By Leni Reeves
It’s a good year for those who have wanted to go on a Pastors for Peace Caravan. There will still be optional U.S. bus routes—in Fresno on July 7, so please come see us off—but there is now no bus travel through Mexico.
You can fly to McAllen, Texas, of course. We’ll still work on the aid, which will go by truck to the docks at Tampico, Mexico, where volunteers from the Mexican dockworkers union will load it into cargo containers for shipment to Cuba. Meanwhile, we’ll cross the international bridge to Reynosa, Mexico, then fly to Mexico City, where members of the Cooperativa Acapotzingo will host us. This cooperative began more than 20 years ago as squatters on marginal land of Mexico City. Now they have built a safe, clean, well-organized community. Then we’ll fly to Cuba.
The Cubans are proud of their accomplishments and their culture; they want us to learn and they don’t want us to feel under-entertained, either. We’ll stay at church dorms in Havana in small but air-conditioned rooms. This is quite different from staying in a hotel and living in the tourist world as even the best tours do.
So why go on the caravan? It’s fun and inspiring. The people you meet are interesting, both Cubans and fellow caravanistas. I’ve made real friends and many friendly acquaintances among both Cubans and fellow caravanistas. I’ve learned a lot and not always what I expected to learn either. It’s a view of how a society not based on profit and consumption and exploitation might be put together. It’s a chance to try to mitigate the damage done by my government and to attempt to change the policies that harm people. We can break an unjust law—the blockade and travel ban—in order to expose its wrongness and get rid of it.
What do we do in Cuba? Here’s a brief look at a recent caravan:
In Havana, we started with a ceremony honoring Lucius Walker, who founded Pastors for Peace. Next we visited Parque Almendares. The Almendares River flows through Havana; this is one of the environmental projects that protect it. Engineers (women!) explained it, a group performed hip-hop songs about ecology in the park and there was an environmental art exhibit.
On Sunday, most of us went to church. Many people do not know that there are churches in Cuba, not discouraged and well-attended. In Cuba, you can meet dedicated communists who are also devout evangelical Christians. This sermon was about what constitutes a “rich” life, and the pastor got off a great line, “There are some people so poor all they have is money.’’ (Cuba’s also the only place I have ever met a gay woman Baptist pastor.)
Later we met students of, and went to conferences about, the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) and the Henry Reeve Brigade: Cuban doctors and ELAM graduates working overseas, especially in Haiti. (At the time, they were helping Ebola victims in West Africa.) A Dominican-American doctor, educated in Cuba, told of his experiences in Haiti, where the health system is so broken that many Haitian health workers have not been paid in months but still go on working out of dedication, seeing the desperate needs of the people. He married one of those dedicated nurses, whom he met saving the life of a child in shock from dehydration.
Somehow we also fit in an economics conference, a performance from a children’s dance troop and a conference with a staffer from the National Center for Sexual Education. He was remarkable for the aplomb with which he handled questions and for the concept LGBTH—heterosexual as another option to be included in the mix. Cuba went through a period in which the homophobia implicit in the culture was allowed to flourish, perhaps reinforced by Soviet-style ideas about revolutionary puritanism. The Cubans recognized that this was a great mistake, and there is now an active campaign against homophobia, promoting sexual rights as human rights.
The next day we went to the Frank Pais Orthopedic Hospital. We heard about the inspiring process of developing the hospital but also about some of the effects of the U.S. blockade. Any company with any U.S. affiliate can be prevented from trading with Cuba; this includes pharmaceutical companies. Any medical device with any component made by a company with a U.S. affiliate can be prohibited to be sold to Cuba. The blockade prevents medicines including antibiotics, pain meds and chemotherapy drugs, pacemakers, heart valves, surgical tools, MRI machines and even medical books from being traded freely to Cuba. I don’t like feeling responsible for a policy this cruel and immoral.
We also went to a conference with relatives of the Cuban Five. (They’re free now! We’re sure to meet at least one of them this year.)
Then we went to Santa Clara, first to Che’s monument and tomb. We visited the site of the crucial victory of Che’s forces against an armored train, Batista’s last big military push. On July 26, the holiday of the Cuban Revolution, some veterans of the revolution and a Congo volunteer spoke to us. They appear a pleasant ordinary bunch of middle-aged men, but under Che’s command they were part of one of the great historical people’s victories and they remain passionate about the revolution.
We visited Naturarte, a project that reclaimed a dumpsite, making art from reclaimed materials and re-creating a pleasant natural environment.
At a home for old women where I expected the usual depressing nursing home atmosphere, we were pleasantly surprised by a pleasant environment with even the most elderly residents mostly functioning well and enjoying life. We visited a large urban organic garden, where they do raised-bed vegetable gardening with compost fertilizer and integrated pest control management—a combination of barrier plants, beneficial insects and manual removal, along with manual weed removal— no Roundup here.
Back to Havana the next day, with a visit to Casa Africa to see art and cultural artifacts and for a conference about race. That’s 10 days in Cuba with a lot of stuff left out. There was definitely music and dancing. Are you inspired yet? Do you want to break and help end the blockade?
Leni Reeves is a physician, activist, guitarist and volunteer firefighter. Read about some of her Cuba experiences at www.usmdincuba.blogspot.com, and contact her at email@example.com.