Cuba Friendshipment Caravan Campaign: A Rich History

Since 1992 IFCO/Pastors for Peace has organized Friendshipment caravans to Cuba.

With each Friendshipment caravan, and each successive effort we make to resist the US economic blockade of Cuba, the US government has been compelled to back down, to relent, to soften its enforcement of the blockade. The proof that our efforts have worked lies in recent changes announced by the Obama Administration to move toward normalizing relations with Cuba. We welcome this first step toward the reversal of a blockade policy that has caused decades of pain and suffering for the Cuban people. But we know that our work continues.

As Reverend Lucius Walker, the founder of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, has said, “We act not just in defiance of our government, but in obedience to our conscience.”

The following chronology demonstrates, active non-violent civil disobedience has been a winning strategy:

The First Friendshipment Caravan

Traveled 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; the caravan was allowed to cross.

Friendshipment II (summer 1993)

Had 300 participants — 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 schoolbus at the Laredo border, saying that “Fidel Castro might take a liking to it and use it as a military vehicle.” The 13 caravanistas who were on board 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 of pressure on Washington 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. Active nonviolence won the day; the intense pressure mounted by our network 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 1993.

Friendshipments III, IV, and V

Each of these caravans were intended to intensify the challenge in a new way. Each of these caravans brought some new item of technology — a satellite dish, solar panels, etc. — to further challenge the blockade, along with hundreds of tons of aid and hundreds of drivers.

Friendshipment VI (1996)

Was supposed to be a simple “mini-caravan” to deliver a shipment of 400 donated medical computers — 286s and XTs, nearly obsolete by US standards. These computers were to serve as communications terminals for an island-wide medical information network, which would make it possible for Cuban doctors to locate scarce medicines and have access to consultation and treatment data. The US government, in its most brutal confrontation to date, attacked the caravan and seized all the computers. In response, and in the name of reconciliation and peace, five caravan participants consecrated a “Fast for Life” on February 21, 1996. They fasted for 32 days in a tent on the San Diego border where the computers had been seized. Then they moved their fast to Washington, DC and pitched their tent across the street from the US Capitol. As the Fast continued, the campaign for the release of the computers reached unprecedented levels. . International organizations from Europe, Africa, and Latin America pledged that they would send a total of 1400 computers, in solidarity with Cuba and with the Fast for Life. As pressure from our national network mounted, 70 members of Congress joined the effort and actively advocated for the release of the computers. The Treasury Secretary and the National Security Adviser received so many phone calls from our supporters that they had to change their phone numbers. White House staffers indicated that, at the height of the campaign, the White House was receiving a phone call every four minutes demanding that the computers be released and sent to Cuba. On Day 94 of the Fast, the US Treasury Department released the computers to the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. They were delivered to Cuba in September 1996, and now make up 40% of the INFOMED network, where they provide life-giving medical information for Cuban doctors.

Friendshipment VII (July 1997)

Was dedicated to the children of Cuba, and delivered 500 tons of aid — including a mobile library equipped with a Pentium computer, a pediatric ambulance, four school buses, and other sophisticated medical and educational aid. In San Diego, the caravan’s western contingent was ambushed and attacked by a band of right-wing Cuban American terrorists; but the Treasury Department relented and allowed the whole shipment to cross without a license.

Friendshipment VIII (July 1998)

This caravan was dedicated to the children and elders of Cuba. One hundred and sixty five volunteers from across the US, Canada, Mexico and six European countries participated in this caravan. The aid delivered included three bookmobiles, two ambulances, five school buses, Pentium computers, pediatric and geriatric medicines, and raw materials that will enable Cuba to manufacture $385,00 worth of life-saving antibiotics.

Friendshipment IX (July 1999)

In honor of Cuba’s unrelenting commitment to provide free health services for the poorest people of the world, our ninth caravan was dedicated to Cuba’s doctors and nurses. We delivered millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated medical aid and equipment; and we visited the brand-new Latin American Medical School, where Cuba was just beginning to train young doctors for the nations devastated by Hurricanes Mitch and Georges.

Friendshipment X (July 2000)

Dedicated to Cuba’s students and athletes, the caravan delivered educational aid and sports equipment in addition to valuable hospital equipment, an ambulance, and several school buses. Participants included the Lost Coast Pirates, a California baseball team of 10- to 12-year-old boys who played a three-game series with kids in Cuba.

