US Economic Blockade Against Cuba Broken


In the United States, knowledge about the inner workings of Cuba is scarce, and what is available is muddled by propaganda from the U.S. government or Cuban-Americans in Florida who oppose the Castro regime. Coupled with the U.S. travel ban against Cuba and the limited opportunities for Cubans to travel to the United States, there is a lack of information exchange and dialogue between the peoples of the two countries that is not tainted by the agendas of the governments on both sides.

In addition to the travel ban, which was instituted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the United States continues to impose the 47-year-old embargo against Cuba, which affects commerce and financial transactions between the two countries. It is in the spirit of breaking the travel ban and economic blockade that the New York City-based organization Pastors for Peace organizes an annual solidarity Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba. This year I had the opportunity to participate in the 20th caravan, which took place from July 3 to August 3 and brought a group of 130 people of all ages and races, from mainly the United States, but also individuals from Canada, Mexico and Europe.

The 2009 caravan was comprised of 14 different routes that made their way from Canada, the East and West Coasts, through the Midwest and South. Stopping in 140 cities and towns along the way, the Caravan featured speaking events at every site to educate the public about the history and purpose of the Caravan, the effects of the blockade, the U.S. imprisonment of five Cuban political prisoners known as the Cuban 5, and other issues surrounding the U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Because Pastors for Peace sees the travel ban and economic blockade against Cuba as immoral, unethical and mean-spirited, the organization does not seek a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to travel to the island. Every year, after traveling through Canada and the United States, the caravan routes converge in Texas. From there, the group crosses into Mexico with the humanitarian aid that has been collected from churches and organizations in Canada and the United States. Once in Mexico, the aid is loaded by the caravanistas onto cargo containers and is shipped out of the port to Cuba. The caravanistas then fly to Cuba where they spend 10 days learning about various sectors of Cuban society and meeting with different groups, including Cuban government officials, hospital directors, revolutionaries from 1959, farmers both urban and rural, and artists. The trip is done in open defiance of the U.S. government and their policies toward Cuba. As a result of their years of Cuban solidarity work, the organization was investigated by the Treasury Department in 1998 and an 80-page "Pastors for Peace Intervention Plan" was devised.

In the early years of the caravan, border crossings from the United States into Mexico were met with arrests and confiscations of aid by U.S. Customs officials. During the first six Friendshipment Caravans, the participants faced harsh repression at the border. Initially, both the aid and vehicles were confiscated, and caravanistas were arrested. When this occurred during the 1993 border crossing, the Pastors for Peace mounted a non-violent campaign to demand the return of the aid. They held a 23-day hunger strike aboard one of the little school buses in Laredo Texas until the demands of the group were met. Then, in 1996, Treasury Department officials seized 400 computers that were intended to develop a medical information network in Cuba. A 93-day fast ultimately won the release of those computers.

Arrests are not as typical now, however, aid continues to be confiscated. Computers are especially desired by the customs officials as they claim the computers could contain information or be used to threaten U.S. national security. This year's caravan had two computers seized by customs officials, but others were allowed to pass. It seems the seizure had little purpose other than to exercise the power and authority of the U.S. government.

Despite investigation by the government and harassment by U.S. Customs and anti-Castro extremists, the Caravan has continued every year, bringing much needed humanitarian aid to the island and bringing hundreds of Americans to see Cuba firsthand.

This was one of my goals for the trip to Cuba, as it was my first visit to the island, just as it was for 60 percent of the other caravanistas. This year's trip was particularly relevant, as Cuba celebrates the 50th anniversary of their revolution and the overthrow of the Batista regime by Fidel Castro.

The 2009 caravan converged in Texas on July 18. The next few days were spent organizing and labeling the humanitarian aid to ensure it would meet the U.S. Customs' guidelines, learning about the upcoming trip, and painting the school busses that serve as the caravan vehicles and are eventually donated to organizations in Cuba. Counting the vehicles, 115 tons of humanitarian aid were destined for Cuba this summer, including bikes, medicines, computers, tools, construction materials, sports equipment, light fixtures, educational materials, paint, and much needed medical supplies such as crutches, walkers and wheelchairs.

During the orientation in Texas, we were given a history lesson to understand the impacts of the blockade and its changes throughout different administrations.

