Photo of Plaza de Armas, Havana by Pedro Szekely via Flickr Creative Commons

21st Cuba Caravan Packs a Few Surprises

Editor’s Note: Gerry Bill recently returned from the 2010 Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba, his fourth such caravan in as many years. These are his observations of this year’s events.

By Gerry Bill

You might guess that after having organized 20 humanitarian aid caravans to Cuba, Pastors for Peace might be able to make the 21st caravan come off pretty smoothly. Well, your guess would be right. Despite numerous unforeseen twists and turns, the 21st U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment was completed successfully this past August 3.

More than 100 caravanistas from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Britain, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic carried more than 100 tons of aid to our island neighbor. Aid included medical equipment and supplies, books, school supplies and construction supplies.

There is no surprise in any of that, but there were quite a few surprises for the caravan this year—both good ones and bad ones.

The Pastors for Peace caravan to Cuba was in Fresno this summer to pick up passengers and material aid.

The Computer Shell Game
Every year for the past several years, U.S. border agents have hassled us about the computers we take to Cuba. Almost every year they “detain” some symbolic number of computers. Out of the dozens of computers we were bringing as aid this year, the customs agents detained five of them. There was, however, a new and unexpected twist.

After unloading about 20 computers from our trucks and buses, the customs officials put back all but five of them. We had never before seen customs officers unload and then reload computers. They even offered an explanation for this seemingly capricious action—the five that they detained were quite new and had state-of-the-art processors. That was a reason that almost made some kind of sense to us. Perhaps this is a sign of progress. They used to tell us that we could not take any type of computer to Cuba; now it is apparently okay to bring obsolete computers to Cuba.

All of this is a pretty silly shell game anyway. Every one of the detained computers will eventually make its way to Cuba. The computers are returned to our custody when we reenter the United States at the end of the caravan. Pastors for Peace can then either send them on to Cuba via our Mexican companeros, or it can save them for next year’s caravan. Despite the fact that all of the aid we deliver on the caravans is technically illegal, the U.S. government has never succeeded in permanently blocking any item of aid from eventually getting through to its destination.

Silly as it all seems, I must admit that I did enjoy watching the customs officers sweating in the hot sun as they tried to put back onto our vehicles the older-model computers that they had removed just a few minutes earlier. A few of the officers looked like they could use the exercise, so we decided not to deprive them of that opportunity.

Fresno City College student Josie Gonzalez was among a group of about 60 people who meet in a small room with Fidel Castro.

A Troubling Surprise at the Border
This year’s caravan encountered a new problem with the border crossing as we went from the United States into Mexico. Usually, it is the U.S. exit customs agents who give us a hard time; this year, however, it was the Mexican officials who put the biggest roadblocks in our way.

The day before our scheduled crossing, as we were consolidating the aid that had been collected on the 13 caravan routes that crisscrossed the continent, word reached us that a new fee was going to be imposed on the vehicles carrying the aid. The fee would be more than $1,000 per vehicle, or more than $12,000 for the entire caravan. There was no money in the budget to pay such a fee, and the Pastors for Peace attorneys doubted that there was even a legal basis for charging the fee.

Negotiations began, and the caravan was put in suspense for a while; we were not going to proceed under those conditions. Somehow, during the negotiations, the per vehicle fee morphed into a per person fee of $25 per caravanista, which would come to a little more than $2,000. That was an improvement, but it still sounded to the Pastors for Peace leadership rather like a bribe. As our leader, the Rev. Lucius Walker, said, “Pastors for Peace does not pay bribes—it never has and it never will.”

The legal basis for the $25 per person fee also seemed suspect, so the negotiations continued. As of the morning of July 21, the date of our crossing, the position of the Mexican government was still a bit murky. Some officials seemed to be saying that the fee would not be charged, and others said that it would be charged.

We headed to the border anyway. We got through U.S. exit customs with little difficulty, save the five detained computers. Mexican customs went fairly smoothly also; they had us partially unload our vehicles so that their dogs could get close enough to sniff every box. Of course, the dogs found no contraband, and we were allowed to reload the vehicles.

At that point, we still were not free to go. Before proceeding into Mexico we would all need visas from the immigration office, and the office was insisting on the $25 per person fee. We filled the Mexican immigration office with caravanistas, with many more waiting on the steps outside the office. We refused to pay the fee. Instead, we just stayed there. This went on for about five hours. After a while, some of us were sitting instead of standing. Eventually, many of us were lying down on the pavement outside the office and taking naps. It must have become clear to the Mexican officials that we were not going to pay the fee and we were not going away. Eventually, they caved in and let us through with no fee. It made for a long day, but we felt like we had achieved a small victory.

Who is behind this new form of harassment?
Why did the Mexican officials throw this new roadblock at us? No one seems to know for sure. There are two prevailing theories. One theory is that this was indeed an attempt to extort a bribe and that some officials somewhere were going to be lining their pockets with any fee we paid.

