Declaring victory over Cuba blockade

How can we end U.S. assaults on Cuban sovereignty and independence? That question arose during this summer’s trip to Cuba with the IFCO/Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan. Since 1992, the New York-based group has fought the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba by organizing Americans to take humanitarian aid to the island.

This year, as usual, caravans of trucks and old buses traveled south from Canada to McAllen, Texas. En route, they picked up aid supplies, and participants talked about Cuba in churches, union halls and homes. On July 17, the full caravan crossed into Mexico, traveling the next day to Tampico, where late at night 90 tons of material were unloaded onto a dock. Tampico longshoremen joined the caravan for the week in Cuba.

The Friendshipment and the Venceremos Brigade represent militant, visible, principled opposition to policies hanging on despite overall public rejection. For 38 years, the Venceremos Brigade has enabled some 9,000 travel ban challengers to visit Cuba and work there. Friendshipment organizers refuse to apply for the license that our government requires for providing Cuba with humanitarian aid. Participants travel in violation of U.S. regulations.

On July 28, 175 participants with both groups confronted border officials in McAllen and in Buffalo, N.Y., on returning to the United States.

Purposeful defiance of unjust laws serves as a means for pressuring governments unresponsive to other expressions of protest. Surely, lessons derived from experiences of these challenge groups may contribute to building the Cuba solidarity movement, particularly in recruiting and involving supporters.

The commitment of old and new alike was reinforced by risk-taking and sweat equity. Cuba travelers this summer were united as they refused to answer questions put by border officials. Having defied Washington dictates, they could face significant fines. And activists of all ages, jammed into hot school buses for 24 hours moving across northeastern Mexico, showed they don’t give up.

Friendshipment people collected, packaged and transported humanitarian aid. This year, the Venceremos Brigade did agricultural work. Travelers with both groups held fund-raising events, recruitment meetings and public information meetings. They met with or contacted legislators.

In Cuba, the visitors learned of hardships experienced by the Cuban people under siege and came to understand the frustrations and discontent stemming from decades of privation, and to appreciate the difficulties of preserving hope and improvising. During the weeklong stay, reasons for fighting the blockade flooded in. Rules denying North Americans the privilege of seeing gifted young dancers and actors and hearing talented singers and instrumentalists, all of them beneficiaries of dedicated teaching, are just plain wrong.

Along the way, the visitors got a dose of revolutionary ideals and combativeness. “We had to confront the powers of the U.S. empire,” declared the Rev. Lucius Walker, the Pastors for Peace head. “We had to expose the power of money and lies.” The Friendshipment mission, he added, is “to stamp out the disease of truth decay. … We have come to have our batteries recharged by [Cuba’s] beautiful spirit of revolution.”

The summer travelers were successful. They broke the blockade. So did travelers in previous years. Once again, U.S. enforcement of the blockade was inconsistent and capricious. Maybe, one wonders, the blockade is more show than reality. In fact, maybe our side has won. This year we proved it.

In 1966, Sen. George Aiken of Vermont suggested that U.S. military forces could declare victory and leave Vietnam.

Maybe now is the time for all those who support Cuba to declare victory. One way to do it would be for groups of all stripes to take up the work of Friendshipment and the Venceremos Brigade. Unions, church groups, progressive political groups, even businesses, would trade with, help out, interact with and visit their Cuban neighbors, demonstrating the emptiness of our government’s stance toward Cuba and a victory for what Lucius Walker calls a “people’s foreign policy.”

“But we’re too busy fighting the Iraq war,” one may hear. Well, why not take a break, do something that gives you a clear win, and in the process help diminish the empire?

W.T. Whitney Jr., a retired pediatrician in Maine, was a member of this summer’s Friendshipment Caravan.