A partial embargo, first introduced by President Eisenhower in 1960, did not affect the exchange of food and medicine. Later in September of 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act passed in the U.S. Congress. It prohibited aid to Cuba and authorized the President to create a "total embargo upon all trade" with Cuba. To this day, the embargo continues to be the longest running in modern history.

Author Louis A. Perez, Jr., in his book Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, described the impact of the embargo:

"The U.S. trade embargo after 1961 had jolting effects. By the early 1960s, conditions in many industries had become critical due to the lack of replacement parts. Virtually all industrial structures were dependent on supplies and parts now denied to Cuba. Many plants were paralyzed. Havoc followed. Transportation was especially hard hit: the ministry was reporting more than seven thousand breakdowns a month. Nearly one-quarter of all buses were inoperable by the end of 1961. One-half of the 1,400 passenger rail cars were out of service in 1962. Almost three-quarters of the Caterpillar tractors stood idle due to a lack of replacement parts."

Over the next few years, the stipulations of the blockade would come to expand and encroach upon other countries' abilities to trade with Cuba.

President Kennedy enacted many of the more restrictive elements of the embargo in 1962. During that year, he expanded upon the partial trade embargo initiated by Eisenhower to include all trade with Cuba, except for non-subsidized sale of foods and medicines. He also banned the import of all goods from Cuba and goods made by and exported from other countries that used any Cuban materials in their making. Also during this year, the Foreign Assistance Act was amended to prohibit aid to any country that provided assistance to Cuba. Finally, the United States stipulated that it is illegal to transport U.S. goods on ships owned by companies that trade with Cuba.

As these measures were put into effect, it became apparent that the United States was trying to starve the Castro regime and promote a collapse of the communist system by economically strangling the small island nation.

In 1963, it became illegal for American citizens to travel to or make financial transactions with Cuba.

During a short window of time during the Carter administration, the travel ban was lifted. Cuban-Americans were allowed to send money home to their relatives and were also allowed to visit the island. However, when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, he reinstated the travel ban.

The poorly named "Cuban Democracy Act" of 1992, which was introduced by U.S. Congressman Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, brought about some of the harshest restrictions against Cuba since the inception of the embargo. It banned Cuban Americans from sending remittances to family members and solidified the restrictions against foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. At the time of the law, 70 percent of Cuba's trade with U.S. subsidiaries was in food and medicine. A final piece of the legislation stated that Americans who traveled to Cuba illegally could be penalized with a $55,000 fine. To date, this fine has never been applied.

Since 1992, the United Nations general assembly has consistently passed a non-binding resolution calling for the United States to immediately end its embargo against Cuba. In 2008, there were only three dissenting votes, including those of the United States, Israel and Palau. While many Americans may not have a thorough understanding of the blockade and its impacts, the Cuban people are extraordinarily aware of the daily realities of living under the 47-year-old embargo.

Despite the blockade, from the 1960s onward, Cuba was able to develop trade with the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Overnight, Cuba lost 80 percent of its trade, and the country was suddenly faced with shortages of food, oil and basic services such as power and transportation. This lead to some of the bleakest moments for the Cuban people since the 1959 revolution. A complete reorganization of the country's production and distribution of food, energy and other resources was required. Visiting Cuba 18 years later, it is possible to see some of the programs that were born out of this time known as "the Special Period."

In the early '90s in Havana and across the country, there was an immediate need for Cubans to increase their own food production. Idle lands in urban areas, including some that were used as trash lots, were transformed into gardens to grow food to feed the local population. During this year's Pastors for Peace Caravan, we had a chance to visit one such urban garden called Organoponico la Sazon in the Plaza municipality of Havana.

The project was founded in 1993 by the Cuban government, and the work is lead by local residents of the neighborhoods, including a campesino from the countryside and several women who have degrees in agronomy. They grow mainly green vegetables such as lettuce, radish, spinach, chards, garlic, onion, string beans and oregano. The government sets the annual production yield of the farm, and it currently stands at 28 tons every year. As of late July, they had achieved 142 percent of their output plan.

As they are able to grow food year round, they also grow celery, cilantro and parsley during the winter months. All of the produce is sold directly to the neighborhood at cheap prices at a nearby produce stand. The close proximity of the farm stand ensures that the food does not need to travel far to reach its consumers and that the local residents do not need to travel far to obtain fresh organic produce.

