To Cuba, With Baggage, and Love

McAllen, Texas.

The Pastors for Peace (PFP) 22nd annual Friendshipment is gathering at the U.S./Mexican border, readying to defy the ridiculous cold war relic known as the Cuba embargo. Passed in 1961, the ban on trade with Cuba was invigorated or intensified to cruel effect by everyone from Jesse Helms (R) to Robert Toricelli (D).

But, no matter.

Nearly 100 Caravanistas in over 130 U.S. and Canadian cities have raised their voices at fundraisers with “Lucius Walker! Vive! Vive! Vive!” in a show of solidarity with his ideals.

They’ve successfully completed the U.S. and Canadian legs of this year’s caravan.

They’ve garnered public support and nearly one hundred tons of humanitarian supplies via U.S. church potlucks and fundraisers.

They’ve amassed phone trees to lawyers, journalists, political representatives and activists–just in case.

So, of course, the disinformation campaign cannot be far behind.

This year’s first salvo reeked like a July 4th cherry bomb dud.

Or an exploding cigar?

What a stinker headline for Miami Herald editor Juan O. Tamayo’s article, “Wikileaks: Cable Says Peace Group’s Leader Threatened Student.” The punctuation of that headline in an otherwise ‘balanced’ article was strategically distracting.

At least the article explained how the Cuban program provided an estimated 10,000 medical students–mainly from Latin America and Africa– with free education and training plus free room and board. But Mr. Tamayo, appointed to the position of Associate Professor in the University of Miami’s Cuba Institute in 2009, certainly knows more.

Certainly he knows that over one hundred U.S. citizens have also benefitted from Cuba’s training.

Certainly he knew he was omitting from his article the fact that these underprivileged, yet deserving U.S. residents return to the states to provide free health care in ‘shock-doctrined’ cities like downtown Detroit.

Assisting the “…struggles of oppressed peoples for justice and self-determination” is the mission of the umbrella group over PFP –The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. IFCO runs a friendly but determined operation with a professional press office that issues many quotable statements.

Such as this one:

“…The caravan will travel to Cuba via Mexico, without asking for or accepting a US government license, as a peaceful, disciplined act of civil disobedience against the blockade and travel ban, and as ambassadors for a ‘people-to-people’ foreign policy based on mutual respect.

According to IFCO board president Rev. Thomas E. Smith, ‘The current licensing system is both immoral and illegal, because it requires people of faith to submit their acts of conscience and friendship to government licensing, and violates our right to freedom of religious expression, political thought, association and travel.’ …”

Pretty quotable, right? Certainly the news media won’t be strangers. The story of this year’s caravan is particularly compelling.

It is the first such journey without its founder. Reverend Lucius Walker, who died of a heart attack this fall at the age of 80, was honored earlier this year in Havana by Cubans who “Did not want to imagine a world without (him).”

I wish I’d met Rev. Walker. He was a reverend even an atheist could love with quotes like this one: “The bible says feed the hungry, clothe the poor. It doesn’t say to starve the Communists.”

U.S. domestic poverty, is increasingly, obviously just as planned as is overseas poverty. 22-year-Caravanista Lisa Valanti says that’s what the successful Cuba revolution shows. “I think that the reason why U.S. citizens are the only people in the world who cannot experience Cuba–is it would instantly reveal to them that their government has been lying to them, since–forever! In other words, Cuba has been so demonized by the propaganda in this country that when you go to Cuba, it’s very obvious that none of that is correct.”

And that’s why U.S. journalists aren’t allowed to show U.S. citizens evidence of Cuba’s success–in spite of the U.S. blockage.


So, thank goodness for the interactive aspect of the online Miami Herald that allowed the comments of Juan McAuliff below Tamayo’s ‘duck and cover’ era relic. McAuliff, of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development helped level the gatekeeping playing field on the “Walker threatened a student” meme with–reality.

His comment below the online article began:

“We obviously don’t know what (Rev.) Lucius Walker said or what the student told the USINT staff person. We do know that Mr. Parmly carried out the overly hostile policy of the Bush Administration in Cuba and he and his staff were regarded with justified suspicion.”

The real attacker was a nameless bureaucrat. We don’t know who produced a cable of what appears to be fiction–or over-reaction–from an also unnamed U.S. medical student.

But certainly we can guess the motive. Consider the block-buster article of acclaimed FBI whistle-blowing agent (and Time Magazine Co-Woman of the Year) Coleen Rowley. “How Top Secret America Misfires: The case for a 21st Century Church Commission,” explains the bankrupt and dangerous method for advancing within the FBI after 9/11.

