Gainesville-Cuba Friendship Network hosts event to launch Sister City Project
Paddy Newell
March 2001

The Gainesville-Cuba Friendship Network, which has recently voted to create the Gainesville-Bayamo Sister City Project, announces an important upcoming event featuring a presentation by the St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association. The St. Augustine group recently returned to the U.S. after completing a historic trip to Baracoa, Cuba--a small, rural town of about 40,000 on the easternmost coast of Cuba.

The first delegation of thirteen St. Augustine residents--including a former city mayor, a musician and a dentist--established the groundwork for a Sister-City relationship with the people of Baracoa in a grass-roots project which activists call a "people-to-people" exchange. The group is especially committed to providing much-needed medical aid to the hospitals and clinics of Baracoa. They have also begun an archival preservation projects--due, in part, to the considerable historical ties between Baracoa and St. Augustine.

The group brought along a symbolic shipment of about $10,000 worth of medical and dental aid, but does not promote a relationship based on "charity" with the citizens of Baracoa. As Jo McIntire, who helped coordinate the trip put it: "The material aid is not the main factor. It is a gesture of good will." Rather, the Sister-City groups advocates long-term equitable exchanges in the spirit of solidarity. "The main thing is to show people there is an alternative to relating with these people other than hostility..It's always the people who come up with the ideas and the government who follows." The group has structured the trip so that they begin to establish a "mutually beneficial relationship," said orthodontist Ron Dixon, president of the friendship association. He and other dentists provided a two-day educational seminar in Baracoa. In return, dentists in Baracoa taught them about natural medicine. (Doctors in Cuba have had to re-discover "green" medicine on an unprecedented scale--due, in part, to the inhuman effects of the U.S. embargo against the socialist nation.)

The St. Augustine group has met with considerable resistance in the U.S., especially on the part of St. Augustine officials and Cuban exiles. Ernest J. Carames, a Cuban-American doctor who fled Cuba and who spoke against the relationship last fall, said he will not support the sister city tie. One opponent declared: "I believe that the ... [St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association] has become part of the [Fidel] Castro propaganda machine."

However, the delegation was received in Baracoa with open arms and with tremendous enthusiasm. The St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association is confident that they have begun to establish the networks required to create a formal Sister-City relationship. That would make St. Augustine the first city in Florida to establish such a connection with a Cuban city. (Six other U.S. cities already have official sister-city relationships with Cuba, and several more have as-yet unofficial sister cities.) To Lucio Rubino, a musician and songwriter, the trip meant more that establishing historic ties. For him, the trip symbolizes "openness." Rubino took his guitar and recording equipment to Baracoa in order to record Cuban music. He hopes the exchange will influence his own music. "This is an act of love."

Kenneth Weeks, a founding member of the Gainesville-Bayamon Sister City Project, said that when Bayamo was suggested as a sister city to Gainesville it felt like "the perfect choice" to him.

"It's not only the connections of universities, hospitals, agriculture, veterinary sciences, popular music, and geography. There seems to be a revolutionary spirit that is apparent in both cities. Both have a vibrancy to share with each other. I feel sure that when we take delegations to Bayamo, it will be an experience of a lifetime for some. It won't be just a vacation in another city, but an adventure to a little known spot where they can experience the heartland of the Republic of Cuba, and her most valuable resource, her people."

Describing themselves as "ambassadors of Peace and Good Will", GCFN members have set up committees to create bridges that will foster better consciousness and understanding between the citizens of each city through a relationship of mutual concern and respect. The group currently has committees developing specific project in agriculture, medicine, religious affairs, culture and education.

Please join us to hear more about these remarkable projects at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1521 NW 34th Street, Gainesville -- March 29th, 7:30pm.

For additional information on the Gainesville-Bayamo Sister City Project, please contact: or Paddy at 352.481.2621

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