In April, George Bush announced new measures to tighten the 44-year embargo on Cuba and hasten what he called "democratic change." In addition, the administration said it will increase enforcement and "sting operations" against "mules" who illegally carry money or supplies to Cuba. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) recently reduced the employees tracking terrorist financial networks, while doubling the number of agents tracking violators of the Cuban embargo, Felton said.
In defiance of the US-imposed travel ban, Felton, steering committee member of the Caribbean and Latin American Support Project, was one of about 200 hundred US citizens who traveled to Cuba with solidarity groups this summer, joining thousands of other from around the world.
Chanting "Who will break the travel ban? WE will break the travel ban," they returned from Cuba on July 19 over the International Peace Bridge that connects Fort Erie, Ontario, to Buffalo. Felton walked with members of the Venceremos (We Will Overcome) Brigade, and other national and international groups. This was the 35th year that the Venceremos Brigade has traveled to Cuba illegally. Pastors for Peace, who worked alongside the brigade in Cuba and re-entered the US through Mexico, has also refused to follow federal procedure since their first caravan to Cuba five years ago.
Pastors for Peace Executive Director Rev. Lucius Walker explains in a mission statement: "We oppose the Bush Administration's warlike actions towards Cuba and its relentless pursuit of "regime change" in Cuba - a country where people have free health care and education, where they do not suffer homelessness and hunger, and where racism is actively combated, and whose largest export to the poor countries of the world is medical assistance."
Office of Foreign Assets Control representative Molly Millerwise said the groups could have avoided charges simply by following OFAC rules, which included cutting their group down to three representatives, each of whom would have been required to apply for a license and provide their name and address to OFAC. In addition, they could only take authorized supplies to approved recipients. OFAC sent to the groups and posted on their Web site a Cuba travel warning that outlines civil, as well as criminal, penalties.
Felton called the license requirements a violation of constitutional rights and international law. "It is not in purveyance of our government to decide where we should be in the world," Felton said. Extra federal employees were brought in for the return of the caravans in Buffalo, he said, but the officers just went through the motions and seemed to think the law absurd. Officials at the Mexican border, however, did a more thorough job of detaining, searching, and confiscating.
Nora Hammond-Gallardo, a Cuban-American from Wallkill, traveled with Pastors for Peace and worked with Felton. She said supplies they delivered included X-ray and EKG machines, medicines, first aid supplies, dental chairs, bicycles, medical journals, and video/audio editing machines for radio.
She and Felton said they were received like heroes. Each day, they and other Americans watched from their bus windows as locals cheered and waved to them from the roadsides, having gathered there expressly to see the Americans who defied US federal law to help them. "The reception there was overwhelmingly emotional because it means so much to the Cuban people that there are citizens in the United States challenging US-Cuban policy," Felton said.
It is estimated that the Cuban economy has shrunk by as much as half since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, and as a result the most vulnerable Cubans are left without goods that, without the embargo, would otherwise be readily available. But it was not only tangible supplies the Americans brought that the Cubans cheered for, Felton said; it was also an opportunity to bring the truth back to the American people. But the message is not one the government or dissidents in Miami might have you believe, he said.
"There isn't a people in the world that is more determined to keep the US out of their business," Felton said. "They don't want the US to have anything to do with them. They want to solve their own problems in their own way. The modus operandi of the Cuban economic system is equality, and the Cuban people are very proud of that. They know more about what life is like here in the US than most Americans know what life is like in Cuba. Cuba is poison to capitalism because its successes have been an inspiration to other nations throughout the world, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a socialist democracy, Cuba represents the goals of progressives and revolutionaries throughout the world. It's the most prominent model for ending power and privilege that characterize corporate capitalism.
The greatest hope of the Cuban people - at least the ones we met - is that we will come back and tell the truth about Cuba, about their way of life, and their political and economic system. Because they live every day with the knowledge that the US citizenry is being conditioned through blatant lies and misconceptions so they'll accept a military action if it were ever to occur there."
Pastors for Peace communications director Lucia Bruno also fears the US could be planning military action. "There's a larger, more sinister set of plans that people are unaware of. The Bush Administration has put together a commission to write a report on re-establishing democracy in Cuba. It includes recommendations that touch on everything from restructuring the economy to the restructuring of social services and their delivery. We've heard there is language that says [the US] will make provisions to bring Cuban orphans to the US for adoption. There aren't a lot of orphans in Cuba now, so does that mean they're preparing for the possibility that there will be lots of Cuban orphans?"
Hammond-Gallardo said the Cubans she met also believe the US will attack. "They feel the US will attack. We went to a cigar factory and there was a bulletin board with photographs of atrocities by US soldiers against Iraqis."
But the sentiments of one taxi driver seemed to sum up the national attitude, Hammond-Gallardo said. "He said, 'they're going give us all guns and we're going to fight back.'"
To find out more about local Cuba solidarity efforts, call Ed Felton at (845) 416-0774 or e-mail [email protected]; for information on Pastors for Peace, call Lucia Bruno at (212) 926-5757 or e-mail [email protected]; for information on Venceremos Brigade, call (212) 560-4360 or e-mail [email protected].