Read it and weep. And wonder: “Can the same generation that guffawed at the film, “Reefer Madness” while in high school and college really approve of a points system that rewards our top law enforcement agents for opening bogus ‘terrorist threat’ files?” Take another Lunesta and call me in the morning–unless you’re on my crisis phone tree.

But, seriously–has the U.S learned nothing in 60 years?

Perhaps not, if we have journalists and editors who produce incomplete stories like the one accusing Rev. Walker of intolerance at best. Perhaps it’s no wonder the headline writer got it wrong. There apparently were no phones or email connections working over the July 4th holiday in Miami. No way to ask for a comment from Pastors for Peace, or a different opinion from those who actually were familiar with Rev. Walker, such as Mr. McAuliff, who continued:

“…”We also know that the U.S. under Bush treated Cuban medical personnel serving in third countries as targets for defection. The Obama administration, to its shame, has not terminated this policy of encouraging defections from humanitarian assistance groups.”

Lucius Walker was doing more than humanitarian work. He was performing the vital role of a true diplomat. He was trying to head problems off at the pass in a very tense environment.

A more accurate headline would have read: “Opportunistic Bureaucrat Smears Latter Day Freedom Rider.”

For the Freedom Rider gene is exactly what invigorated Lucius Walker’s work. James Farmer’s group of multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-creed challengers of Jim Crow was a model for later movements, such as the Venceremos Brigades, the Yankee Sandinistas, Pastors for Peace, Cindy Sheehan’s “For What Noble Cause?” crusade, and the Gaza Flotilla(s). Disinformation campaigns from U.S. corporate media has accompanied official D.C. denouncements of each such humanitarian effort.

Remember Farmer’s comments to a skittish Kennedy Administration official:

“My objective is not just to make a point, but to bring about a real change in the situation. We will continue the Ride until people can sit wherever they wish on buses and use the facilities in any waiting room available to the public. Please tell the attorney general that we have been cooling off for 350 years. If we cool off any more, we will be in a deep freeze. The Freedom Ride will go on.”

Images of the Freedom Riders’ state-sanctioned pummeling shamed and embarrassed U.S. politicians and businessmen. The same courageous and open spirit empowered a variety of movements, as a mature Bernardine Dohrn acknowledged for PBS decades later:

“I like the bridges that have been built between the feminists and the gay and the environmental movements. All the progeny of the Sixties. All the many movements that have happened since then are now part of a kind of a big tent of anti-globalization and anti-empire. So it’s a different world, but trying to act on your principles, trying to use humor, trying to tweak power, trying to be willing to take the consequences of what you believe in.”

The progress Dohrn noted came in spite of massive campaigns of government disinformation, deceit, and worse aimed at humanitarian activists. For instance, passage of the civil rights laws was relatively quickly followed by the conspiracy to kill Rev. Martin Luther King.

That conspiracy seemingly encouraged the FBI to ramp up Cointelpro hounding and/or annihilation of the Black Panthers, starting with Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

We must never forget the law enforcement abuses of King and Hampton’s non-Panther allies–some of whom included the earliest Cuban solidarity activists to venture to Cuba for a look-see after the revolution, such as a young Bernardine Dohrn. Such disruption tactics continued despite Congressional investigation and denunciation in the form of the Church Committee hearings and the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Kangaroo court trials of activists including Assata Shakur (periodically a hot potato exile in Cuba) wrongly excluded testimony from Frank Church and others about Cointelpro continuing its illegal work into the 1980s and beyond.

Despite admitted, continued, and wrongful government infiltration of such groups as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), the Central American solidarity movement remained vibrant and varied through the 1980s. Pax Christi, Sister Cities programs, plus various nuns and ‘Yankee Sandinistas’ openly fundraised in churches across the U.S. to bolster the rebels fighting the U.S. funded slaughter of the El Salvadoran death squad junta. The movement also helped counter the murderous U.S.-funded Contras’ destruction.

Pastors for Peace emerged from that moment.

On a fact-finding mission in 1988, Rev. Walker was wounded by a Contra attack on the Bluefields ferry. Unlike the 2 Nicaraguans who died, Walker defied the common wisdom of not-seeking-emergency-room-aid-lest-the-Contras finish-the-botched deed in the E.R.. Walker lived. And he wondered about his attackers, according to the accurate portion of his sanitary, dry New York Times obituary last Fall:

“…Mr. Walker’s first thought, he said, was that he was hit by a bullet paid for by his own country. He called his second thought a prophetic vision: he would form an organization of pastors to fight, or at least clean up after, what he called American imperialism….”

