taking a bullet from the Contras on the Río Escondido. In that incident, two witnesses to Reagan’s war of terror against the Sandinista government were killed and 29 wounded.
But on July 14, Walker finally came to the Los Angeles Workers Center for a dinner and reception welcoming the brightly decorated Friendshipment bus.
Many are the legends surrounding the daring Friendshipment project. It began as a busload of donated goods ranging from medicines to clothing, from computers and appliances to bicycles, musical instruments and books, and defiantly crossed the U.S.-Mexico border so that this material aid could be shipped from a Mexican port to Cuba. Rev. Lucius Walker never accepted a “license” from the U.S. government, on the principle that such acceptance would signify recognition of the legitimacy of the state approving or denying fraternal aid to sisters and brothers in need.
Almost three decades of the Caravan
In 27 years there have been hundreds of caravaners, some making it an annual event, who have moving stories to tell of the journey, and of arriving in Cuba for the reception of these donations from the “other” America. In Los Angeles, apart from Gail Walker, the other Americans included Gary from Boulder, Colo. (on his 25th caravan), Rick from Olympia, Wash. (he houses the bus on his property the rest of the year), and Mike, from Corvallis, Ore., who has caravanned every year since 2006.
This year for the first time the Caravan bus ended in Los Angeles. This was a mission not so much of practical aid but more of solidarity and information-sharing in the communities where the bus decamped. The problem is that northern Mexico has become so militarized now that the caravaners were frankly hesitant to take a busload of valuable donations across the border, also fearing for their personal safety. The 41 people in this year’s caravan who continued on to Cuba were scheduled to arrive on Monday, July 18th with medicines and other smaller donations capable of being transported by plane.
Much has changed over the past year and a half with regard to U.S. policy toward Cuba, said Ms. Walker. Almost every day the news has featured travel to Cuba, American investment, and of course the historic visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president and his family. But “there’s nothing really normal about U.S.-Cuban relations,” Walker said.
At the same time that progress is being made, the Cold War laws that aimed to bring the Cuban economy down are still largely in place. These include: The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. In other words, the punishing U.S. blockade against Cuba remains. U.S. diplomats have negotiated improvements for American interests, but have not much taken Cuban demands into account. The closing of the U.S. base at Guantánamo, and returning its sovereignty back to Cuba, is one such issue.
Walker asks everyone she encounters on the Caravan to campaign for the Cuba Trade Act of 2015 (HR 3238) in the House, and the Freedom of Export to Cuba Act (S 491) in the Senate. These are measures to repeal the blockade and free up trade and financial transactions between the U.S. and Cuba.
She also calls attention to the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (HR 664 in the House, and S 299 in the Senate), which would once and for all remove regulations that still restrict travel to Cuba. According to a June article in Granma, although some airlines are now approved for direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba, “U.S. citizens are still prohibited from traveling to Cuba for the purposes of tourism.” Cuba remains the only country in the world which endures such U.S.-imposed restriction. A video of Ms. Walker speaking on behalf of IFCO and the Friendshipment project can be seen here.
The L.A. Workers Center was filled to brimming with supporters of the Caravan, but in addition the dinner welcomed two other special guests. One was Dania González, a Cuban architect attending a conference in Los Angeles. González was a cofounder in 1994 of Cuba Solar, which aims to make solar power more widespread on the oil-dependent island. Now many schools and clinics, as well as homes, are sun-powered. One year the Caravan came back from Cuba with a Cuban-made solar panel – a sort of reverse Friendshipment – and that panel is now in operation on an Indigenous reservation in northern California.
A special guest from Cuba’s LGBT community
The other special guest, who traveled on the Caravan and was invited to speak at length, was Isel Calzadilla, a Cuban nurse and LGBT activist who courageously organized the first group of lesbians, Las Isabelas, in her home town of Santiago in the year 2000. In the years since then lesbian groups have formed in most of the provinces of Cuba, and a network of these groups has been established. Now, less than two decades later, the annual Days Against Homophobia, organized by the government of Cuba through the Ministry of Public Health and Cenesex, the institute headed by President Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro Espín that studies sexual diversity, are observed in virtually every part of Cuba.
Calzadilla has represented Cuba at international LGBT gatherings – in Peru in 2010, Varadero, Cuba, in 2012, and in Mexico in 2012. She has had the opportunity to travel throughout the U.S., visiting health centers and giving talks underwritten by a group of U.S. women in solidarity with Cuba, spending several days in Seattle for their Gay Pride celebrations.
She was in Seattle when the June 12th Orlando massacre took place and she communicated her condolences from Cuba toward the millions of American mourners. One of those murdered in Orlando, Eddie Sotomayor, had organized the first all-gay cruise to visit Cuba in April, just a few weeks prior. It would be difficult even to imagine an “Orlando” happening in Cuba, where arms are not held in private hands, where hate crimes and racial assaults are virtually unknown.
Calzadilla explained that LGBT activism takes somewhat different form in Cuba than in the U.S. In the U.S., Gay Pride is remarkable for its corporate sponsorship, and is effectively aimed at boosting a sense of LGBT self-confidence and self-worth in a climate where acceptance is still far from universal. Gay Pride also has the effect of showing America the purchasing power of the LGBT community and works as an incentive toward nondiscrimination in public services.
In Cuba, the Days Against Homophobia are directed more toward the population as a whole, in a campaign that educates all of society to honor and respect the human dignity of its LGBT members. There is no corporate sponsorship: It is the socialist Cuban government itself, through all its institutions and levers of authority, that encourages fairness and equality.
There are some LGBT individuals in governmental positions in Cuba at this time, says Calzadilla, but for the most part they are still closeted. The LGBT community is placing its confidence in the slow, but they feel sure, path toward eventual complete equality under the law, including marriage rights, that has already, at least on paper, taken place in other Latin American countries. The church does not have the same kind of power in Cuba that it wields in many other places, but even within the church, support exists for LGBT rights.
If the U.S. can finally and fully overcome its antipathy toward living in peaceful coexistence with a neighboring state with a different economic, social and political system than ours, regional tension may well diminish for the sake of mutual benefit. This also includes the importation of life-saving treatments the Cubans have developed for cancer and diabetes.
At the moment, of course, U.S. hegemonists have their sights aimed at other Latin American countries that have dared to buck the global and hemispheric establishment. It will be important in the months to come for people in the U.S. to work to ensure that the best possible results emerge from the top all the way down the ballot in the November 8th elections – and to apply pressure afterward to rectify the injustices of history.
Photo: Gail Walker at the Los Angeles Workers Center. | Eric Gordon/PW