By Joshua Shurley
This summer I travelled somewhere that my government forbids me to go. I just returned from the 30th Cuba Caravan “friendshipment” with the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO). I committed this act of civil disobedience with more than thirty others as a delegation of IFCO’s “Pastors for Peace” from June to July 2019. Led by IFCO organizers Gail Walker and John Waller, the caravan was an amazing opportunity to learn about Cuba while also protesting the US government’s adversarial posture toward the island nation that is situated only ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Along with our open minds, we brought with us a people-to-people posture of love and solidarity with the Cuban people.
We were a diverse group. Half of the caravan was under the age of forty, including four teenagers. More than half were women and half were people of color. We came from fifteen US states, plus one caravanista from Canada, and two from Mexico who joined us in North American solidarity to protest the US blockade. Some were religious, representing several faith traditions, and some not religious at all. Half of the group were returning after having been on several previous caravans, and for half (including myself) it was our first time. Among us were educators, activists, healthcare providers, and citizens from various walks of life who all shared this common goal of seeing for ourselves the real Cuba.
Some of the highlights included: meetings with Cuba’s president and the parliamentary leadership; a visit to the Latin American Medical School in Havana (ELAM), which trains thousands of doctors at no cost provided they return to their home countries and work in poor and underserved communities (including several dozen American medical students that currently attend); a working exchange with an agricultural co-operative in Cienfuegos province; discussions with interfaith leaders among Cuba’s religious community and leaders from advocacy groups representing women, people of color, and children with special needs; visits to museums detailing Cuban life in the face of sixty years of US aggression; meeting with three gentlemen from the “Cuban Five,” who had once been political prisoners in the US federal prison system for over fifteen years and are now are considered national heroes; and a raucous welcoming party celebrated with a neighborhood CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution).
As a Veterans For Peace organizer, however, the most rewarding experience for me was our visit to Matanzas province, where we not only toured the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) Museum, but met and spent time with a group of Cuban veterans.
We heard from five combatantes who had fought against the CIA-backed forces during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as some that had served in combat in Africa against Apartheid South Africa during the 1970s. Afterward, three of us on the caravan who are US veterans were invited to say a few words. We spoke of the true costs of war and militarism, the insanity of Endless War, as well as the excitement of seeing what is possible when a nation’s power is used to uplift its people and protect them from the coarse and destructive nature of imperial hegemony.
The hostility and violence that the United States has wrought on the Cuban people for six decades is unparalleled. Not just the long history of attacking Cuban soveriegnty dating back to the US invasion during the Spanish-American War and the subsequent 1901 Platt Amendment,or the hundreds of assassination attempts on Castro over the years, or the economic warfare of the US embargo, but decades of dirty tricks, from perpetual anti-Cuban propaganda to outright biological warfare that have been a constant. We witnessed how the Cuban agricultural, educational, and healthcare sectors are able to succeed despite the destructive consequences of the blockade. Today in fact, people from many places, “from Haiti to Venezuela, from Angola to Palestine… have reached out and embraced this revolutionary solidarity.”
I was excited to witness the everyday reality in yet another place deemed ‘bad’ by the US government, where all is not as we have been taught, begging the question: What is it they don’t want us to see? Perhaps it is a place where healthcare is considered a human right, where a country that’s not stamped with the approval of American ‘democracy’ is actually far more democratic in terms of people’s everyday lives. All of this occurs in the face of Cuba’s dire economic conditions that are not a result of the amorphous ‘evil’ called socialism, but as a result of the illegal and immoral blockade imposed by the US government: an act of war!
In Cuba I did not see a perfect place free of criticisms. There are certainly problems and complexities being worked out (an example of which is the new constitution being enacted after substantial democratic involvement from the Cuban people in ways Americans can only dream of). Cuba’s unique kind of freedom and sustainability is something one should experience for themselves.
We heard time and again things like, “we love you, we welcome the American people–we know you are not your government”. I must admit, if a powerful country was doing to my children what US policies do to Cuban families I am not sure I could be so forgiving. But Cubans are a strong people, resolute against empire, but also strong in maintaining a posture of peace and friendship.
I will end with a few lines that I think encapsulates the beautiful spirit of the Cuban people as quoted by one of its national heroes, Jose Marti. Marti’s famous nineteenth century poem is called The White Rose (translated to English):
[ I Cultivate a White Rose ]
I have a white rose to tend
In July as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And for the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.
Thank you, Cuba, for the white rose and for your hand in friendship. A few other caravanistas have recorded or written pieces that expand on our experiences in Cuba that I invite people to read. Also, I urge anyone reading this to attend an IFCO event near you and consider attending one of the annual caravans, or support someone else who can make the trip. Amor y solidaridad, con el pueblo de Cuba!