SALEM, Ore. - Forty activists and community members gathered in Bush's Pasture Park the afternoon of July 3 to greet the Friendshipment Caravan, a humanitarian aid convoy originating in Canada and bound for Cuba. Attendees enjoyed a picnic dinner and a performance by local musicians, before hearing speakers from the Caravan, and from the Willamette Reds, a grass-roots progressive community organization in Salem, which hosted the event.
The 23rd annual Caravan, operated by Pastors for Peace, an international community organization, is bringing humanitarian aid donated across Canada, the United States, and Mexico to Cuba in a "disciplined act of civil disobedience" against the US embargo of that country, now in its 52nd year. The aid includes medical equipment, wheelchairs, educational materials, and sporting goods, items difficult for Cuba to import under the embargo.
It was allegedly the sporting goods that caused some trouble with US customs at the US-Canadian border in Vancouver on July 1st, according to Noah Fine, a member of the caravan from British Columbia. The caravan was denied entry into the US because of concerns that the caravan organizers intended to sell the sporting goods in the United States, and thus needed to pay for an import permit. They refused, which began a 24-hour standoff, with caravan supporters camping on both sides of the border in protest of the border closing.
Public pressure in the form of the protest and phone calls from supporters in both countries led to the caravan being allowed to cross the border on July 2. Despite the cited concerns about the sporting goods, however, some border crossing officials admitted that they had specific instructions to block the caravan, and that those instructions were politically motivated.
The caravan is made up of over seventy activists from many nations, including the UK and Germany as well as Canada, the US and Mexico, according to Jen Wager, an organizer with the group. The caravan members, who call themselves "Caravanistas," advocate for the immediate lifting of "el bloqueo," the blockade, and normalization if US relations with Cuba. They travel to Cuba along with the material aid as goodwill ambassadors, to show solidarity with people who, despite being separated from the United States by a bare seventy miles of ocean, see relatively few Americans.
Nine separate caravans will visit over ninety US cities throughout July, before converging in McAllen, Tex., to cross into Mexico before flying to Cuba. They are accepting material donations (a list of needed items is available from their website), as well as cash donations to help cover the costs of the caravan.
The event in Salem collected several hundred dollars for the Caravan, in what Charles Wynns, a member of the Willamette Reds, described as "the way social justice movements have been funded from the start; by passing the hat!"
Photo: Caravan buses are painted with slogans. IFCO/Pastors for Peace Facebook page.