by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo*
HAVANA TIMES — For more than a quarter century, U.S. volunteers have delivered aid to the Cuban people through the Pastors for Peace Caravan. On July 5th of this year, the 26th “Friendshipment Cuba” Caravan left Washington with volunteers and material support for Cuba’s health and education sectors.
The caravan traveled throughout the United States en route to Havana where they were scheduled to arrive this weekend. Pastors for Peace not only delivers material support, it also provides an important model of solidarity in action.
In this interview, Gail Walker, the Executive Director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace, speaks of the historic “link between Cuba and the African diaspora,” and the volunteers’ determination to continue “the solidarity that we feel for our Cuban brothers and sisters”. Ms. Walker’s father, the late Reverend Lucius Walker, Jr., founded the Pastors for Peace program and is considered a monumental figure in US and Latin America human rights movements.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What was the impetus for the creation of IFCO – the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization – and for the Pastors for Peace caravans?
Gail Walker: IFCO, as an organization, got its start in 1967. It was organized by faith leaders and community activists looking for ways to respond creatively to injustice. The organization is focused on mobilizing the community to respond to inequity.
Pastors for Peace is a project of IFCO that began in 1988 when IFCO organized a study delegation to Nicaragua that was attacked by Nicaraguan Contra, a group that had been armed and supported by the Reagan Administration. My father, Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., was the director of that organization and one of 29 people wounded in that attack. Two others were killed.
From his hospital bed, my father conceived of the Pastors for Peace project as a way to respond to that act of terrorism. He began to organize caravans that would allow the people of the US to collect and deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Nicaragua as an alternative foreign policy. He often said, “We act not just in defiance of our government, but in obedience to our conscience.”
In 1992, we began to work in Cuba. Our work in Cuba is similar to the work we did in Nicaragua because of the long-standing embargo or blockade that is in effect.
MCA: Why is IFCO important to African-Americans?
GW: IFCO has always been an organization concerned about the plight of Black people, who are often victims of social inequity and social injustice both in the US and globally. It’s the first national organization led by people of color that organized to fight against social injustice globally.
MCA: What kinds of material support will IFCO/Pastors for Peace deliver to Cuba on this mission?
GW: For the past 26 years, IFCO/Pastors for Peace has delivered humanitarian aid that has ranged from medicines, medical equipment, Bibles, bicycles, powdered milk, wheelchairs, walkers and computers The caravan will collect many of the same items along our route to Texas, with the help of churches, the progressive community and other organizations. We continue to expand upon the list of humanitarian aid.
It is important to note that the aid we collect and deliver is symbolic. Our work is not charity but instead rooted in our firm belief that there needs to be a change in US policy toward Cuba. The aid we deliver is an expression of the solidarity that we feel for our Cuban brothers and sisters.
MCA: How does the Caravan work across the country and what is the political importance of connecting communities in the US?
GW: IFCO has organized the Caravans as a way to work with various communities across the country. The Caravans travel from the north to the south, stopping in different communities. There, they talk about whatever the issue of the day might be and collect people and aid in support of Cuba. It’s a way to allow local activists to express their own solidarity with Cuba in a way that resonates with the work and issues that are most prevalent in those communities.
The work of the folks in New York may be different than the work of the people in LA or Atlanta. We don’t dictate to communities how to support the caravan initiative but we hope that they make connections between the issues that they are concerned with and the ways that Cuba has addressed these issues.
MCA: African-American churches tend to be politically conservative. Have you received support from these churches or do you rely on predominately white churches and the white progressive community?
GW: Our support has been very diverse. In fact, we launched our 26th Cuban Friendship Caravan this summer from the Florida Avenue Baptist Church (in Washington, DC), a historically Black Church. The Caravan received a warm welcome from the pastor and members of the congregation.
There is a clear recognition and understanding of what Cuba represents – what it offers the world. There has historically been a link between Cuba and the African diaspora and there has been recognition of how much Cuba has done to embrace its African-ness. As a result of that understanding, I think, the relationship between IFCO, the Caravan, the US Black community, and Black churches has been very strong. At the same time, we have worked with a variety of community groups across the country and enjoy a mixture of support.
MCA: What is your perspective on racism in Cuba? Do you believe it is re-emerging due to the liberalization of money transfers from white Cubans in Florida to their relatives? Or do you feel that racism in Cuba was not addressed adequately by the revolution?
GW: As a Black woman and a social activist, I think that the issue of race is something that we should always be concerned about. While Cuba is not a utopia, I think it has made great strides since the triumph of its revolution to address the disparities that existed when the country was under dictatorship. These are tremendous accomplishments that should be applauded.
It’s not possible to discuss the challenges Cuba faces without looking at the role that the US government’s 54 year-old blockade has played. For decades the US government has attempted to strangle the island and its people through isolation, the lack of trade and commerce, separation of families and so much more. In addition we can’t forget that many of the more wealthy Cubans who left Cuba after the triumph of the revolution were “white” Cubans who are able to send remittances to their families still on the island. I would like to explore ways that we, outside of Cuba could support efforts to provide opportunities for all Cubans. These are issues we continue to address with our friends in Cuba.
As a Black woman born and raised in the United States of America, my responsibility is to criticize the system here that perpetuates racism in our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, prisons and streets. My responsibility is to highlight, speak out and protest the wanton slaughter of Black and Brown people across this country. At the root of these brutal acts of violence is unadulterated racism ignored by the State and too often perpetrated by the State.
