The call of Cuba

I’m not so much of a world traveler, but I do know from friends who travel that there are few places you can go where you won’t find a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Wal-Mart. One of those few places is Cuba — no McDonald’s, no Exxon Mobil or Citibank. Is this good or bad? That depends on what kind of travel experience you want, I suppose, or what kind of world you envision for your children. For those who would like to visit a country without Coca-Cola billboards, Cuba is a wonderful tourist or education destination. Unfortunately, if you are an American, you can’t go.

You do have freedom of travel guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, of course. Just not freedom to travel to a few countries that our government doesn’t like. This restriction has been in place since the 1960s, and many attempts have been made in Congress to end the travel ban. Both houses have repeatedly voted in favor of freedom to travel, only to have the final bill changed, dropped or vetoed. So here we are in 2007, still wanting to visit our island neighbor, still prevented from doing so.

The restrictions are not just annoying and inconvenient, they are hostile and mean-spirited and affect most those many Cuban American families who long to be able to visit their relatives in Cuba. Under current U.S. policy (made more harsh recently by an act of the Bush administration), a Cuban American resident of the U.S. is only permitted to visit family in Cuba once every three years. And Cubans are often denied permission to visit the U.S. at all.

Many people each year choose to visit Cuba “illegally.” By routing through another country and pretending they didn’t go to Cuba, they try to avoid the threats of prosecution by the U.S. Treasury Department, which is in charge of maintaining the blockade against trade and travel. This is risky, but some, because they do not respect the law that inhibits freedom of travel, are willing to take the risks. Others, like the Pastors for Peace and Venceremos Brigade, openly travel to Cuba every year as a challenge to the blockade.

Pastors, a project of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, has been taking delegations to Cuba since 1992 as Friendshipment caravans. The principles of their project are as follows:

“The blockade is a violation of international law and of the most fundamental law of God. The blockade is the centerpiece of a policy that increases hunger and decreases health care for the Cuban people. It is our duty as global citizens and people of faith to oppose such a policy and to come to the aid of our Cuban brothers and sisters when requested. As such, the U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment is a moral imperative.

“The Friendshipment is inspired by people like Rosa Parks who refused to move to the rear of a segregated bus. Ms. Parks openly challenged an immoral and unjust law that was eventually overturned, in part because she was willing to put herself on the line for a moral principle. The blockade will end when enough people actively oppose it. By taking a moral stand and openly challenging the blockade, we challenge the U.S. administration to change this law and we educate thousands of people about the real meaning of the blockade.”

This year’s caravan began at the Canada/U.S. border in Coburn Gore, Maine, on June 30. In an attempt to bring humanitarian aid from Canadian citizens to Cuba, the Quebec Cuba Friendship Society found that their collected items were confiscated: a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference, a breast pump for maternity hospitals, some used eyeglasses, some hospital gowns. It is such an affront to the concept of friendship and human kindness that these items would be forbidden because they are destined for the people of Cuba. I witnessed the confiscation. I have contacted my congressman, Mike Michaud, about it and am still waiting for a response.

A few days later I joined the 2007 Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba in Texas, meeting up with U.S., Canadian and European citizens who are committed to ending the blockade against Cuba by exercising their right to be good neighbors — citizens of good will who do not recognize artificial walls erected to prevent brotherhood. In a people-to-people foreign policy, we intend to demonstrate that the power of love and cooperation will prevail, if enough of us are willing to insist on our humanity.

We knew we might receive the same hostile treatment as the Canadians with their simple gifts of friendship. And we could be harassed and impeded again upon our return to the United States on July 28. It is our urgent hope that others will recognize that we all have an inherent right to our acts of brotherhood and will join us in condemning the U.S. blockade against Cuba.

Judy Robbins is a Cuba solidarity activist in Maine.