By Leni Reeves
For more than 50 years, the United States has maintained a trade, economic and financial blockade against Cuba. We don’t trade with Cuba. We attempt to cut off their access to credit and normal international markets. Food and medicine and medical devices—heart valves, medication for children with cancer—are included in this. The plan is to pressure the Cubans into changing their government by causing suffering. The suffering has been real, most intensely during the Special Period of the 1990s. It hasn’t made the Cubans back down.
The response of IFCO Pastors for Peace was to organize Friendshipment Caravans to Cuba. These caravans bring aid, mostly medical equipment and supplies, which are a drop in the ocean of needs, but a sincere expression of solidarity. Solidarity isn’t charity, and it isn’t support. Support can be given and taken away. Solidarity is finding and acting on the goals and interests that we have in common.
As people of conscience, we travel to Cuba without a license as an act of civil disobedience. In doing so, we are calling attention to the U.S. blockade of Cuba, which uses denial of essentials like food and medicine as political weapons, and working to change that policy. We advocate a policy based on mutual respect, morality and justice, not domination and repression.
The Pastors for Peace Caravan is “people to people” and for me that has been true and important, not a slogan. On my first caravan, I went with the group to the Camilo Cienfuegos Museum in Yaguajay, and a group of veterans of the Cuban Revolution spoke to us there. I was delighted that one of them was a woman, Zaida Navarro Fernandez. We began a correspondence that became a friendship. My husband and I visited her and her family the following year, and I’ve been able to stay in touch and visit at least once a year since.
Zaida joined the Young Socialists when she was in her teens and was part of the Clandestine Struggle during the revolution—taking arms, supplies and information to the fighters in the mountains, while pretending to ride around visiting friends on other sugar plantations. This was desperately dangerous. Those who were caught were tortured and killed.
Shortly before the triumph of the revolution she was at the Central Narcisa (a central is a sugar plantation, with its processing plant), which had been captured by the revolutionary forces and was under attack by Batista’s army. Many families had taken refuge there, and people were hiding in the huge vat of the clarifier to shelter from gunfire. An airplane circled overhead for a bombing run, went around once, twice and then dropped its bomb on a field nearby where there were no people, making a huge crater; it would have wiped out the central and everybody in it.
After the victory of the revolution, this pilot was found and questioned, and he said that he had seen children’s clothing strung on the line outside the central and just couldn’t bring himself to bomb them. This shows, Zaida said to me, that you can sometimes find good people in every situation of life. She was not quite 21 when the revolution was won.
Before I come to Cuba, I write and ask what I should bring and she writes back that in Cuba they are used to doing without and that she doesn’t need a thing. She owns her home, there is electricity, and some food on the rations, though it’s not varied or interesting. In terms of consumer goods and choices, her life is incredibly sparse compared to mine. A substantial part of this is due to the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba. I think that it is wrong and wicked for your government and mine to try to starve and deprive my friend Zaida to force her to give up the revolution she helped make and is so proud of.
When I asked Zaida and other Yaguajay veterans of the revolution why they risked so much, they said, “Things were terrible here before the revolution. The plantations owned the land and they could just kick you out any time. There were no schools. There were just a few doctors for the rich, and people died all the time from diseases that could have been prevented or cured.”
Zaida didn’t have much, but she had the experience of helping create a revolutionary transformation of her country. On July 16, 2013, one day before I arrived in Cuba, Zaida died of cancer. She had had chemo and surgery and had fought it out; she really wanted to live.
Normally when we corresponded we would write about family and life events and so on. Her last letter was different. She wrote as follows:
About the revolution:
Everything is well, I’m not saying that it’s perfect since as you know even in revolutionary governments there are those who are really opposed and who try to do damage. Also, the CIA has its people here. In the early years this did affect us greatly; they did a lot of big things, so I don’t know how we were able to resist. But now what they do doesn’t really affect us, and as time goes on we keep getting stronger and more secure in what we have achieved. Every day there are more countries that have diplomatic relations with Cuba and all those who come here for the first time are enchanted with Cuba, which always tries to help countries in need with what little we have.
In the United Nations Assemblies of the last few years there are only 3 countries who vote against Cuba: the US, Israel, and another that I forget; eighty-something other countries vote in favor of Cuba and for ending the blockade, but the government of the US isn’t interested in truth or justice but only in taking over other countries with bombs from unmanned aircraft, using terrorists as an excuse to kill off people in those countries, whether they are children, women, or old people who have nothing to do with the affair of terrorism. They are just interested in accumulating more millions and not in the lives of human beings.
You know that because of the blockade they can’t sell anything to Cuba. But don’t be angry and upset by this because, as I’ve told you, we’ve been living like this for many years, with many unmet needs, so that it’s normal for us now—it’s been 50 years and we’ve adapted. They thought they would get rid of the revolution in this way but now they know that this is completely impossible. That we live happy and secure in what we have. Here no one has died of hunger or for lack of medical attention. All children go to school and are well cared for. There are no old beggars, for they are well cared for by the state. Over there it’s not like that.
When you get this letter I may be in the hospital since on the 21st (May) I’ll be going back to the oncology clinic for the first time since my operation. Greetings to Barry and your sons, and love from one who won’t forget you.—Zaida
Zaida’s daughter dressed her body in her Asociacion de Combatientes shirt and pinned her medals on because she continued to be part of the revolution in many different ways. Even in her 70s, she was a poll worker for every election; the revolution was central to her life.
Her funeral cost was zero. Her medical bills were zero. Her grandson’s wife graduated from medical school the week after Zaida’s death, and her education was free. The young doctor started her family right away; my godson Lian Carlos was born in February, and his mom is now taking the one-year maternity leave to which she is entitled.
As Zaida said, the revolution is not perfect, but it’s good enough to terrify those who want you to believe that the United States’ savage economic mess, environmental disasters and violence both within our country and directed at others is the only reality and the way things have to be. I would suggest that you try to find a way to see this other world that is possible and that you join me in trying to end the blockade of Cuba.
Leni Reeves is a local physician and activist. Contact her at email@example.com.