On the eve of Independence Day 2008, I find myself aboard a brightly painted school bus approaching the United States/Mexican border in Pharr, Texas, en route to Havana, Cuba. Five school busses, brightly painted with slogans promoting solidarity and peace worldwide, and over one hundred like-minded political activists encompass this caravan, joined together under the leadership of Reverend Lucius Walker and Pastors for Peace. With the goal of exercising the few slivers of patriotism we do possess by celebrating our right to freedom of speech, we are travelling to Cuba as a means of speaking out against both the travel bans to Cuba and the hideously outdated and inhumane economic embargo, imposed almost fifty years ago during the Cold War. We declare to the U.S. Customs officials that we intend not only to travel to Cuba in direct violation of this U.S. law, but also that we plan to bring humanitarian aid in the form of medical supplies and educational materials, unavailable to our brothers and sisters in Cuba due to the blockade, with us in the process. What better way to celebrate “freedom” and “liberty and justice for all” than with acts of civil disobedience, by standing up for what we believe in, and by challenging our country’s economic oppression of others?
As the border comes into sight, the busses are immediately flagged and herded into the customs corral. A hundred caravanistas stand in the hot sun and watch as giant, monster-like x-ray machines scan each bus, as uniformed Border Patrol guards snap picture after picture of both the humanitarian aid and of the caravanistas, and as the hard work of the last four days is systematically undone; boxes we have carefully packed, taped, labeled, and loaded meticulously onto the busses are ripped open and inspected. Suddenly boxes are being seized and loaded into U.S. Homeland Security vans. Thirty-two computers in all are confiscated from us at the border, leaving us all wondering, “How can humanitarian aid be a crime?”
We decide that we cannot sit and watch in good conscience as our friends in Cuba are deprived of aid so desperately needed; deprived of aid by the same forces that have caused the need in the first place by years of debilitating economic embargo. Drums and chants demanding an end to the blockade grow into a protest for the return of the computers, and a rally which effectively shuts down the border crossing for almost an hour. “¡Cuba sí, bloqueo no!” we chant as we watch cars and trucks headed for Mexico line up in front of us, unable to pass and impatient to proceed.
At this point, I am horrified to find out that the U.S. government is still unwilling to release the computers, and one by one the horde of caravanistas pull out their cell phones, placing calls to Senators and Congressmen, speaking out about the injustice we are facing. We pile into the busses to avoid additional aid from falling into the hands of Homeland Security, and head across the border into Mexico. We make it across Mexico by sunset, and amidst torrential downpour, we spend the remainder of the night loading the aid onto barges bound for Cuba in the port city of Tampico.
The sun is rising, and with my feet on Cuban soil, the warmth of the Cuban people in the air and my heart, the reality of all that the revolution has done for the people of Cuba becomes apparent everywhere I turn. Although the Cuban people are indeed poor, I am amazed to see that despite this, no one is hungry, sick, homeless, uneducated, or unemployed; food rationing, universal healthcare, housing reform, and free education through graduate school have guaranteed these basic human rights. Coming from a wealthy country where education, health care, and home ownership lie increasingly outside the economic reach of a growing number of people, I find myself wondering why our country is not actively trying to learn something from this conscious government and people. It is then that I realize how important our work is, and feel honored to help support the survival of the revolution not only by expressing my solidarity and helping to deliver humanitarian aid, but also by sharing my experiences in this beautiful country with those who await me at home. I pass my glorious days in Cuba visiting universities, hospitals, farming and fishing cooperatives, cultural events, community centers, and Cuban households. The sense of community concern for the welfare of all inspires me and gives me hope that the spiritual revolution we all dream of is indeed possible.
Upon our return border crossing into the United States, we find the political pressure we had exerted on our travels down has paid off: the computers are waiting for us at the border. To show our relentless commitment to get the aid to our Cuban friends, and our outright refusal to acknowledge an inhumane blockade imposed by the U.S., we immediately take the computers and head back on foot across the border into Mexico. With the Texas sun beating relentlessly on my head, and a long walk ahead, I decide not to allow the computer to be taken out of my hands until safely on Mexican soil, regardless of whatever challenge confronts me. My conviction goes unchallenged; however, as the Department of Homeland Security allows us to pass without hindrance, a small but meaningful victory, and a literal and metaphorical step in the direction of bringing down the blockade.