A week later, the Times printed the following correction:

“…An obituary last Sunday about the Baptist minister and political activist Lucius Walker referred incorrectly to a 1988 incident in Nicaragua in which Mr. Walker and others were wounded and two people were killed. The delegation led by Mr. Walker was attacked by contra rebels ? not by soldiers of the Nicaraguan government, which was not supported by the United States at that time….”

Really. With a straight face?

Certainly Times editors knew, or should have known– courtesy of many books 32 years after the incident–that Walker had not been attacked by anyone other than the Contras. Walker had discussed this attack many times and he was prolificly quoted by those following the Central American solidarity movement about the events of August 2, 1988:

“…My daughter Gail and I were among 200 civilians on a boat on the River Escondido in Nicaragua, which was viciously attacked by the contras. Two Nicaraguans died and 29 passengers were wounded. That night in the hospital, while I was being teated for a bullet wound, I prayed to God seeking spiritual guidance to find an appropriate response to that act of terrorism. The inspiration that God gave me was to create Pastors for Peace to take caravans of material aid to the victims of U.S. aggression.”

The U.S. journalism profession’s indifference and recklessness with the facts about Cuba and its supporters is, at least, consistent. Times journalists, and many others, failed to challenge in a timely manner the Reagan Administration officials who had dared blame U.S. aid workers for their own murders. The family and friends of Ben Linder toured the U.S. after Reagan Administration officials said Linder deserved his destiny for constructing low-head hydro-electric generation capacity in El Cua, Nicaragua. Even Florida Senator Connie Mack accused Linder’s mother of “politicizing this situation,” adding “I don’t want to be tough on you, but I really feel you have asked for it.”

Linder’s family and supporters embarked upon a national tour of media outlets that largely failed to get his story properly told. Imagine if Elliot Abrams and Marlin Fitzwater’s similar contempt for Linder had been countered with any regularity by this quote from the engineering graduate: “It’s a wonderful feeling to work in a country where the government’s first concern is for its people, for all its people.”

Why is it so hard for U.S. news media workers to print such statements?

Consider Otto Reich’s late 1980s visit to NPR–a place he called the “Little Havana on the Potomac. Solomon and Lee note that Reich bragged at having visited large and medium market radio, television, and newspaper outlets around the country. He proudly took credit for the firing, reassignment–or change in tone and content–of particular journalists whose coverage did not spout the White House’s admitted propaganda tactics. The idea was, he said later, to paint “Black Hats” on the Sandinistas and “White Hats” on the (El Salvador) Junta.

This is the opposite of public service. So, of course, it’s a good living off U.S. tax dollars. George (Shrub) Bush made sure of that with his 2004 recess appointment of Reich as Latin America State Department envoy. Now Reich works for Honduras (post-coup, of course) as a lobbyist.

No doubt Reich remains a quotable and perhaps off-the-record source for journalists ‘covering’ Latin America.

We may not be able to follow the bread crumbs from Reich’s NPR visit to sell the ‘Bad Sandinista/’Good Death Squads’ meme to the July 5th hit piece on Rev. Walker in the Miami Herald. But there seems to be a chill in the air. How does that work? Consider the NPR producer commenting that, after Reich’s visit, news personnel would question news text about Central America, asking, “What would Otto (Reich) think?”

It is important to see and acknowledge that the same Cointelpro tactics, the same media smear jobs get applied to: the Freedom Riders; the Venceremos Brigade(s); the anti-Vietnam war movement; the Central American Solidarity movement(s) and on and on–including the Pastors for Peace Caravan.

Was the Miami Herald piece just sloppy journalism or a strategic hit piece? Will border bureaucrats test the resolve of the group now that its charismatic leader is dead?”

Predictions are the aid will go through as usual. But, the ‘reverse border challenge’ in which aid from Cuba flows back to the U.S., is perhaps the real challenge to U.S. hegemony. Help from Cuba is an image from which the U.S. recoils–even in real ‘third world’ moments like Katrina. The Cuban doctors offered for New Orleans did not ponder the U.S. refusal before heading, and without much attention in the U.S. news media, to assist people in the Pakistan earthquake.

