Cuba-bound caravan gets Wisconsin welcome

MILWAUKEE, Wis. – The Milwaukee Committee to Normalize Relations with Cuba brought together members of Central United Methodist Church, solidarity activists, Cuban Americans, members of the Committee to Free the Cuban Five, and a contingent of students from the Young Communist League on July 6 to welcome the 14th Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba.

This segment of the caravan was passing through Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., on its way through the Midwest to eventually link up with the other branches on the Texas-Mexico border. From there it will go on to Cuba.

The primary goal of the caravan is to challenge the U.S. blockade of Cuba with humanitarian aid to be delivered to the Cuban people, benefiting 170 eldercare institutions with wheelchairs, medical equipment, and 21 boxes of other aid. The caravan has chosen to ignore new U.S. Treasury Department regulations restricting travel to Cuba in order to make a statement that the regulations themselves violate international law.

The Milwaukee welcome was a send-off and potluck celebration. It included a religious service and a talk by Kathryn Hall, the founder and director of the Center for Community Health and Well-Being, Inc., in Sacramento, Calif. Hall also heads the Birthing Project USA, a national model for improved birth outcomes for thousands of women at high risk.

Hall had just returned from several IFCO/Pastors for Peace delegations to Cuba, making an in-depth study of the Cuban health care system. The delegation spent time with students at the Latin America School of Medicine, which trains students from across the hemisphere, including the U.S.

Hall said she found young Cubans at the medical school to have very different attitudes than she was expecting, adding that they have a sense of “their responsibility to hold up their piece of heaven.”

The school was started in response to Hurricane Mitch when Cuban doctors were on the front line of disaster relief. The Latin American Medical School, created out of an old military school, began accepting students from economically depressed communities in the U.S. shortly after a visit from members of the Congressional Black Caucus who noted that Cubans had more doctors in their communities than were available in the U.S. The following year President Fidel Castro offered scholarships to students from Harlem and the program has grown from there.

Hall, who now serves on the Latin American Medical School Committee designed to recruit potential U.S. students from African American, Latino and Native American communities, explained how the school functions. The first year the students concentrate on learning Spanish, though they have some American doctors teaching there and the exams for the Americans are in English. Once they complete the program they agree to come back to provide medical care in underserved areas in the U.S.

As tensions between Cuba and the U.S. have intensified recently, the U.S. students expressed uncertainty over whether they should “stand up proudly or hang their heads in shame,” said Hall. She said that “they too represent America,” not just the Bush administration, and that they should be proud that “they represent the best that America has to offer and have nothing to be ashamed of.”

One of the students who has attended a Cuban language school and hopes to return to Cuba to study medicine is from Milwaukee. The members of the YCL in Milwaukee have been very active in supporting the Cuban people, whether through Pastors for Peace or the Committee to Free the Cuban Five. The students brought enough medical aid to roughly double the volume of donated supplies. For more information on the Pastors for Peace program or to donate to the caravan, visit www.ifconews.org.

The author can be reached at babette37@juno.com