by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
For more than a quarter century, U.S. volunteers have delivered aid to the Cuban people, through the Pastors for Peace Caravan. Gail Walker, daughter of the late Rev. Lucius Walker, who initiated the caravans, speaks of the historical “link between Cuba and the African diaspora,” and the volunteers’ determination to continue “the solidarity that we feel for our Cuban brothers and sisters.”
The 26th Friendshipment Caravan En Route to Havana, Cuba
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“Our work is not charity but instead rooted in our firm belief that there needs to be a change in US policy toward Cuba.”
The IFCO/Pastors for Peace Caravan is en route to Cuba to deliver life saving material support to the Cuban people. But, Pastors for Peace not only delivers material support, it also provides an important model of solidarity in action. The Caravan could face impediments from the US Border Control in Texas but these courageous caravanistas are fearless and have a history of not flinching in the face of US intimidation. In this interview, Gail Walker, Executive Director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, discusses the 1988 attack on a peaceful mission to Nicaragua led by her father, the late Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., by US-backed Contra forces, in which two people were killed and 29 wounded, including her father.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What kinds of material support will IFCO/Pastors for Peace deliver to Cuba on this mission?
Gail Walker: For the past 26 years, IFCO/Pastors for Peace has delivered humanitarian aid that has ranged from medicines, medical equipment, Bibles, bicycles, powder milk, wheelchairs, walkers and computers. We have collected materials from local hospitals, churches, unions, workplaces and schools. The caravan will collect many of the same items, along our route to Texas, and provide these materials to our colleagues in Cuba. We continue to expand upon that list of humanitarian aid. We appeal to churches, the progressive community and other organizations to join our efforts and support the next Pastors for Peace Caravan.
But it is important to note that the aid we collect and deliver is symbolic. We know that we can never supply all of Cuba’s needs and that is not our intent. Our work is not charity but instead rooted in our firm belief that there needs to be a change in US policy toward Cuba. The aid we deliver is an expression of the solidarity that we feel for our Cuban brothers and sisters.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Since African-American churches tend to be politically conservative, have you received support from these churches or do you rely on predominately white churches and the white progressive community?
Gail Walker: No, our support has been very diverse. In fact, we launched our 26th Cuban Friendship Caravan this summer from the Florida Avenue Baptist Church (in Washington, DC), an historically Black Church. The Caravan received a warm welcome from the pastor and members of the congregation. There is a clear recognition and understanding of what Cuba represents – what it offers the world. There has historically been a link between Cuba and the African diaspora. There has been a recognition of how much Cuba has done to embrace its African-ness so I think as a result of that knowledge – of that understanding – the relationship between IFCO, the Caravan, the Black community in the US, and Black churches has been very strong. At the same time, we have worked with community groups – a variety of groups across the country. We enjoy a mixture of support from a variety of communities.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What is your perspective on racism in Cuba, whether it is re-emerging due to the liberalization of white Cubans in Florida sending money to their relatives in Cuba or whether racism in Cuba was not addressed adequately by the revolution?
Gail Walker: As a Black woman and a social activist, I think that the issue of race is something that we should always be concerned about. While Cuba is not a utopia, I think Cuba has made great strides since the triumph of its revolution to address the disparities that existed when the country was under dictatorship and that these are tremendous accomplishments that should be applauded. It is not possible to discuss the challenges Cuba faces without looking at the role that the US government's 54 year-old blockade has played. For decades the US government has attempted to strangle the island and its people through isolation, the lack of trade and commerce, separation of families and so much more. In addition we can't forget that many of the more wealthy Cubans who left Cuba after the triumph of the revolution were "white" Cubans who are able to send remittances to their families still on the island. I would like to explore ways that we, outside of Cuba who love and respect the country and its people, could support efforts to provide opportunities for all Cubans. These are issues we continue to address with our friends in Cuba.
“The issue of race is Cuba is something that must be addressed by the Cuban people.”
When it comes to racism as a Back woman born and raised in the United States of America, my responsibility to is to identify racism here and to fight it. My responsibility is to criticize the system here that perpetuates that racism in our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, prisons and in our streets. My responsibility is to highlight, speak out and protest the wanton slaughter of Black and Brown people across this country. At the root of these brutal acts of violence is unadulterated racism ignored by the state and too often perpetrated by the state.
The issue of race is Cuba is something that must be addressed by the Cuban people. Of course we want to understand the challenges and support efforts to improve conditions for all Cubans particularly as the island begins to experience the onslaught of people from the US -- many who will carry with them their capitalistic views.
Cuba continues to be a revolutionary project in formation and the Cuban people continue to grapple with how to perfect their revolution. And we at IFCO/Pastors for Peace continue to stand with our Cuban family during this journey.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Turning our attention to the contributions made by your father, the late Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., what was his entry point into Latin American/Cuba political or mission work?
Gail Walker: In 1988, a regularly scheduled passenger ferryboat travelling along the Rio Escondido (Hidden River) in southern Nicaragua was brutally attacked by contra forces recruited and armed by the US government. My father, the Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr. was on that ferry, along with 200 Nicaraguan civilians. The Contras were armed and supported by the Reagan Administration. Two people were killed during that attack and 29 were wounded – including my father. From his hospital bed, my father conceived of the Pastors for Peace project. My father never wavered from his support of the Nicaraguan or Cuban people nor his determination to end US hostilities towards these two countries. He often said, “We act not just in defiance of our government, but in obedience to our conscience.”
IFCO engages in active non-violent civil disobedience. During the First Caravan,
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.
“The US government had never before seen a direct grassroots challenge to the blockade, and they responded with force.”
Another example of our resistance to the US blockade of Cuba is the 1993 caravan. IFCO had 300 participants in the caravan — 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 school bus 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 to place 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 that time.
IFCO and Pastors for Peace has waged a sustained and rigorous campaign against US aggression against Cuba and we will continue to do so until the illegal and immoral blockade has ended.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Pastors for Peace administers the US participation in The Latin American School of Medicine. What is the history of US participation in this program?
Gail Walker: IFCO has been working since 1991 on a variety of projects to bring about reconciliation and normalized relations between the United States and Cuba and to challenge the immoral US economic blockade of Cuba. Since 1999, IFCO has been working with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), organizing Congressional delegations to visit Cuba. It was during one of these delegations in May 2000 that Cuban medical school scholarships were first offered to US students. On the last night of their visit, the CBC delegation had an opportunity to meet with Cuban President Fidel Castro. In that meeting, a Congressman from the Mississippi Delta commended Cuba “for all that you have done to provide health care for the poorest people of the world.” He had visited the Latin American Medical School, and had seen Cuba’s exemplary health care system. He had heard about the services offered free of charge by Cuban doctors in Latin America and Africa. He went on to talk about the critical shortage of health care services in his own home district in Mississippi.
President Castro responded in detail to the Congressman’s concerns. He indicated that he was aware of the living conditions and the lack of health care services in Mississippi, and in other so-called ‘third-world’ regions of our ‘first-world’ nation. And he extended an invitation for young people from Mississippi to study at the Latin American School of Medicine.
“A Congressman from the Mississippi Delta commended Cuba ‘for all that you have done to provide health care for the poorest people of the world.’”
In September 2000, President Castro visited New York City to participate in the Millennium Summit of the United Nations. In his historic speech at the Riverside Church, he once again expanded the medical school scholarship offer — to qualified students from all regions of the United States, from low-income communities and communities of color, who would not otherwise have access to medical education.
IFCO – because of its excellent working relations with many sectors in Cuba, and with the Congressional Black Caucus, and because of its history of more than 40 years of creative community organizing for social, racial, and economic justice in communities across the US – was in a unique position to assume responsibility for administering the scholarship program for US students.
The first US students entered the program in the spring of 2001. By the spring of 2010, 122 US students from 29 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, DC are enrolled, and 33 US students have already graduated with MD degrees.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: We wish you success on your 26th Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba. Thank you for your activism and commitment to end the blockade of Cuba.
For more information and to contribute to the work of IFCO and Pastors for Peace, please see: http://ifconews.org/about-ifco-2/
to see Caravan routes: http://www.cubacaravan2015.org
See a documentary on Cuba’s health system - Salud!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dthF5P7cBrg
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com and coordinates the DC-based Hands-Up Coalition.