Faith-Based Group Challenges Cuban Embargo, One Humanitarian Trip At A Time
By Martin Michaels in MintPress News
For the 24th consecutive year, Pastors for Peace, a faith-based organization with headquarters in New York, is in Cuba delivering humanitarian aid and defying a 51-year-old embargo on virtually all forms of U.S. aid and travel to the island. It continues a decades-long tradition by thousands of Americans who have challenged the travel ban and ongoing embargo by participating in organized trips through Pastors for Peace and other organizations like the Venceremos Brigade. This year, there is a special focus on delivering aid to Santiago de Cuba, an area of Cuba hit particularly hard by Hurricane Sandy.
Pastors for Peace: Americans challenge the blockade
Americans have been quietly going to Cuba ever since the travel ban was imposed, routing their flight first through Canada, Mexico or another nearby country. Most keep quiet about their foray to the island 90 miles off of Florida, since the U.S. government has penalized travelers in recent years for visiting. This isn’t the case with Pastors for Peace’s caravan participants, or “caravanistas,” who make clear that they reject licensed travel to Cuba and claim that as Americans and people of faith, they should be able to go to the island and deliver aid without the encumbrance of first obtaining permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. “Every time the U.S. Treasury Department backs down in the face of our challenge, and allows one of our caravans to cross the border with unlicensed aid for Cuba, we know that our message is being heard at the highest level in Washington,” Pastors for Peace declares.
Emily Thomas, a volunteer for Pastors for Peace who has been going to Cuba since 1978, began working for the group in 1993, the second year that caravanistas went to Cuba. “The first time they went down, they were taking bibles to Cuba. The U.S Treasury Dept. didn’t want to let that happen and CNN filmed it and that was the beginning of the caravan,” said Thomas in a statement to Mint Press News.
For the founders of the movement, it is about transforming what they believe is an antagonistic U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Rev. Lucius Walker saw the effect firsthand when he went on a humanitarian fact-finding trip to Nicaragua in 1988. “I was on a ferry boat which was attacked by Contras and I was wounded and realized that my taxes payed for the bullet which shot me. I was outraged, I was morally indignant. The response was to create an alternative to U.S. policy in the region — to give humanitarian aid, to build solidarity, friendships, relationships with people rather than buy into the mean spirited, hostile policy of our own government which destroys life,” Walker said in 2009.
The mission has grown considerably since that then, as hundreds have gone each year by traveling to Mexico and then working with local groups to load aid ships bound for Cuba. Everything from computers, medicine and school supplies is collected and transported across the U.S-Mexico border. Technically, Americans can travel legally to Cuba with a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department. By obtaining a “people to people” license, thousands of students, religious leaders and humanitarian volunteers have traveled to the island since President Obama began loosening travel restrictions.
There are now travel companies like Insight Cuba, which legally brings thousands of Americans to Cuba on trips sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. It is an option that has increased during President Obama’s time in office, with major breakthroughs in 2009, when the president announced that Cuban-Americans could freely travel to the island and send money to family members. For members of the caravan, it’s also about highlighting what they say are harmful effects of the unilateral U.S. blockade. This year, there is an emphasis on bringing aid to residents in Santiago de Cuba, an area hit particularly hard by Hurricane Sandy.
Indeed, a majority of United Nations member states believe that the U.S. blockade is illegal under international law and constitutes a form of collective punishment against the island’s 11 million inhabitants. “The U.S. policy towards Cuba is immoral and illegal by international law,” Thomas said. According to The Hill, the U.N. General Assembly voted last year to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba for the 21st year in a landslide 188-3 vote. The only countries in opposition to the condemnation were the U.S., Israel and Palau. “As we have said in the past, if there’s a U.S. law that says I can’t take aid to my sisters and brothers then my God, my moral principles, my values say that I need to change that law,” Thomas said.
Minneapolis resident Marcy Shapiro has traveled to Cuba several times with Pastors for Peace. She notes that there is a dearth of basic supplies, including building materials and school supplies that Americans would find in abundance at any major store in the US. “Because of the embargo Cuba can’t buy a lot of goods and so what Pastors for Peace does is that they bring in a lot of goods that have been donated. It’s kind of amazing that they can’t even get some basic school supplies because they are manufactured in the U.S. or they may be manufactured someplace else but are unavailable because of the embargo,” Shapiro.
This is caused by a U.S. policy that bans not just U.S. companies from selling goods in Cuba, but also any international company that does so. If a company outside the U.S. decides to sell goods to Cuba, the U.S. government will then forbid that company from selling goods to the U.S.
Although Cuba boasts universal health care and basic education, the country has struggled to fill the hole left in its trade activities when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Without Soviet support, Cuba fell into a major economic crisis marked by fuel shortages, food rations and a dramatic decline in exports as well as imports.
The country began to recover by strengthening ties with Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez from 1999-2013. Venezuela increased oil exports to Cuba to 100,000 barrels per day, offering preferential pricing in exchange for medical assistance from Cuba’s doctors. There are now roughly 30,000 Cuban medical professionals working in Venezuela. “The market of the U.S. is so much bigger so obviously they are going to go for selling goods here in the U.S.,” Shapiro said. “I know people who work in education who don’t have enough pens, enough notebooks, basic things we take for granted that they can’t buy. They can’t get oil-based paints for painting houses.”
What does the future hold?
So what does the future hold? There have been some noticeable but mostly cosmetic changes over the years when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations. Perhaps the biggest change has come in the hearts and minds of the average Americans, who increasingly see the merits of re-establishing diplomatic and economic ties with the island more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to an Angus Reid national poll conducted last year, 62 percent of Americans now agree with the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Just over half say it is time to lift the trade embargo.
“Obviously policy has changed, hopefully because of our work. I’ve been going to Cuba since Jimmy Carter and then Reagan and then Bush. Policy has changed and the policy about how it has enforced has changed. Our goal is that there is open and free travel and trade between the U.S. and Cuba, that there is a mutually respectful foreign policy as we have with other friendly countries,” Thomas said.
Shapiro told Mint Press News that she believes that changing the discourse is not just making a case for humanitarian aid for the Cuban people, but also showing how lifting the blockade will help the U.S., as well. “I think that the embargo is not only harmful for Cuba, but it is also harmful for the U.S. The blockade has really gotten in the way of our understanding of Cuba, our ability to trade with Cuba, our ability to share information. The U.S. loses out on some of the healthcare and scientific research that Cuba does and in the same way Cuba loses out on what the U.S. is doing,” Shapiro said.
What are the major barriers? The U.S. government still sees Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and remains firmly entrenched in policies driven by a Cold War opposition to government’s alignment with the Soviet Union. There are major barriers regarding the release of political prisoners on both sides, including a group of Cubans known as the “Cuban 5.” Five Cuban intelligence officers thwarted a terrorist plot hatched in Cuba against their country. They were arrested and charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit murder in 1998. Cuba sees their incarceration as an unacceptable, politically motivated move and has demanded their immediate release.
Conversely, Cuba continues to hold Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who was arrested for espionage in 2009 and charged with “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state” in March 2011. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence.
The U.S. maintains a section in the Swiss embassy to Cuba but has not had formal diplomatic relations with the island nation for over 50 years. During a public address last year, Cuban President Raul Castro said that he is willing to sit at the table with Washington to discuss any issue, as long as “it is a conversation between equals.” “Any day they want, the table is set,” Castro said.
Editor’s Note: Cuban Intelligence targeting of PFP has been covered in previous posts. Additionally, the author of this story previously worked for Occupy Wall Street.