BUFFALO, N.Y. – After visiting Cuba for two weeks, 60 members of the 36th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade trekked across the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River Aug. 1 and presented themselves to U.S. border officials in Buffalo, N.Y. Never having sought approval or licenses to travel to Cuba, they were openly defying U.S. regulations in place for decades that restrict travel to the island. The Bush administration has recently tightened such restrictions.

Canadian-based Cuba solidarity groups staged an 8 a.m. send-off for the group on the Fort Erie side of the river. Peter Kormos, delegate to the Ontario Legislature representing the New Democratic Party, reminded brigade members that they are not alone, that they are part of a long struggle in support of Cuba. The international fight for the application of law and morality to relations with Cuba will continue, he said, and theirs will not be the last crossing.

Brigade leader Tshaka Barrows said his group stands for the right of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, learn about Cuban society and lend support to the people there. The public challenge to the travel ban is but one manifestation of the group’s opposition to the U.S. blockade and other forms of anti-Cuban aggression.

Brigade members know that, under U.S. Treasury Department regulations, they risk incurring individual fines of $7,500. A few of the returnees experienced harassment from U.S. border officials. Most of them, however, entered without incident even though they refused to answer all but the most routine questions put to them by customs officials. None of the goods they brought back were confiscated. Local peace activists in Buffalo put on a welcoming demonstration and festivities after the group cleared U.S. customs.

Two other delegations visiting Cuba, the U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange and a Seattle-based U.S. women’s group, joined the Venceremos Brigade to re-enter the United States. The same day 120 people traveling with the 16th Pastors for Peace Friendshipment campaign crossed into the United States at McAllen, Texas.

The Venceremos Brigade this year was remarkable for its ethnic diversity and wide geographical representation. Women made up more than half of the delegation, and most of the travelers were young people. Joining with Cuban workers, the U.S. visitors spent a week refurbishing schools in Havana province, one of which was being converted from a country boarding school into a teacher training college.

At various meetings, they heard from leaders of the Cuban trade union federation, the Union of Young Communists, veterans of Cuba’s internationalist projects and representatives of the Federation of Cuban women, who discussed both sex education in Cuba and the country’s anti-AIDS campaign.

The Venceremos Brigade and the Friendshipment delegation met July 30 with family members of the five Cuban men imprisoned unjustly in U.S. jails. Joining the session was National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, who said the rights denied the five prisoners constitute infringements on the individual liberties of all U.S. citizens. Prisoners René González and Antonio Guerrero are U.S. citizens.

The night before the Brigade returned to the United States, the Toronto Steelworkers union, representing 18,000 workers, provided food, a place to sleep and solidarity. The guests learned that not only is the union active in behalf of Cuba, but is is also providing support for 12 U.S. refugees who are refusing to fight in Iraq, several of whom have already served there.