Before Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, unfair land distribution, a lack of health care and education, and virtual enslavement to the sugar and tourist industry led to a groundswell of discontentment among citizens. In 1959, Castro led a rebellion against the existing government and won. Shortly thereafter, Castro declared that Cuba was a communist country and began relations with the Soviet Union. In the midst of the Cold War’s hysteria, the US set up a trade embargo against Cuba, with the intent of crushing the "Castro regime".
The embargo cut off trade relations between the US and Cuba, made travel to the island for most US citizens illegal and strangled Cuba’s access to medical and educational supplies and food. The impact of the embargo continues to be devastating, and the Bush administration shows no signs of lifting it.
Despite the four-decade blockade, Pastors for Peace, an interreligious foundation, has led an annual caravan to Cuba since 1992, bringing food, medical and school supplies, and sympathetic U.S. citizens to the island.
The three-week journey across the United States ends in Tampico, TX, where the supplies are transferred to a boat. Caravan participants then fly to Cuba for a two-week visit that includes stops at schools, hospitals, and farms.
Besides providing Cuba with much-needed supplies, the goal is to strengthen ties and understanding between citizens of the two countries. On their way to Texas, caravan organizers give talks in various communities on Cuban realities and the impacts of the embargo.
On July 6, this year’s caravan made a stop at Burlington College where Miguel Hamond, a four-time participant, gave the talk. The event also included salsa music, a photo exhibit, and the screening of Miami/Havana, a film by Estella Bravo. The Queen City gathering focused in part on responses to the embargo.
Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle attended, and told the Vermont Guardian that he and other mayors are working on a resolution through the U.S. Conference of Mayors to normalize relations with Cuba.
"Burlington is a small community with many international interests and its own foreign policy that is often at odds with the federal government’s foreignpolicy," Clavelle explained. Referring to the proposed resolution, he added,"Forty years of embargo is not working. What it’s doing is inflicting pain and suffering on the people of Cuba and it’s time for a new approach."
The resolution was spearheaded by Salt Lake City Mayor Ross C. Anderson at the group’s conference in Chicago June 10-14. Mayors who attended discussed the idea, but decided to table it for the moment. Anderson argued that the embargo continues to hurt Cubans and limit travel by U.S. citizens, hampering the possibility of dialogue.
Educational trips to Cuba by U.S. school groups have been restricted significantly during the Bush administration. Yet, Burlington College managed to obtain a license in March that allows students to visit.
Anna Blackmer, the school’s humanities chairperson, discussed some of the new restrictions. "Students have to be in Cuba for at least 10 weeks. Most colleges are interested in shorter trips," she said. "The trip also has to be fully hosted; students aren’t able to spend money."
In the past, Cuban specialists often were hired part-time for trips. This isn’t possible with the recent restrictions, since all faculty involved must be full-time employees. "The real purpose of the legislation is to restrict the flow of money to Cuba," Blackmer argued. "Part of it is also because people go to Cuba for educational trips, then come back and love it. These restrictions are roundabout ways to limit the number of trips.
"A lot of this tightening down happened about a year ago, the same time the money Cubans in Miami could send to their families was restricted. It’s interesting that these changes happened a few months before the 2004 presidential election," Blackmer said.
Due to bureaucracy and complicated guidelines, the college had to apply twice. The license will last for a year, but the school hopes to renew it. Plans are underway for a semester abroad in Cuba starting this winter.
Blackmer said the college chose to apply, despite the restrictions, for a number of reasons. "We have an Inter-American Studies Program and Film Program, and people really wanted to go to Cuba to study things that they couldn’t study here. There’s a big interest among students to do this," she said.
Asked what Burlington College Pres. Jane Sanders thought of the idea, Blackmer said, "She’s very interested in Cuba. It’s a fascinating place, there’s no place like it in the world. I hardly know anyone who is for the trade embargo."
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org