Local group aids Cuba, advocates for embargo’s end

PITTSFORD — Members of the Rochester Committee on Latin America collected and helped load donations for the 21st-annual Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba last month led by Pastors for Peace, a national ecumenical group dedicated to social justice in Latin America.

This is ROCLA’s 16th year participating in the collection of goods to be shipped to Cuba and advocating for an end to the U.S. embargo and travel ban to Cuba, said Vic Vinkey, who oversaw the project locally. ROCLA members loaded the donations onto a Pastors for Peace bus that traveled to Rochester on July 9.

"The U.S. government should not stand in the way of helping people in Cuba," remarked Vinkey, who added that the bulk of the shipment from Rochester included medicine and medical supplies. ROCLA dedicated its shipment this year to Hugh Brantley, a local attorney who defended immigrants’ rights and worked on human-rights efforts in Central and Latin America, who died only days before the caravan came to Rochester, Vinkey said.

In 1996, Vinkey accompanied the caravan shipment to the Texas border and crossed into Mexico, traveling to Cuba from there. Vinkey explained that the process at the Texas-Mexico border involves inspections of the goods as well as recording of the names of those who are traveling with the caravan.

"I haven’t had any repercussions," he said. "There have been times when the caravan is stopped and held for extended periods of time."

One of those times was 1993 when one of the school buses — which are pink to raise awareness of the Cuba issue — carrying donated goods was impounded in Laredo, Texas, commented Jim Bouman, a Pastors for Peace member who traveled to Rochester to help load the shipment. The founders of Pastors for Peace then staged a hunger strike that lasted for 23 days until the buses were released, Bouman added. The documentary "Who’s Afraid of a Little Yellow Bus?" was made about the incident.

Generally, border-patrol officers treat the caravan organizers with respect, Bouman noted.

"They’re doing their job according to the law," he remarked.

The group now crosses into Mexico at the McAllen, Texas, border, he added. The buses, which this year were expected to carry 100 tons of donated goods, were to be loaded onto ships at the Port of Tampico in Mexico at the beginning of this month. Volunteers travel separately to Cuba by plane, Bouman said.

"A lot of (people) are against the travel embargo but not enough in our view," he said. "It’s why we do these caravans. In large part, it’s public education. And these are not criminal acts. They are violations of civil law."

Tourism travel to Cuba via Canada or Mexico is a violation of U.S. Department of Treasury regulations and could result in civil penalties as well as criminal prosecution, according to http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1097.html. While traveling to Cuba as part of a humanitarian effort is allowable, Pastors for Peace refuses to apply for the necessary permit to do so.

"They believe they should not have to ask for a permit to help people in Cuba," Vinkey said of the Pastors for Peace.

Although he did not have information on the total costs to get the supplies to Cuba, Bouman said that it is an expensive operation that is supported by donors from throughout North America. Many of the 110 volunteers who are part of the caravan pay their own $5,000 travel costs, he added.

Vinkey and Bouman said they feel encouraged after the U.S. House of Representatives’ agriculture subcommittee passed a bill to begin trade with and ease travel restrictions to Cuba, but know any such legislation still has a long way to go.

"Our farmers would love to sell to Cuba," Vinkey said of the agriculture committee vote. "Our hope is that President Obama would not veto any legislation."

Bouman said that while Americans have been "stewing over the Cuban missile crisis almost half a century ago," Cubans have moved on with their lives. Cubans have eradicated childhood poverty and have created a health-care system that has a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. At the same time, he knows from his travels to Cuba that generally the Cuban people want change in their government.

In Cuba, Pastors for Peace has a congenial working relationship with the government and receives assistance from an ecumenical group there.

"Things are not perfect in Cuba; it’s not a paradise," Bouman said. "But we have admiration for their dedication to their elders, to their children and to education."

EDITOR’S NOTE: Information about the history of the caravans can be found in a new documentary, a clip of which can be seen at www.pastorsforpeace.org.

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