She took me to the hotel where those arriving from Cuba were being greeted, and we met Luis. Luis was a fishing boat captain who had arrived just hours before with a boatload of refugees. He told a captivating story.
The day before, forty Cubans boarded his boat, ostensibly to go fishing. They carried no luggage and only a sack lunch to avoid suspicion. Luis charted a course straight through the U.S. Naval submarine fields. One submarine surfaced, intercepted them, gave them food and water, and sent them on their way toward Miami. They had arrived safely.
As Luis told me the story, he became more and more excited and, at one point, I could tell he was talking directly to me. Norka interpreted. “He says he is going back tomorrow to get more refugees and is asking if you would like to go with him.” That would have been more than I was bargaining for. I declined.
Forty-seven years later, times had changed. Cuban revolutionaries controlled the government. The United States government long ago begun a campaign of regime change. It imposed an economic trade and travel blockade designed to keep Cuba poor and to prevent U.S. Citizens from traveling there. The embargo was the compelling reason for my trip to Cuba in 2007.
I had met Rev. Lucius Walker, Director of Pastors for Peace, an interfaith organization which opposed the embargo because of the unjust economic burden it placed on Cuban citizens and for its restriction on U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel. Walker's authentic spiritual depth, his love of people, his quiet determination, and his capable leadership was transparent. Since 1992, he had guided Friendshipment Caravans, taking humanitarian aid and visitors to Cuba without the required license in protest of the embargo. I was hooked. It was now the time for me to go to Cuba.
One hundred twenty-five of us crossed from McAllen, Texas into Reynosa, Mexico in the early hours of July 18th. We were a caravan of twelve vehicles, most of them used school buses, and carried a hundred tons of humanitarian aid. We traveled three hundred fifty miles to the port city of Tampico where in the wee hours of the morning we loaded our cargo, including several of the buses, aboard a freighter. We boarded a Russian-built Ilyushin 62 jet for a brief flight to Havana.
The Cuban customs agents stamped our tickets instead of our passports to save us trouble with our own U.S. Customs when we crossed back into the U.S. later. We divided ourselves into three groups to facilitate travel, and the Cuban chapter of our adventure began. During the next nine days, we traveled through three provinces meeting people and visiting hospitals, schools, art centers, museums, and community gardens. We worshiped at a Presbyterian Church in Sancti Spiritu, toured the Che Guevera Museum in Vila Clara, were guests at a block party, and strolled along the famous Malecon waterfront. On our last night there, we attended the Medical School Graduation ceremony where doctors from all over the world, given free medical education in Cuba, graduated. They would return to their home countries to serve the poor and the sick.
The next day, we were quiet on the flight from Havana to Tampico. The ride from Tampico to the U.S. border was even quieter. Our moment of truth would come when we attempted to reenter the U.S. By then, we would have violated the embargo and would face possible penalties, ranging from fines to imprisonment.
We were respectful as we each faced a customs agent. We offered only our passport and customs declaration and had agreed not to answer any leading questions about our trip. We passed through without exception and without incident. I am convinced this was because of the respect Pastors for Peace has gained through the years. We challenged the embargo, but we were otherwise completely respectful and law-abiding.
Back home in Colorado, interest in the mission grew. Over a seven year period, we collected close to half a million dollars’ worth of medical and educational supplies, other humanitarian aid, and five school buses which we sent with subsequent Friendshipment Caravans. The last school bus we sent is handicapped accessible and is being used by an orthopedic hospital in Havana.
The twenty-sixth Caravan will make its way to Cuba this July. The Caravans will continue until the embargo is completely lifted.
I tend to stay on the sidelines of social justice issues. I do, however, reserve the right to help the poor and to travel freely to make friends beyond borders. Although the trip to Cuba violated the embargo, I see it as an active, nonviolent alternative foreign policy action—a call for freedom and justice that was worth the risk.
A sometime Storyteller, Pastor Max Hale has served over half a century in ministry in various settings, including the military, the campus, and the local church. You may follow him on his blog: www.avirtualfrontporch.com