By Leni V. Reeves
We were about 100 people, mostly from Canada and the United States, later to be joined by about a dozen Mexican companeros, in 12 buses, traveling routes throughout Canada and the United States, visiting 130 cities picking up aid and participants and talking about our mission of solidarity with the Cuban people and defiance of the U.S. law prohibiting travel to Cuba.
Heat, hard work, long hours and difficulty at the borders were just what we expected, but the special challenge of this Caravan is that Pastors for Peace founder and leader Lucius Walker died shortly after the Caravan last year. It became clear that the organization is far more than even the best, most charismatic leader (just as the Cuban nation is) as this year’s Caravan delivered 100 tons of aid and masses of human solidarity to the docks of Tampico for shipment to Cuba.
The buses converged in McAllen, Texas, where we trained for nonviolent civil disobedience; unloaded, packed and invoiced, and reloaded all the aid; formed affinity groups and work teams; repaired buses; and learned about the Pastors for Peace and about Cuba. Kitchen teams worked about 16 hours a day in shifts, and security shifts we shared round the clock kept us and the buses safe from harm. If you are getting the idea that this is not a tropical vacation, well…
The border crossing from the United States to Mexico is a double-crossing, for the U.S. border authorities take a great interest in our exit, attempt to inspect our cargo and seize aid. This year, it was seven computers that were taken.
Then we enter Mexico, which had historically been noted only for meticulous inspection of our boxes and invoices, but where, in the past two years, Mexican border authorities, we suppose in cooperation with the U.S. government’s wishes, have been harassing the caravan by pretending to regard us as a commercial enterprise rather than as humanitarian aid, and requiring payments.
This year, our Mexican comrades helped organize a demonstration inside the office of the Border Supervisor. It seems the Caravan always wins by being more determined, more enduring and louder than the opposition. Onward we went, through Reynosa, and along the highway to Tampico, with a few pauses for bus repair. We loaded all the aid into shipping containers, ate dinner at 3 a.m., slept a few hours and got into a plane that landed us in Havana.
Our first event was a welcome at the Museo de Bellas Artes, where a curator took us through exhibits of Cuban art of the last five decades. The flourishing of culture during the years since the revolution is impressive, as is the fact that there’s no “socialist realism” here—content and styles are wildly varied.
Next, in Havana, is an event that every year moves me to tears: the graduation of the Latin American School of Medicine. These students, who come from all over the world, including the United States, study medicine for six years with plans to return to their own communities to practice medicine for poor people for the rest of their careers and actually carry out these plans. In Cuba, they learn not only family, community and disaster medicine but also internationalism, practical idealism and cooperation.
On Sunday, most of us, even the atheists, went to church. I went to Ebenezer Baptist, part of the Martin Luther King Center in Marianao, a working-class section of Havana, where we were received with enormous warmth. Cubans kiss each other on the cheek in greeting and my cheeks were thoroughly kissed.
The early days of the revolution were anti-religious, in part because the Catholic Church then served as a counterrevolutionary center. Both the church and the revolution have changed; the church no longer works against the Cuban people and there is no government hostility toward religion at all. It is interesting and unique to Cuba to meet devout evangelicals who are also devout Communists.
We then went in three groups to different provinces. I went to Pinar del Rio, to a rural area where we helped transplant 500 banana trees; played volleyball, chess, soccer and swam with our Cuban companeros; had interactive meetings with youth groups and Federation of Cuban Women members including an elderly woman who was blind in one eye from a childhood injury for which no medical care was then obtainable, and who was not shy about telling us her life and opinions; learned about the formation of Cuban militias to combat counterrevolutionary violence and met the last surviving member of the first self-organized group; celebrated July 26 at a small but lively settlement; toured a cave; and petted a one-ton water buffalo—as strong as a tractor and spare parts are not a problem. This was especially notable as the mechanics in our group were helping the Cubans repair a tractor for which the Soviet parts were unobtainable.
Returning to Havana, we visited the Latin American School of Medicine and the Center for Biotechnology. The Cuban medical system needs its own article, which I’ll try to provide soon.
We went to conferences about youth in education and medicine, about U.S.-Cuban relations, about gender and family issues, and about the Cuban economy and planned changes—a planning process that involved almost the entire adult Cuban population. We saw musical performances. We went to events honoring Lucius Walker who is a great hero in Cuba as he is to all of us who knew him. We went to Casa Africa for discussion of race and racism and were shown art and religious artifacts.
Again this year, we met with relatives of the five Cuban heroes who are imprisoned in the United States after they attempted to investigate Miami-based anti-Cuban terrorism. They are known in the United States as the Cuban 5. This is another subject that needs its own article—coming soon.
I missed the last big event—honoring Lucius Walker—because a Caravanista needed emergency medical care. Details in the Cuban medical system article!
We flew back to Tampico, rolled through Mexico and re-crossed the border. After a few hours of U.S. border official harassment of one Caravanista, a former political prisoner, we all returned to the United States. Our seized computers were then returned and we turned right around and we walked them back across the international bridge into the arms of our Mexican companeros who will get them to Tampico in time to ship with the rest of the aid. The Cubans will never give up and neither will we. A better world is possible.
Aqui nadie se rinde. Un mundo mejor es posible.
Leni Reeves is a local physician and activist. Contact her at email@example.com.