The issue of race is Cuba is something that must be addressed by the Cuban people. Of course we want to understand the challenges and to support efforts to improve conditions for all Cubans, particularly as the island begins to experience the onslaught of people from the US — many who will carry with them their capitalistic views.
Cuba continues to be a revolutionary project in formation and the Cuban people continue to grapple with how to perfect their revolution. And we at IFCO/Pastors for Peace continue to stand with our Cuban family during this journey.
MCA: Why did the United States government, in 1960, decide to blockade Cuba? After all, the US government has created different modalities in China, Russia and other countries.
GW: There are so many ways to address this question. Cuba is certainly not a threat to the US government. It’s often said that Cuba is the threat of a good idea. Cuba is a nation that has shown, through its example, how to address the issue of health disparity, how to address the issue of illiteracy – ways that we might look at the environment and be good stewards of the earth.
However, Cuba, from its inception had determined that it was a revolution with a socialist perspective. There was a resistance to Cuba’s self-identification as socialist and that became a flashpoint for some people within the US government.
We also have to look at the fact that at the same time, there were claims that Cuba was directing missiles towards the US, during the so-called US-Cuba missile crisis. This was at a time during the cold war when tensions were high. All of that led the US government to punish Cuba, and the US blockade of Cuba has become the longest and most abusive form of collective punishment.
We are grateful that there is finally a rethinking of the relations between the US and Cuba. IFCO and Pastors for Peace has waged a sustained and rigorous campaign against US aggression towards Cuba and we will continue to do so until the illegal and immoral blockade has ended.
MCA: Tell us some of your experiences challenging that blockade with your caravans.
GW: During the first Caravan in November 1992, 100 caravanistas carried 15 tons of simple humanitarian aid – powdered milk, medicines, Bibles, bicycles, and school supplies. The US government had never before seen a direct grassroots challenge to the blockade, and they responded with force. CNN cameras filmed US Treasury officers assaulting a Catholic priest who was carrying Bibles to take to Cuba. Our emergency response network and the CNN coverage prompted thousands of calls to Washington from around the US and the caravan was allowed to cross.
In 1993 IFCO had 300 participants in the caravan — 65 of them Cuban Americans — and 100 tons of aid including medicines, school buses, computers, medical equipment, and other items deliberately chosen to challenge the blockade. US Treasury officials seized a little yellow school bus at the Laredo border, saying: “Fidel Castro might take a liking to it and use it as a military vehicle.” The 13 caravanistas who were on the bus when it was seized decided to stay on the bus and to fast until it was released. Their hunger strike lasted 23 days, during which time an international campaign was mounted by our emergency response network. Demonstrations were held in 20 cities, thousands of calls and faxes went to Washington, and a solidarity fast was held in front of the US Interests Section in Havana. The pressure eventually caused the US government to relent. The Little Yellow School Bus has been serving the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Center in Havana since that time.
MCA: Pastors for Peace administers the US participation in The Latin American School of Medicine. What is the history of US participation in this program?
GW: Since 1999, IFCO has been working with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), organizing Congressional delegations to visit Cuba. In May 2000, on the last night of their visit, the CBC delegation had an opportunity to meet with then-President Fidel Castro. In that meeting, a Congressman from the Mississippi Delta commended Cuba “for all that you have done to provide health care for the poorest people of the world.” He went on to talk about the critical shortage of health care services in his own home district in Mississippi.
President Castro responded that he was aware of the living conditions and the lack of health care services in Mississippi, and in other so-called ‘third-world’ regions of our ‘first-world’ nation. And he extended an invitation for young people from Mississippi to study at the Latin American School of Medicine. In September of that same year, President Castro visited New York City to participate in the Millennium Summit of the United Nations. In his historic speech at the Riverside Church, he expanded the medical school scholarship offer to include low-income students and students of color from all regions of the United States and Puerto Rico who would not otherwise have access to medical education.
Because of its excellent working relations with many sectors in Cuba, and with the Congressional Black Caucus, and because of its history of more than 40 years of creative community organizing for justice , IFCO was in a unique position to assume responsibility for administering the scholarship program for US students. The first US students entered the program in the spring of 2001. By the spring of 2010,122 students were enrolled. Thirty-three US students have already graduated with MD degrees.
MCA: Does Pastors for Peace only operate in Cuba or does your work extend to other Latin American countries?
GW: IFCO works on the local, national and international levels. Besides Cuba, we work in various parts of Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean and we continue to look at ways of expanding our mission. IFCO is prepared to recognize ways in which we might be supportive of the fight against injustice wherever it might be.
MCA: We wish you a productive and safe mission to Cuba and we hope that communities across the country will provide the Caravan with the necessary material support to demonstrate our solidarity with Cuba.
For more information and to contribute to the work of IFCO and Pastors for Peace, please see: http://ifconews.org/about-ifco-2/, and http://ifconews.org/cuba-caravan/caravan-resources/
To see caravan routes: http://www.cubacaravan2015.org
For a documentary on Cuba’s health system – Salud!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dthF5P7cBrg
(*) BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She is also Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com and coordinates the DC-based Hands-Up Coalition. She maintains a website: www.marshacoleman-adebayo.com