80-ton Friendshipment heads to Cuba

Trucks, cars and buses headed to McAllen, Texas, July 2 as the 16th U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan got on its way. The caravan, which will travel along 14 routes through 130 cities, is carrying humanitarian supplies destined for the Cuban people. Such aid will no doubt be especially helpful this year in view of the damage wrought by Hurricane Dennis.

The caravan is taking almost 80 tons of supplies to the island, primarily medical equipment, school materials and computers. Supporters from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Denmark and Mexico are traveling with the Friendshipment this year. Five buses bear the names of the Cuban men imprisoned in U.S. jails for fighting terrorism, the Cuban Five.

Participants and vehicles will gather July 17 at the U.S.-Mexican border. On July 22, they travel to the Mexican port of Tampico, from which the 140-person delegation and the supplies will continue on to Cuba.

The Friendshipments are remarkable for the use of civil disobedience as a means for challenging U.S. policies on Cuba. Pastors for Peace of New York, organizer of the caravans, has never sought U.S. government permission for travel to Cuba. Nor has that ecumenical group ever asked for the license required by the U.S. Treasury Department for humanitarian donations to the island.

Rev. Lucius Walker, the Pastors for Peace leader, holds that one need not ask permission for helping out a neighbor in need. He points out that unrelenting pressure has forced the U.S. government repeatedly to back down. As a result, Washington in recent years has refrained from blocking the deliveries.

In 1993, U.S. Treasury officials at the Laredo, Texas, border seized a Friendshipment school bus, claiming Fidel Castro might use it as a military vehicle. Thirteen people on board at the time began a hunger strike that provoked an international mobilization and demonstrations in 20 U.S. cities. The bus was released after the fast and related campaign that lasted 23 days.

Walker and four others went without food for over 90 days in 1996 to force the U.S. government to release 420 donated computers destined for Cuba’s health network and educational system.

This year’s Friendshipment participants will return to the U.S. on Aug. 1 at McAllen. That day, in Buffalo, N.Y., the 36th Venceremos Brigade, along with the “Cesar Chavez Contingent” of the U.S./Cuba Labor Exchange and the Women’s Travel Challenge to Cuba, will also re-enter the United States. On both the northern and southern borders, U.S. officials will be facing principled defiance of the regulations on Cuba travel.