The other theory is that the U.S. government leaned on the Mexicans to become proxy troublemakers. It might have looked bad to Obama’s supporters if the United States were to be the ones blatantly harassing the caravan; if they could get the Mexicans to do it instead it might derail the caravan effort without making the Obama administration look bad.

The whole thing bore some resemblance to a good cop/bad cop routine, with the United States playing the role of good cop for a change. We may never know the real intentions behind this move. As for the caravan, it seems to have dodged the bullet for this year, at least. We are not at all sure what to expect from the Mexicans in the future. We are all hoping that this year was a fluke and that it will not be repeated in the years to come.

Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr. (Center), executive director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) and Pastors for Peace participated in the graduation of U.S. students at the Cuban Medical School.

Some Nice Surprises in Cuba
Not all of the surprises this year were troubling ones. Some unexpected but rather nice things happened to us this year when we were in Cuba.

The national holiday that commemorates the start of the Cuban Revolution falls on July 26. The caravan is usually in Cuba on that date, and on that occasion we get to participate in some small, local celebrations. There is also always a large national celebration that is typically presided over by the president of the country, and that celebration is held in a different province every year. As luck would have it, this year the celebration was being held in Villa Clara Province, which was where a third of our group was going to be staying at the time. I was part of that fortunate group of caravanistas, and I, along with the others, was invited to attend the national celebration.

There were about 90,000 people assembled for the event in the large plaza outside the Che Guevara Memorial and Mausoleum. The celebration itself was presided over in part by Cuban President Raul Castro. There were 35 or so of us caravanistas all bunched together within that huge crowd. At one point, Caravan 21 was recognized by the speaker; we stood up for the TV cameras, wearing our matching blue caravan t-shirts. It was an honor to be invited to the event and an even bigger honor to be recognized by the speaker. To those of us on the caravan, it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The remaining caravanistas were in other provinces at the time of the celebration, and about 15 of them received a very special invitation indeed—an invitation to meet with Fidel Castro on the morning of July 26. The caravanistas, including Fresno City College student Josie Gonzalez, were among a group of about 60 people who met in a small room with Fidel. He shared some of his thoughts and took questions from the audience. The event was televised and broadcast later that day, so those of us not in the room with Fidel eventually got to see our friends in attendance at the event.

The fact that Fidel would appear on television at all was a bit of a surprise and is a sign that he is getting stronger following his earlier illness and surgery. The fact that Lucius Walker and 15 caravanistas were included to this event was a huge surprise to everyone on the caravan and a pleasant one at that. What an honor.

Cuban family and caravan participant in Havana.

Back to the United States
Our return to the United States had only some minor hiccups. Our flight from Havana to Tampico, Mexico, was delayed several hours by Mexican airport officials. The caravan is nothing if not flexible, so we found a way to cope with that inconvenience.

Another inconvenience occurred at the U.S. border. A change in regulations made it impossible for our return buses, which are empty of passengers but full of our luggage, to cross at the usual point. The typical procedure for us is that all the caravanistas get off the buses and walk across the pedestrian bridge into the United States. Normally, the buses cross on a parallel bridge so that we have our luggage with us when it is time for us to go through customs.

Our buses were instead directed to another crossing point several miles away. The result was that while the caravanistas were at one border crossing dealing with the U.S. immigration officers, our bags were at an entirely different border crossing awaiting customs inspection. U.S. officials could have used that mix-up to further delay and hassle us. However, they seem to have bent some rules and expedited the processing of our luggage by simply x-raying the bags; we did not even have to be next to our bags to open them for inspection, as no follow-up inspection was done. This actually made the process easier for us.

Is this easy return border crossing a sign of a new openness and flexibility on the part of the Obama administration? We would like to think so; in fact, we would like to think that the administration is open to ending the immoral and unjust blockade of tiny Cuba.

The blockade is nearly 50 years old, and it has not accomplished its stated goal of bringing an end to Communist rule in the country. The blockade makes no sense in today’s world, if it ever did. Changing these outdated policies is exactly the kind of openness that we would hope to see from our government. Meanwhile, we can be thankful that the Obama administration is at least not trying to make things even more difficult for us at the border. Perhaps we should be grateful for small favors.

Success Number 21
The 21st Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba has to be judged a success. We broke the blockade in an open and defiant act of civil disobedience, and our government seems to have simply looked the other way. We also broke the travel ban and took many new people to Cuba to see the success of the Cuban Revolution. We engaged in a vibrant exchange of ideas with our brothers and sisters in Cuba, and we have brought new ideas with us back into the United States.

The Cubans refer to the struggle between our two nations as a battle of ideas, and it is a battle that they believe they are winning. No blockade or travel ban is ever going to stop revolutionary ideas from seeping out of Cuba and into the minds of peoples all around the world. The more people who go to Cuba and see for themselves socialism at work, the more these ideas will spread. The caravans are a small part of that process.

To join Caravan 22 in 2011, contact Gerry Bill at gerry.bill@gmail.com.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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