U.S. groups challenge blockade of Cuba

The Pastors for Peace/U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan and the Venceremos Brigade are off once more to Cuba, the 17th time for the faith-based group led by the Rev. Lucius Walker and the 37th trip for the VB, which will undertake agricultural and construction work there.

The spirited and diverse groups are purposefully violating U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. In addition, Friendshipment organizers refuse to obtain the license required by the Treasury Department to bring humanitarian aid to the island. To comply with embargo regulations of any kind, they say, is to lend a hand to cruelty and illegalities.

A Pastors for Peace statement declares, “We reject the unconstitutional and immoral efforts to require a license for acts of common humanity. … We will challenge the unjust law and eventually change it.”

The groups are going ahead with their plans, undeterred by recent U.S. Treasury Department warning letters to 200 previous Cuba travel challengers that they may face stiff fines.

The Venceremos Brigade departs for Cuba on July 2, returning on July 17 to Buffalo, N.Y., just as the Friendshipment crosses back into the U.S. at McAllen, Texas.

The VB, a longstanding U.S.-based educational and Cuba solidarity group, will divide its time this year between the helping out at the Camilo Cienfuegos School near Bayamo in Eastern Cuba and the Julio Antonio Mella International Work Camp in Havana Province.

Pastors for Peace first brought donated supplies to Cuba in 1992, when the Cuban people were suffering after the fall of the Soviet bloc and tightening of the U.S. blockade. Since then, annual caravans have brought hundreds of thousands of tons of medical and education materials to Cuba in defiance of the U.S.-imposed blockade.

This year, on June 17-18 at four sites along the U.S.-Canada border, Canadian activists transferred aid material to Friendshipment vehicles about to set off for the South. In all, 13 separate caravans left from various points in the northern U.S. to converge in McAllen, Texas. Along the way, drivers and helpers met with supporters in 120 cities to share information and accept humanitarian donations.

Over 100 caravan participants will cross into Mexico on July 7, head for Tampico on the coast, transfer the supplies to a Cuban ship and then fly to Cuba.

Last year the U.S. government confiscated 45 boxes of computers and electronic materials destined for Cuban schools. In May, after a year of demonstrations in Washington, the U.S. government, faced with having to defend its case in court, relinquished the seized materials.

Direct action, as practiced by Friendshipment and the VB, acquires special relevance in view of legislative failures to end the U.S. blockade.

By a vote of 236-176 on June 14, the House of Representatives turned down an amendment to a Treasury funding bill that would have allowed U.S. students to study in Cuba. At the last minute, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), sensing almost certain defeat, withdrew an amendment that would have eased U.S. restrictions on religious travel to Cuba. As in years past, Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) perennial bill to legislate the whole embargo out of existence was defeated.

On the positive side, the House passed a measure reversing a cumbersome requirement imposed last year that U.S. food exporters have Cuba’s payments in hand before food shipments could be released to Havana. Congress was responding from pressure from U.S. agribusiness companies, who argue such trade is mutually beneficial.

In general, however, the U.S. blockade of the island remains in full force.

Sam Raina, the Canadian head of an association of 52 companies operating in Cuba, said that the U.S. Treasury Department recently ordered his Canadian bank to cancel his credit cards and other accounts because of his Cuba connections.

Raina told the Toronto Star, “There’s no bank in the world that would defy the U.S. Treasury. … This has all of a sudden become an issue because U.S. trade with Cuba is getting higher.” He pointed out that U.S. restrictions imposed on Canadian businesses are waived for U.S. competitors profiting from food sales to Cuba.