Friendshipment XI (November 2000)

Members of our eleventh caravan participated in Cuba’s Second World Solidarity Conference, and in a bicycle trip to western Cuba. In honor of Cuba’s innovations in alternative energy, we delivered solar panels and equipment which will provide electricity for two rural schools in the mountains of Pinar del Rio.

Friendshipment XII (July 2001)

Celebrating Cuba’s innovations in alternative energy and transportation, 95 caravan participants delivered 80 tons of aid — including a 53-foot trailer packed with medical supplies and a bikemobile fully equipped for repairing bicycles. And for the first time ever, this caravan included a “reverse challenge” in which Cuban-made products were brought back to the US to be given to community-based groups. Packages of BioRat, a biological rodenticide developed in Cuba and successfully used in Cuba, China and Bolivia, were retained by US Customs and IFCO/Pastors for Peace continues to fight for the release of the product. In the meanwhile, Cuban-made solar equipment will be used to electrify a Native American reservation in California.

Friendshipment XIII (July 2002)

This caravan celebrated Cuba’s achievements in health and healing for its people and the peoples of the world. We once again visited the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, this time to meet the dozens of US students, recruited by IFCO, who are studying on full Cuban scholarships to serve as doctors in medically under-served areas of the US. The caravan also met with family members of the five Cuban heroes who are wrongly imprisoned in US jails for defending their homeland against Miami- based terrorist groups. A further reverse challenge successfully brought back to the US a donation of Cuban coffee, honey and bee pollen.

Friendshipment XIV (July 2003)

125 caravanistas traveled to Santiago de Cuba to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the revolution, as part of a joint travel challenge with the Venceremos Brigade. The caravan delivered 80 tons of aid in support of Cuba’s comprehensive national program to care for the elders of Cuba. For the third year running Cuban products were brought back to the US.

Friendshipment XV (July 2004)

In spite of increased travel restrictions to Cuba by the Bush administration and under the threat of being fined, the 125 members of the 15th Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba successfully carried 126 tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba calling for REGIME CHANGE AT HOME NOT IN CUBA!!!

Friendshipment XVI (July 2005)

This caravan, with 145 caravanistas, included 5 donated school buses that were decorated in honor of the 5 Cuban heroes who are still unjustly imprisoned in US jails for defending their homeland against Miami-based terrorist groups. The caravan also honored Cuba’s commitment to caring for all of its people including those with special needs, and delivered 140 tons of aid despite the US Customs seizing 45 boxes of computer equipment destined for children with learning difficulties. IFCO/Pastors for Peace campaigned successfully for the ultimate release of the seized computers.

Friendshipment XVII (July 2006)

This caravan was dedicated to Cuban children with special needs and the aid delivered included most of the computers destined for them that had been denied passage by US customs the year before. Despite heightened threats of fines from the Bush administration, 100 caravanistas traveled to Cuba, where they were joined by members of the Venceremos Brigade and US-Cuba Labor Exchange for the fourth successful joint travel challenge.

Friendshipment XVIII (July 2007)

135 caravanistas traveled to Cuba in celebration of Cuba’s elders. Participants were honored to attend the graduation ceremony for over 1500 students of the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, including 8 graduating US students. This caravan also saw a hiphop without borders exchange with 8 young US hiphop artists handing over turntables and keyboards to their Cuban equivalents.

Friendshipment XIX (July 2008)

This caravan included the second hip-hop exchange and 5 donated school buses that were decorated in honor of the 5 Cuban heroes who are still unjustly imprisoned in US jails for defending their homeland against Miami-based terrorist groups. US customs seized 32 boxes of computer equipment, but when these were released on the return of the caravan to the US, caravanistas immediately carried all the boxes back into Mexico for onward transportation to Cuba.

Friendshipment XX (July 2009)

130 caravanistas traveled to Cuba with 132 tons of aid including 10 vehicles. A significant part of the aid consisted of construction tools, and supplies including roofing materials to support the reconstruction effort after the 3 hurricanes that hit Cuba in the fall of 2008.

Friendshipment XXI (July 2010)

This caravan dedicated to the children of Cuba delivered 9 school buses. While in Cuba the caravan celebrated the 80th birthday of IFCO’s Executive Director the Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr.