What the U.S. could learn from Cuba is immense.

Not only is health care universal and free (remember the 9/11 firefighters without insurance being treated in Havana in “Sicko”). Education is free. They grow their own food in phenomenally productive organic gardens. In fact, Havana grows its own, healthy food within its city limits on converted patches of lawn. Rent the documentary “Blocqeo” for more propaganda-bashing images you will not see or hear about in the U.S.

Educate yourself. And speak up. Recommend people learn from Cubans. IFCO Board of Directors President Reverend Tom Smith encouraged Houston caravan supporters to speak about Cuba at any opportunity. “Don’t be silent,” he said.

For silence can kill a movement. It can also kill the spirits of those with whom the movement interacts. I’m reminded of the way U.S. activists abandoned Nicaragua precisely as the Chamorro government set out to reprivatize its hard reclaimed commons. I remember seeing Luce Ortiz (not her real name) around the same time Bob Hercules’ telling documentary (“Did They Buy It?”) premiered. I asked her why there were, all of a sudden, so few Central American solidarity events in Gainesville for me to cover. “Good question,” she responded, not a little bitter.

News from her family in Nicaragua was bleak. Her sister, an ardent Sandinista, had recently wrapped herself in a blanket so as not to leave a mess, sat in the family bathtub, and shot herself in the head. ‘Luce’ blamed the return of hopelessness in the face of an erosion of a revolution’s victories and the rapid re-privatization of Nicaragua’s commons.

And isn’t that exactly what Washington’s 50-year campaign against Cuba seeks–a defeat at the macro and micro levels of the longest sustained rebellion against all the things which have killed U.S. agriculture, manufacturing, and any sense of an egalitarian culture? It certainly seems the real goal is the defeat of any U.S. aspirations toward free education, free health care, and affordable, healthy food.

Seen in this light, the Pastors for Peace 20 year campaign is more of a threat to the U.S. military industrial complex hegemony than: the Freedom Riders gave Bull Connors; Cindy Sheehan gave (and gives) George Bush and his successor, or the Gaza Flotilla gives Israeli and AIPAC buffoons.

Washington challenged PFP’s resolve in 1993 and 1996 at the border. Faced with, respectively, a 23-day hunger strike and a 93 day hunger strike, the Clinton Administration backed down and the aid rolled through the checkpoints. In 1996, the seizure of 400 computers so enraged the European solidarity community that Cuba had received 1400 computers even before Washington finally relented.

This year’s 100 caravanistas are a nearly equal mix of vetaran blockade breakers and new, young, eager faces. The group’s call and response chant has developed in honor of the 63rd birthday (July 16) and words of Assata Shakur. The chant rises three times from a whisper to a joyful shout:

“It is our duty to fight!
It is our duty to win!
We must love and protect one another!
We have nothing to lose but our chains!”

Imagine what U.S. citizens could learn from Cubans about adapting to the new reality staring us down an oil pipeline that is unsustainable in ways practical and moral. The U.S. endgame oil wars can never end ‘terror’ but they can and are ripping what remains of the ‘American’ social fabric. Just this month, the figurehead of the party LBJ linked forever with the “War on Poverty” offered to end a central piece of the New Deal.

Cuba provides a redemptive example.

Their people can model behavior we already need. The lesson they can teach is how to take care of one another without engaging in cruelty and denial. In Cuba, food rationing during the ‘special period’ after Soviet oil stopped arriving at the island nation was the only thing between Ethiopia-style famine and the new reality of cooperative organic gardens, thinner waistlines, and healthier people.

That new reality is what Pastors for Peace is hoping to experience in Cuba yet again. But getting there means leaving from any country other than the U.S.A.. If the caravan members are hassled going or coming, we will know the lessons of Cuba are something Washington doesn’t want explored.

How interesting that a religious group is behind a political lesson. As Obery Hendricks explains in “The Politics of jesus: Rediscoving the true revolutionary nature of jesus’ teachings and how they have been corrupted:

“…Although…Jesus explains…that economic injustice will not be vanquished he was not suggesting that the victory will be accomplished by supernatural means. By highlighting in Matthew 20:13-16 the practice of those in control to isolate and punish spokespersons in order to intimidate workers and discourage them from actively opposing their mistreatment, Jesus demonstrates the need for workers to stand together in solidarity.”

This atheist Caravanista embed notes that the biblical scholar said nothing about borders standing between workers.

Onward to Tampico!

Lisa Barr is travelling with the Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba.