Cuban travelers share insights & collect aid
Joe Courter
July 2000

Once again the community of Gainesville has come through with great support for the Pastors for Peace Cuba Friendshipment caravan. In an event held on July 9th at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, almost a hundred people came together, shared a fantastic potluck dinner, heard a panel of five recent visitors to Cuba, and raised over $1200. The money went to help the big, beautiful Pastors for Peace box truck, and its nearly full cargo area, make its way across I-10 to San Antonio, TX, then on south to the Mexican border and down to Tampico, by that time joined by several dozen other vehicles full of aid, for shipment to Cuba.

Pulled together on fairly short notice by the Gainesville Cuba Friendship Network & Veterans for Peace, the event highlighted an amazing panel of recent travelers to Cuba. While all had been there within the past six months, all had traveled separately, on different trips, with very different backgrounds.

The Reverend Glenn Dickson, whose church was hosting the event, spoke of the dire need for medicine he saw, and how the U.S. imposed blockade has caused both scarcity and higher prices for medicine. So even though doctor visits and hospitalization are free, the care suffers. He mentioned asking an official with a Havana research hospital, "What would be the result if the embargo ended tomorrow?" "One of the results," he said, " [was that] the price of medicine would drop 40%." Despite the embargo, Cuba ranked 38th in the world in providing health care to its population in a recent World Health Organization study, right after the U.S. which ranked 37th.

friendshipment donations
(l to r) Erica Hines, Alberto Jones, and Ken Weeks look over donations collected in Gainesville for the 10th Pastors for Peace Friendshipment. Pastors for Peace refuses to get a "license" to provide aid under the U.S. government's embargo of Cuba, because they oppose the embargo as an immoral law. Technically, the shipments are illegal under treasury department regulations but when they've tried to enforce it against the Pastors it has been such bad publicity that the U.S. government has been letting the shipments go through.

Jose Caraballo spoke next. He had just made his first trip to Cuba, having left the island as a child as part of the C.I.A. and Catholic Church sponsored "Peter Pan" operation in 1962 in which Cuban families were told that their children would be stolen by communists and forced to work, creating a hysteria in which thousands of children were sent to the U.S. alone to be adopted by Americans. Jose is now the manager of the "Health Yes" health and natural foods store. He went down to see relatives and family members he had been cut off from all these years. It was a startling reminder, on the heels of the Elian Gonzalez affair, that children have been used as propaganda tools throughout the whole cold war rift between the U.S. and Cuba.

Alberto Jones was the next speaker, an Afro-Cuban who came to the U.S. at the time of the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He had most recently gone to Cuba with a group of African Americans from his hometown of Palm Coast. He picked up on the Elian theme, pointing out that the same south Florida Cuban "gang," who had so vociferously demanded Elian be separated from his father and left in Miami "for a better life, "had only last week rammed legislation through Congress that would make life harder for Elian and all the children of Cuba. These people, referring to Reps. Diaz Ballart and Ross-Leightinen, were using the child as a power play, Jones said, and now most people in America could see that.

Maria Martinez, a UF grad student, spoke next. She is a south Florida Cuban born one year after her parents came to the U.S. in the seventies. Her trip to Cuba had occurred without telling her parents she was going. Her childhood had been filled with contradictory images of Cuba, a mix of love for the island and hate for the "communist system," so that when she was bad she'd be threatened with being "sent to Cuba to harvest sugarcane." When Maria showed up at her parent's home upon her return, armed with videos and photographs of her warm embrace and visit with the Cuban wing of the family, it was transforming for the whole family. Referring to the work of Pastors for Peace, she said " . . . what they've helped me to do, to see, is a way of healing, of building bridges back to people who were exiled from our consciousness, people who we have repressed our love for. My own family, they had to cut off all these people in Cuba and try to forget that they existed, and then of course they can't, and there's this great hurt inside of them. I can understand my father's rage. I understand the kind of irrational... you know, craziness that we see when it comes to Cuba.

"These two countries have a long, complex, contentious history. But it's a very natural relationship. Cuba used to be included in maps of Florida, Florida included in maps of Cuba, now ...there's an estrangement, a divorce, and people don't want to talk about it, don't want to look at it, and I know what it's like to be caught in the middle of that. To have to, to want to, know a littleabout your history, about your family, and about all of this damage, this trauma, and to be blocked by your own government, and by your own people; by emotional walls and by legislative walls.

"All you have to do is reach across it; it's people to people, it just evaporates. When I came back from Cuba, and told my father I'd been to Baracoa, I might as well have told him I'd been to the moon. They were like, "what?' And I think when they saw that the communists didn't eat me, that they didn't roast me alive or anything, or that they didn't sell me off into slavery, as my father had said they would; there's been a softening and, you know, letters are starting to float back and forth, and packages. And now my mother says she wants to accompany me next November. ... That's monumental. So it's about building bridges, and try and heal a forty year madness... And that's what I love about Pastors for Peace, that it's people-to-people grassroots organizing, and they rock!"

Following Maria's testimony, Kenneth Croose-Parry spoke. He and his wife Renee-Marie had just returned from Cuba days earlier and had been in there when Elian finally returned home. According to Kenneth: "The Elian affair has changed the relationship between our two countries. It has exposed the hate for what it is on the part of [the anti-Castro] Cuban Americans, and it has in an extraordinary way revived the spirit of the revolution in Cuba. Now this is something that we have to sit up and take notice of. Here is a neighbor where there is free education to the doctorate level. Where there is free health care for everybody, and what have we [the U.S.] done? It was mentioned that in 1992 they were desperate [in Cuba]. Things became desperate because they had a strong trading relationship with the Soviet Union, a necessity after the American trading relationship was broken. The country that had, if you like, been brought up in a colonial trading relationship with the United States, and needed another [trading] relationship for that reason. "Referring to the difficult period of the early and mid nineties when there was a genuine food crisis, with "people thin, going off on bicycles to try and find food in the countryside... I can say all of that has changed. In eight years they country has built itself back and in spite of the hardships. "Referring to Cuba's continued aid program for other nations with the export and training of doctors, Kenneth said that "these are all things that our neighbor is doing, a unique phenomenon in our hemisphere, and this is the reason to change our relationship to respect the dignity [of Cuba]. What about a neighborly relationship?"

Event organizers gave thanks to the volunteers of the local Gainesville Cuba Friendship Network, Veterans for Peace, Glenn Dickson and the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Tampa's Cuba Vive organization, and to people who brought food and gave generously.

GCFN is still floating the idea of a sister city relation with a Cuban city, especially noting that St. Augustine, FL, is moving ahead with theirs. (The mayor of St. Augustine just returned from Cuba and is quite enthusiastic.) If you'd like to be part of the this, call Jim Hamon at (352) 331-5069 for more info.

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