Friendshipment XXII (JULY 2011)

This caravan was dedicated to the youth of Cuba and delivered over 100 tons of humanitarian aid along with 11 vehicles. This caravan also commemorated the life and work of our founder Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., with both solemn and joyous memorials in Cuba.

Friendshipment XXIII (JULY 2012)

This caravan marked the 20th anniversary of our US-Cuba Friendshpment Caravans. We donated 6 vehicles and 80 tones of humanitarian aid. Highlights of this caravan included a series of wonderful celebrations of our 20th anniversary, a beautiful parade through Havana of caravan vehicles donated over the past 20 years, a visit with Elian and his father in Matanzas, laying of a wreath at the anti-imperialist tribunal on behalf of our founding director Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., and an inspiring meeting with family members of the Cuban Five.

Friend shipment XXIV (July 2013)

Instead of travelling north to south along various caravan routes, for this caravan we identified more than a dozen hub cities across the country, each with several surrounding cities, where we held our educational events.  After travelling to Mexico City, Caravanistas were welcomed in Santiago de Cuba, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in November 2012.

Caravan members also joined in the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Army Barracks, the beginning of a revolution of hope.  Caravanistas carried smaller more targeted humanitarian aid for our friends in Santiago, where we learned about Cuba’s unique approach to hurricane preparedness, the environmental impact of the storm, and visited homes and churches heavily hit by the storm.

Caravan participants also worked side by side with Cuban friends and members of the 44th Venceremos Brigade to clear debris at an apartment complex being constructed for residents there–who lost their homes to the storm.

Friendshipment XXV (July 2014)

The 25th Cuba Friendshipment Caravan was a major success. Our network throughout the US and Canada organized over 50 solidarity events and sent almost 100 tons (including vehicles) of aid to Cuba. Our partners on the island were very impressed with the aid we delivered this year. “The best it’s ever been” said Pastora Estela Hernandez of the William Carey Baptist Church.

This summer 20 US and European participants of the 25th Caravan all met in McAllen, Texas to organize, sort, label, and manifest all of the aid donated throughout the US and Canada.

The Caravanistas were extremely happy with the programming this year as they learned about many aspects of Cuban life. They visited the Organiponico Vivero Alamar (OVA), an organic, sustainable farm just outside Havana where they learned about sustainable farming. At OVA everything is recycled and organic, unlike other farming practices around the world that rely on the synthetic fertilizers and the model of industrialized agriculture.

They met with the Manuel Vázquez Seijido, head of the Legal Advice Team of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) who answered all their questions about the Cuban LGBT community. It was very encouraging to learn that Cuba was extremely advanced on this issue, much more than the US.

On several occasions they also had the fortune to meet with Fernando Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five heroes who after serving 15 years in a US Federal prison for protecting his country against terrorist attacks, was released in February 2014. It was an honor for all of us to meet this modern day freedom fighter who sacrificed so much for his country. Fernando was extremely grateful for the work and solidarity that IFCO/Pastors for Peace and the caravanistas have been a part of for the past 15 years in support of the Cuban Five and implored that we continue our work until the remaining three: Gerardo, Antonio, and Ramon, who a that point had not been released yet. We provided him with a 25th Friendshipment caravan t-shirt and named him an honorary caravanista.

Friendshipment XXVI (July 2015)

The 26th Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba arrived in Havana on Friday, July 17th where we were welcomed by the Martin Luther King Center and the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, a suburb of Havana with a wonderful ceremony featuring a choir of children.  The event was attended by notables such as Rev. Raul Suarez of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, President of ICAP (Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People) Kenia Serrano and Vice President Fernando Gonzalez, the daughter of the late Pastora Estella of the William Carey Church, Susana.

The caravanistas enjoyed a 10-day educational and faith-based program in Havana and Sancti Spiritus where they learned about many aspects of Cuban life.

The caravan visited  the “Convento de Belen” in Old Havana, is a multi service senior center that provides educational programs, nutrition, lifelong learning workshops, housing, and home-based services for older adults, but also an early childhood center, an elementary school classroom, programs for children with special needs, and services to families.

We also visited the restaurant cooperative “La Casona de 17”, that has 46 workers who run the operation and share in the profits. Migdelis Azahares, president of the cooperative, explained to our group how the model functions, how the partners work together, decisions are made and other important aspects of the burgeoning business model sponsored by the Cuban government.

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