- A Cuba Caravan bus — covered with messages and filled with donations and volunteers — rolled into Charleston last week.
For 46 years, the United States has imposed an economic embargo on Cuba. Originally intended to pry open Cuba's iron curtain, now — in the absence of a cold war — the embargo is being motivated by a stubborn pathology.
"Cuba is not our enemy, Cuba is not a threat, there is no earthly reason our government should be instituting a blockade of trade, travel, and information," says Ellen Bernstein, associate director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO).
Bernstein and the IFCO, along with their partner, Pastors for Peace, recently made a pit stop in Charleston as part of their annual Cuban Caravan. Using civil disobedience to challenge the U.S. embargo policy, the caravan travels the country collecting vehicles, medical supplies, computers, educational materials, and other items prohibited by the embargo.
Fourteen different caravan trails filter into McAllen, Texas throughout the summer. In McAllen the donated items are loaded onto containers and the band of caravaners prepare to cross the border into Mexico with their contraband cargo. They board boats to Cuba where the materials are distributed to schools and hospitals. In the 17 years since the caravan project began, 2,500 tons of humanitarian aid has been delivered to Cuba.
At an event sponsored by the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American Culture and Research, this year's caravan riders enjoyed a little southern hospitality and shared with supportive Charlestonians the mission of the humanitarian road trip.
"The significant thing is that communities get involved in hands-on charity with Cuba. The aid becomes a symbol of friendship from America to Cuba," says Bernstein.
This year, over 110 volunteers of all ages are participating in the caravan. "This is my contribution as a Christian to the people of Cuba," says Manolo Enrique, a teenager from New York City who has joined the caravan. "This country doesn't care about our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean. It is our duty as Christians and as Americans to bring back truthful information and a certain objectivity to our friends and neighbors about life in Cuba and about the Cuban people. Everywhere we go, we are able to build bridges. We are building connections throughout the country as we travel with the caravan, and now we will be building connections with Cuba."
One of the connections the IFCO recently began to foster is with the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana.
In 2000, after a visit from the Congressional Black Caucus — which included S.C. Representative Jim Clyburn (D) — Fidel Castro offered to "grant scholarships to poor youth who cannot afford to pay the $200,000 it costs to get a medical degree in the U.S."
The IFCO now oversees the awarding of 250 full scholarships per year to students in underserved communities throughout the United States.
"Many poor and underprivileged young people put medical school out of their thinking because of the cost and a history of denied opportunities," says James Campbell, Charleston friend of the Cuba Caravan and long-time civil rights activist.
Campbell is working to get a group of medical students from South Carolina to apply for the scholarships. He believes that education in South Carolina is not necessarily a failure, but rather a study in the "success of pejorative and negative programs and ideas."
Increased interaction and exchange with Cuba may provide insight into how to address the shortcomings in our own educational and medical institutions. "Cuba is the threat of a good example," says the IFCO's Bernstein. "It is the example that it is possible to have universal health care, quality education for the poor, and hurricane relief that is effective and efficient."
Cuba offers universal free health care, and has twice as many physicians per capita as the United States. Their health indicators are on a par with those in the most developed nations, and high above many of those in South Carolina, including infant mortality. This is all despite the embargo, which limits availability of medical technology and pharmaceuticals.
The Latin American School of Medicine was initially founded as Cuba's response to the devastation created by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. "The permanent hurricane of poverty and underdevelopment kills more in Cuba than any hurricane," says Bernstein. "The Cuban government recognized this. They saw that health care and education were crucial, that infant mortality rates needed to be controlled."
What they have learned since then about disaster response has been invaluable. When Hurricane Dennis — a hurricane similar to Katrina in size and strength — hit Cuba twice in July of 2005, sweeping across the entire western portions of the island, only 18 people were killed. Katrina killed over 1,800 with thousands more displaced and still unaccounted for.
"Cuba is a small, poor, blockaded, Third World nation," says Bernstein. "They have no economic resources, but they have human resources and they have the will."
To learn more about IFCO, Pastors for Peace, the Cuban Caravan, and the Latin American School of Medicine scholarships, visit www.ifconews.org.