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31st IFCO/Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan en Route to Cuba

Three buses full of caravanistas have begun their routes and are making stops on the way down to Miami.

Amba Guerguerian Jul 11

Socialists and supporters of Cuba gathered in Chicago, Milwauke, Albuquerque and New York City Wednesday night to send off their comrades on a three-week-long international solidarity caravan that challenges U.S. foreign policy. 

The caravanistas will stop in 20 different cities along the way to promote their mission before converging in Miami and traveling to Cuba. They are bringing four tons of urgently needed supplies; a draconian U.S. blockade dating back to the early 1960s — the most enduring trade embargo in modern history — makes it difficult for Cuba to acquire many essential goods and services. The reconstriction of the embargo under President Donald Trump, which President Joe Biden has done very little to reverse, combined with the economic blows of COVID-19 has left Cuba in an economic system almost as dire as its Special Period after the fall of the Soviety Union. 

Reverend Lucius Walker with Fidel Castro during the 2009 Friendshipment Caravan. Photo: fidelcastro.cu.

The Friendshipment Caravan is a project of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, an interreligious anti-colonial organization founded in 1967 by Reverend Lucius Walker that “advances the struggles of oppressed people for justice and self-determination” and builds global solidarity among them. The group has formed a strong relationship with Cuba since it started the caravan in 1992 and most Cubans know about the Friendshipment Caravan and the buses of yanquis that arrive carrying tons of material aid each year. (These painted schoolbuses are still seen in Cuba, either parked on display or still in use. When I was there in May with a group, we stayed at an popular education center that carted us around in one). 

The send-off event in New York City took place at the People’s Forum, a socialist education center and “movement incubator” in Midtown on 37th St. between 8th Ave. and 9th Ave. The Forum hosts free classes, forums and cultural events and has a cafe, bookstore and library. Posters of Fidel Castro and Nicaraguan revolutionaries hang on the walls and a whole table is dedicated to “Stop the Extradition of Julian Assange.” 

An attendee of the event at the People’s Forum serves themself rice and beans. Photo: Amba Guerguerian.

Emily Thomas, 85, staffed the sign-in table for Wednesday’s event. She started working for Pastors for Peace as it prepared for its second caravan in 1993. “They were taking a little schoolbus which got stopped by the U.S. government and so the people on the bus did a 23-day hunger strike. The bus was detained in Laredo and they stayed on the bus in an asphalt parking lot with a 107 degree temperature and finally after 23 days, the U.S. government let them go to Cuba,” Thomas told The Indypendent.

This year’s 94-member caravan is one of the largest in the past decade, with half of the group under the age of 35, roughly two-thirds people of color and 76 first-timers. On Thursday, three buses full of caravanistas started off on their respective routes — one down the East Coast, one through the Midwest and another further west — and will be stopping in different communities to collect aid and hold educational sessions and events to “unteach” the disinformation about Cuba that has been promulgated by U.S school curriculum and mainstream media. On July 18, its members will fly from Miami to Havana (which are a mere 90 miles apart), where they will spend a full twelve education-rich days learning about and interacting with the different aspects of Cuban society. 

Arriving with the caravinstas will be a wide array of items that Cubans have no or very little access to because of the blockade, which stipulates that after doing trade with Cuba, a country can’t dock its ship at a U.S. port for at least six months, the result of which is very little international trade with the socialist island. Material aid includes everything from Benadryl to Albuterol to Vitamin C to more obscure medications to coffee (yes, it’s ironic) to sheets to tampons. While the Cuban medical system is world-renowned for its effectiveness — Cuba has developed five COVID vaccines, three of which have been patented; it is in the final stages of developing a vaccine for lung cancer; the infant mortality rate is low; the island’s doctors played a pivotal role in combatting Ebola in Africa; the list goes on — a lack of medicine and medical equipment is sorely felt because of the conditions it exists under. 

“We’re going not to save Cuba and not to expect Cuba to save us but to have an exchange of values, of ideas, of art, of experiences all around.”

At the send off, Pastors for Peace Director Gail Walker, the daughter of its founder, and Associate Director Dorlimar Lebron led a discussion about the significance and history of the trip with a strong focus on “solidarity, not charity.” They emphasized that caravanistas will have much to learn from a non-capitalist, people-oriented society. 

“Having young people seeing and experiencing Cuba for themselves, because they’re interested in seeing what it would look like if we had a nation that was really committed to fighting climate change, if we really were committed to dealing with issues of homelessness and healthcare and housing. And these are things that Cuba has done,” Walker told The Indypendent after the event. “Perfection? No. There’s no perfection anywhere, but they have really been able to highlight and identify needs of the people and to put priority on providing for and solving those needs,” she said. 

“Our role as a faith-based organization going to Cuba is going there and saying, you’re not just getting these evangelical missionaries that are coming to “save people” but there are Christians, there are Muslims, there are people of faith who understand the idea of solidarity, not charity, who understand in the idea of mutual aid, of mutual exchange, of mutual learning. So we’re going not to save Cuba and not to expect Cuba to save us but to have an exchange of values, of ideas, of art, of experiences all around,” said Lebron.

Then, the conversation was opened up to the group of around 40, and an open forum commenced where veteran and new caravanistas shared their experiences and inspirations. 

“One time I was there during the Special Period [in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union] and it was so tight in Havana. Eighty-five percent of people were walking to work or on bicycles,” said Eugene, who has been on “eight or nine” Friendshipment Caravans. “They’re trying to squeeze Cuba to death, but it’s a human place,” he ended with. 

“I don’t really know much about it, but I do know that there’s an information disconnect between what we know about other countries and what we’re being told here,” said Sam, first-timer from Harlem by way of Nigeria. He found out about the brigade because he goes to The People’s Church in Harlem, where Lebron preaches liberation theology. “It’s getting to the point where if I don’t learn what I have to learn to try and educate my friends and family and the people around me in general, I’m not gonna be happy, because I don’t like the way the people around me view the world. It’s not at all how it is,” he said. 

Amba Guerguerian is The Indypendent’s associate editor. She recently traveled to Cuba with a delegation of journalists. 

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