Blockade-Busting New Yorkers Head to Cuba

Jaisal Noor Jul 23, 2009

SLAND VISIT: Venceremos Brigade members stand alongside orphaned Cuban children during the delegation’s 2008 journey to Cuba. PHOTO: NATALIA ORTIZ

Harry D’Agostino seems like an average New York City high school student, but his summer plans are far from ordinary. On July 19, D’Agostino openly defied U.S. law by traveling to Cuba without government permission.

He joined 60 other New Yorkers as part of the Venceremos Brigade, which is marking its 40th anniversary of bringing Americans to Cuba to deliver humanitarian aid and engage in volunteer work and political education.

“What really attracted me to this trip,” said the 16-year-old D’Agostino, “is that we’re bringing material aid and we are going to be doing a lot of work there and show solidarity with the Cuban people.”

Since 1969, the Venceremos Brigade (meaning “we shall overcome”) has led more than 8,000 Americans to Cuba as a challenge to both U.S. travel restrictions and the economic embargo Washington imposed on Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro’s provisional government came to power in 1959.

The 2009 Venceremos Brigade trip comes three months after the Obama administration unveiled changes to U.S. Cuba policy. While the White House announced April 13 that it was lifting “all restrictions on family visits to Cuba” and on remittances, critics described the changes as “minor adjustments” that only return policy to where it was under the Clinton administration.

The group issued an open letter to President Obama July 13 asking him to “transcend the old, stalled politics of yesterday. We urge you to support lifting the travel restrictions for all U.S. citizens and residents, and take serious steps towards ending the economic embargo on Cuba.”

During their two-week visit to Cuba, the “brigadistas” plan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and to participate in social and community projects including hurricane relief, agricultural programs, LGBT equality, healthcare and to visit the families of the Cuban Five (see below).

The New York-based Venceremos Brigade is partnered with Pastors for Peace, which is making its 20th annual trip to Cuba to deliver humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, educational material and sporting equipment.

Lucia Bruno, communications director for Pastors for Peace, says the caravan is sending reconstruction supplies because “Cuba was hit by three hurricanes last year” and the embargo makes it difficult to purchase needed materials.

One participant, Kathy Karlson, who has been on 10 brigades since 1970, expressed admiration for the Cuban government, saying it has maintained its “commitment to people to provide free healthcare and free education to all of its population.”

In recent years, Venceremos Brigade participants have been posing a “travel challenge,” publicly protesting the travel restrictions by informing the U.S. government of their intent to break the travel ban. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 Americans quietly travel to Cuba every year without legal authorization.

The protest is not without risks. Diego Iniguez-Lopez, who is joining the 2009 brigade, received a letter from the U.S. government prior to his last trip in 2004 threatening him with a fine if he did not answer questions about his expenditures in Cuba. Iniguez-Lopez said the brigadistas’ legal team responded that the travelers claim their right under the Fifth Amendment to not incriminate themselves. “We will never ask for a license because we believe it is our right to travel to Cuba,” he said.

On July 16, days before the brigade left, the Center for Constitutional Rightsfiled a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a U.S. policy compelling citizens who travel to Cuba to answer questions about their spending there.

The threat of punishment doesn’t faze D’Agostino, a member of the Socialist Workers Party. “I want to go see an example of a socialist revolution.”

Iniguez-Lopez said he is returning to Cuba despite the threats, hoping to publicly challenge U.S. policy.

“We are strengthened by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conviction that ‘One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,’” Iniguez-Lopez said.

The Venceremos Brigade and the families of the Cuban Five

Among the activities planned for the trip is a visit to the families of the imprisoned Cuban Five. The Five are Cuban nationals who came to America to monitor the activities of anti-Castro groups who they say were planning terrorist attacks against Cuba. They informed US government officials of the groups' activities but they were themselves arrested and charged with spying for a foreign government. They have been imprisoned for the last decade and on June 15 Supreme Court denied their appeal for a new trial venue, even though their case was taking place in what is considered strongly anti-Castro Miami. Their trial became the first in the US condemned by the UN Human Rights Commission.

Kathy Karlson says"It's very moving to meet with these families, because their loved ones have been in prison for ten years." She says "it's very hard to come from the country that imprisons them," and although the families miss their loved ones, "they are also very adamant about supporting their right to fight terrorism." She adds, "It reawakens the responsibility as US citizens to make our government undo the harm it has done."

Attorney Soffiyah Elijah is a member of the Venceremos defense team and serves as Deputy Director of the Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute. She said, "It's criminal that the family members have been denied Visas to visit their loved ones who are incarcerated here in the United States. Every other prisoner inside the US prison system [State and Federal] is allowed some access to visit, even if it's twice a month, it's only in the case of the Cuban 5 their relatives have been totally denied access, violating international standards of human rights."

She says the case of the Cuban Five demonstrates the reality of US policy towards Cuba, especially when juxtaposed with that of suspected terrorist Jose Posada-Carriles. Posada-Carillies admitted to involvement in the bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner headed to Venezuela in 1976, killing all 73 passengers on board, and has been implicated in a number of other terrorists acts. Both Cuba and Venezuela demand he be extradited to face charges.

Although indicted by the Justice Department this year, Posada-Carillies has remained free in the United States for years. "The different treatment of the Cuban Five versus Posada Carilles is a clear indication of the hypocrisy of US policy." She adds, "If there's an attempt for dialogue by the US administration throughout the world, it can't talk with a forked tongue, it can't treat the Cuban Five like this and then … protect Posada Carilles."

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