HOUSTON – The 15th Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba stopped here on July 3 and was greeted by African drummers at the SHAPE Community Center. The caravan is a nonviolent, non-licensed protest of the travel restrictions against U.S. citizens and the hardships faced by the Cuban people due to the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, which has been in place since 1962.

Twenty-eight “caravanistas” came to Houston and later joined hundreds of others at the U.S. border with Mexico. The caravanistas are a diverse group and come from a variety of places, including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Canada, Denmark, England, Germany and Mexico. They range in age from 10 to 91 years. They are united in their displeasure with, and defiance of, the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba.

Sponsored by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace, the caravan is bringing 126 tons of humanitarian aid, such as hospital equipment, medical supplies, computers, bicycles, and school supplies to the Cuban people.

The Rev. Lucius Walker, IFCO’s executive director, said, “Our strength is derived from our willingness to follow our conscience in the face of efforts to make a cruel and inhumane blockade even more punitive. Our nation’s foreign policy is too important to leave to the exclusive domain of politicians. How we relate to our brothers and sisters in Cuba is not something I want President Bush or Colin Powell to be in charge of.”

The 120 caravanistas traveled along 13 routes and visited 127 cities, collecting aid and talking to community groups along the way. Fifteen vehicles, including 10 school buses, crossed the border at San Juan, Texas, and proceeded south to Tampico, Mexico, where the aid was shipped July 9 by boat to Cuba. The aid will be distributed by the Ecumenical Distribution Committee in Cuba. The caravanistas then flew to Cuba, defying the travel ban.

In Houston, supporters of the caravan attended a reception prior to its arrival. They viewed the award-winning documentary “Fidel” by Estela Bravo and participated in a potluck dinner. They gathered up medicines, medical and educational supplies donated by local people. A pickup truck was donated by a local person and it was quickly filled to capacity, with the surplus placed on board the other vehicles later in the day.

Upon the arrival of the caravanistas, people offered welcoming messages of solidarity. The program included speeches by local caravan spokespersons, the Rev. Tom Smith and Ellen Bernstein, and included remarks by Gloria Rubac of the Committee to Free the Cuban Five, the Rev. Mwalimu Fana of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Njeri Shakur of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Jessica Tanksley, a second-year medical student studying in Cuba.

In a recent move, travel restrictions have been tightened by the Bush administration, further limiting the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. The new restrictions also jeopardize a scholarship program offered to U.S. medical students by the Cuban government.

Scholarships are offered to U.S. students to attend the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana with the stipulation that upon graduation the new doctors will return to the U.S. to serve impoverished, underprivileged patients. The Bush administration’s new rules would severely penalize these students, most of whom are African American and Latino.

While the State Department, under mass pressure, has indicated that it may provide “temporary” exemption for the students from the new restrictions, supporters of the medical students are urged to call the department at (202) 647-4000 to express their support for a permanent end to U.S. interference with this program. Callers should insist that our medical students be exempt from U.S. Treasury licensing requirements for their travel to and study in Cuba because they are engaging in full-time study and incurring no expenses in Cuba.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.