Coalition pushes for change in Cuba policy

WASHINGTON — More than 700 people gathered here April 27 in opposition to the U.S. government’s political and economic blockade against Cuba under the slogan, “Join the majority, change the policy!”

Cuba Action Day was organized by a broad coalition with the objective of persuading legislators to ratchet up the effort to reverse the Bush administration’s Cuba policy. This struggle has recently gained new allies and is poised to win victories, participants said.

Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, told the crowd they had the power to end “40 years of abnormal separation” between the peoples of Cuba and the U.S. that has been driven by the “highly combustible fuel of Cuban exiles.” Surveying the large and diverse crowd, Jones said it was clear that the people of the U.S. and their elected representatives want the government to change its Cuba policy.

Participants said ending the travel ban is a first step toward fully normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) said Congress has voted on four different occasions to end the travel ban, only to learn later that the relevant section of the bill had been deleted before it reached the president. “[This was] a corruption of our political process,” he said. “We have won over and over and over again by substantial margins,” only to have the language disappear in conference committee, Delahunt said.

The gathering took place against the backdrop of a Bush administration crackdown on U.S. citizens’ rights to travel to Cuba. Families, formerly allowed annual visits, are now limited to visits only once every three years, and only with immediate family members. Religious organizations are threatened with losing their “licenses” for travel to Cuba, and many universities face cancellation of longstanding study abroad programs there.

The diversity of the crowd suggested the broad range of support in the country for changing our nation’s Cuba policy. Members of Pastors for Peace and the Venceremos Brigade mixed with students, professors, other religious leaders, family rights advocates, Cuban American activists, farmers and grain exporters like Larry Kepley, who represented the Kansas Wheat Commission, an organization of several thousand wheat farmers ready to export their product to Cuba if the embargo were ended.

The crowd was alternately moved to silence — as when Army Sergeant Carlos Lazo, an Iraq war veteran, related how he had been denied permission to visit his two teenage sons in Cuba while home on leave — and to indignation, as when Rep. Delahunt asked, “How can we go anywhere in the world and spread democracy when we don’t practice it in the United States? We can’t!”

The Rev. Joseph Irwin of the United Church of Christ told the World about his church’s 25-year experience working with Cuban churches. He emphasized that religious leaders, including prominent Christian theologians, are members of the Cuban National Assembly and that churches there normally have active social justice programs as part of their work.

The Rev. Lucius Walker Jr. of Pastors for Peace told the World that this conference was reaching a “middle sector of Americans, finding common ground and offering a wide range of people the opportunity to join the fight to end the blockade.” He also said his organization would lead another caravan delivering supplies to Cuba in July, returning through Mexico to Texas on Aug. 1.

At the conclusion of the conference, many participants visited Capitol Hill to meet with legislators and to lobby for bills that would end the travel ban, including S.894 and H.Res.1814. Both bills have broad, bipartisan support. Mavis Anderson of the Latin America Working Group cautioned that the big struggle for their passage will probably come in October when the legislation will likely go to the House-Senate conference committee.

Participating groups included the Center for International Policy/Freedom to Travel Campaign, Washington Office on Latin America, Sister Cities Association, WILPF, Disarm Education Fund, Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Madre and the Global Exchange Cuba program.