The workers of the farm receive a stipend each month. At the end of the month, after expenses and the stipend pay, 85 percent of the profit is distributed among the workers and the remaining 15 percent goes to the cooperative fund to further the project.

Organic gardens similar to Organoponico la Sazon can be found across the country and in other parts of Havana, and the output of these farms supplies all of the green vegetables to the residents of Havana. Projects such as this are one small example of how Cuba has organized its system to counteract the effects of the blockade.

Another notable difference between the Cuban and U.S. governments that we observed was the response of Cuba to the devastating effects of hurricanes, which often sweep across the Caribbean island. Caravanistas visited the province of Pinar del Rio, which is a more rural area located to the west of Havana. Of Cuba's 14 provinces, this was the most affected by two major hurricanes in 2008 - Gustav and Ike - which hit the area on Aug. 30, and Sept. 9.

As a result of these two storms, over 97,000 homes were affected last September. Additionally, 15,900 homes still needed repairs from previous storms. The number of houses that needed work totaled nearly 50 percent of all of the housing in the Pinar del Rio province. As of July 2009, 37.5 percent of those 113,000 homes had been repaired or restored. Furthermore, 1,100 organic gardens and intensive farms were damaged by Gustav and Ike. Eleven months later, 100 percent have been recuperated. Despite the fact that Hurricane Gustav hit the island just before the first day of school on Sept. 1, the majority of the schools were restored and schools re-opened on Sept. 15. To date, 80 percent of the 567 schools in the province have been recovered.

It is also important to note that no lives were lost during these hurricanes and that the government was able to evacuate about 1/4 of the population in the case of both storms. Evacuees typically go to the homes of relatives and neighbors, and a small percentage is sent to shelters that have already been constructed for exactly these scenarios. Although some people do continue to live in the houses of relatives, it is a tiny fraction of the population.

Hearing about the relief efforts of the Cuban government provided a stark contrast to the work done by the U.S. government in response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

Learning about the Cuban system for dealing with tropical storms was inspirational, as was our visit to to Organoponico la Sazon and our presence at a graduation ceremony for over 200 students from the Latin American School of Medicine. However, some caravanistas, including myself, were concerned about the missing critique of the system, as well as the lack of information about the parts of it that don't work. This was hard to assess by solely listening to the schedule of speakers and events.

The Cuban government consistently denounces the blockade, and some critics say that Castro uses it as a crutch for the internal failures of the Cuban political system. Whether or not that is the case was hard to determine based on our short time in Cuba. Because the actions of the Pastors for Peace Caravan are fully endorsed by the Cuban government, the majority of the speakers whom we met portrayed only the positive aspects of the Cuban Revolution.

Many of the cultural performances that we were able to see were closed off to the general public, which limited opportunities to interact with people who were not directly affiliated with the program.

Some of the events we attended seemed as if they were exclusively organized for "the foreign visitors," as an additional contingent of 145 Cuba Solidarity activists were visiting at the same time through the Venceremos Brigade. Other times, it was apparent that the speakers were holding back information that might reflect negatively on the government or show cracks in the system. While this is not a characteristic unique to the Cuban government, the absence of independent media outlets in the country made it much more difficult to obtain information that critiques the system.

Because some caravan participants felt we were only getting one side of the story, we tried to talk to Cubans in the streets about some of the questions we had. These conversations we had with people outside of the program gave us some insight into their realities that we could not learn from the designated speakers. Many of the Afro-Cubans whom we spoke with outside of the scheduled program expressed mistrust toward the police forces, and on several occasions, we directly witnessed black and mulatto Cubans being harassed by the police for talking and hanging out with us. Learning about the history and current experiences of racism in Cuba was an important issue to explore, but on the organized caravan, it was virtually ignored.

Due to our limited time in Cuba and the nature of the designated speakers, I could not get a very good sense of the range of experiences of people living in Cuba. Additionally, because the state controls the media, it seems that the best and possibly only way to understand the realities of Cubans is to spend a lot of time there and to converse with all types of people all across the island. Breaking the travel ban and defying the U.S. embargo is a good place to start to begin to have these conversations.

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