In March 2016, when President Barack Obama and his family emerged from Air Force One at the José Martí airport in Havana, photographers took a picture that will go down in history. He was the first sitting president in 85 years to set foot in Cuba.
According to the organizers of the Cuba Caravan, this is a critical year for U.S./Cuba relations. That’s why their 2016 caravan is more important than ever: it is not just about collecting supplies and taking them to the Cuban people; they also want the US government to end the embargo. With that goal in mind, eight international caravanistas will be driving all around the country and meeting with congressional staff.
Birmingham is one of the stops of the 27th Annual Friendship Caravan to Cuba, which arrived in the city July 11 for a potluck dinner with Cuban Jazz DJ Bart Grooms and Sound by Tim Day. The event included information about U.S./Cuba relations and travel to the island nation. It also boasted as a speaker Gladys Abella from the Martin Luther King Center in Havana.
Besides this event, which is open and free to the public (although donations are accepted), the caravanistas will meet with Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions to ask them to work towards the end of the embargo. Along with Abella, who is from Cuba, the other seven volunteers from the caravan include five people from the U.S., one from Germany and one from Sweden.
The caravan is organized by Pastors for Peace, a special ministry of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), which was created in 1988 to pioneer the delivery of humanitarian aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. As they explain on their website, they offer U.S. citizens “an opportunity to demonstrate and enact an alternative people-to-people foreign policy based in justice and mutual respect.”
Pastors for Peace was created by Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr. after the passenger ferryboat he was travelling in along the Río Escondido in Nicaragua was attacked by contra forces recruited and armed by the U.S. government. He was travelling with an IFCO study delegation when the attack found them in that ferry with 200 Nicaraguan civilians. Two people were killed and 29 were wounded, including Walker.
Walker then conceived Pastors for Peace as a nonviolent response with two different, but connected, aims: to deliver material aid to support the victims of “low intensity” war in Latin America and to campaign for a “more just and moral U.S. foreign policy” throughout the continent.
The Birmingham event was held at 6 p.m. at Beloved Community Church and was presented by the Birmingham Peace Project, a local organization created in 2002. As their chair Diane McNaron explains, “we support worldwide peace, and the conditions which lead to peace; in other words, if you have poverty, repression or violence in a country, there is more likely to be war.”
U.S./Cuba relations have been taking up quite a lot of space in the news recently, especially during the second part of the Obama administration. On December 17, 2014, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that they would restore diplomatic ties after more than half a century. On July 20, 2015, both countries established embassies in each other’s capitals. In May 2015, Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
Since diplomatic relations have been restored, new rules have been implemented eliminating some of U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba: airlines can offer regular flights to the island, American travelers can visit Cuba without a government license, U.S. companies can now invest in small business, among others.
However, the U.S. trade embargo to Cuba, which dates back to the Cold War, remains in force after more than 50 years. Although the Eisenhower administration recognized Fidel Castro’s government after the 1959 revolution, the U.S. government broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba over Castro’s communist regime, which nationalized all U.S. businesses on the island.
In his visit to Cuba last March, Obama declared himself in favor of revoking the trade embargo. He declared that Cuba needed urgent changes involving human rights, political prisoners and economic reform, but called the embargo “an outdated burden on the Cuban people.” The president assured the public that the embargo would be lifted, although he couldn’t say when. Congressional approval is required, and it doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounders publication.
Pastors for Peace are trying to make this happen, and their way of doing so is described on their website as “active, non-violent civil disobedience”– reflected in the fact that the organization takes food and medicine to Cuba without a license, which is still required by U.S. law.
“We travel to Cuba without a U.S. government license” they explain in their website, “as a conscious act of civil disobedience and as an expression of resistance to the U.S. government’s cruel and immoral economic blockade of Cuba, which uses the denial of food and medicine as a political weapon.”
According to McNaron, Pastors for Peace is not a political organization and they are not involved with Cuba or U.S. politics at all. “They support improving the lives of people throughout Latin America, they contribute to their economic well-being,” she said. “They are trying to lift the embargo because it hasn’t worked: it hasn’t made a difference in Cuba or in the Cuban government, so why keep it?”
To find out more, visit cubacaravan2016.org.