Caravan to Community: Cuban mission unites like-minded thinkers

October 3, 2014

There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part…

Among the counter-culture paraphanalia is a T-shirt: Nixon – (brain)= Bush.

It seems very absurd that my participation in the Caravan to Cuba would be considered radical to anyone. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR is a decades-old distant memory yet the United States government still insists on maintaining an embargo against Cuba for the most part to placate the right-wing Cuban expatriates in Florida who are known for their hell-raising.

I participated in the Caravan eight years ago but it still contributes to my stress factor whenever I cross the border from Canada to the United States. Three weeks ago, when I sat in my car in downtown Victoria in the ferry line-up to Port Angeles, I was surprised when the border guard asked me if I was carrying any Cuban cigars. It is against the law to sell Cuban cigars in the States but really, now?

Are there not more important things for U.S. Homeland Security to worry about? I do not think I even need to make a list of what those things could be. Let it suffice to say that Obama made an announcement that night about the US-led coalition to rid the world of ISIS. This, of course, has quickly been upgraded to war.

To protest against absurd situations can be validated when people live in abject poverty because of it. This is how the Cubans live year in and year out. Some people think things are better for the Cubans (ie organic farming because they cannot import pesticides) because of the embargo. I say they should have the freedom to decide their own destiny. Who are we to decide for them?

I am glad that I went on the Caravan to Cuba. It stands out, along with my involvement in establishing a community newspaper called West Central Streets, as one of the best pieces of social activism in which I have participated. Sometimes we just have to stand up and say, “Enough, already.”

The following are excerpts from the posts I wrote on the Caravan to Cuba blog (blogs were in their infancy at the time):

Monday Magazine
August 3-9, 2006
Caravan to Community: Cuban mission unites like-minded thinkers
by Tanya Lester

Salt Spring Island writer Tanya Lester left Victoria in June to travel with the 17th Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba. Here are her dispatches from the road.

June 30
Portland. Corvalis. Eugene. Ashland. As we settle in to the first week of the 17th Caravan to Cuba in our brightly painted rattletrap school bus, I notice churches seem to appear more often on the landscape and are bigger than ours in Canada. Each evening on our journey to collect aid for Cuba and to debunk American myths about the necessity of the U.S. embargo against the Caribbean country, we eat beans and rice potlucks in either a United Methodist or Presbyterian church.

Carol Cross, who is from the San Francisco Bay area, talks to the audience each night. She is a self-proclaimed recovering Republican who was born in Kansas. Cross came back furious from her first of 21 trips to Cuba. She had just found out that what she heard about Cuba in the United States was “harshly imperialistic” propaganda. She naively phoned 411 and asked a telephone operator to connect her to a social justice group working in support of Cuba. Amazingly, the operator did.

July 4
“There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” –Mario Savio

In California, the caravanistas on our route take a couple of hours off to visit the Free Speech Movement Cafe at University of California-Berkeley Campus. This shrine to 1960s and 1970s student radicalism in opposition to the Vietnam War dedicated to a student leader named Mario Savio. On the walls and tables of the tucked-away campus cafe, photographs and historical documents tell the story of mid-September, 1964, when the University administration banned “political expression including information and registration tables, from the only place where these were tolerated,” on a sidewalk in front of the institution.

That same fall, an activist defied the ban, set up a table and was arrested. Three thousand students surrounded the police car holding him, then engaged in a 30-hour public dialogue with the police. By early December, 1964, 1,200 students occupied Spoul Hall on campus. The sit-in spawned mass arrests. Ten thousand students went on strike. On December 8, the Academic Senate voted 824 – 115 to support student demands.

Now, in the cafe, students plugged into their laptops seem much more concerned with finishing papers than protesting the latest war, against Iraq. By the campus gate, a photographer takes shots of a young couple. in wedding outfits. But on the street running into the campus, it is still Beserkley (as caravanista Carol Cross, who lives nearby, lovingly calls the city). Among the counter-culture paraphanalia is a T-shirt: Nixon – (brain)= Bush.

July 16
Haunted by the seizure of 43 computers last year, the Caravan to Cuba’s 17th crossing from the United States into Mexico in early July goes surprisingly smoothly. The 10 buses, trucks and ambulances, sporting Che Guevera portraits, “Impeach Bush” bumper stickers and laden full with aid for Cubans pass over the U.S.-Mexican bridge without even having to slow down.

The Caravan’s leadership, headed by Rev. Lucius Walker, decides to cross early, at around 5:30 a.m. and at a different crossing than the caravan has taken in recent years. Some people speculate that the U.S. border officials were merely taken off guard by these strategy changes.

Certainly, it is not because the Bush administration is “letting go” of trying to maintain control over Cuba. Days before the crossing, his government issues a 90-page report entitled Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It outlines a digressive plan to bring the Caribbean country back into U.S. colony status.

Other caravanistas talk about the possibility that the U.S. government is once again establishing a “hands-off the Caravan” policy, its goal being to psychologically make Caravan supporters feel ineffectual, they will give up. If the government thinks this kind of stand-off will work, it should think again. Walker has always maintained the Caravan will continue until the U.S. trade embargo is lifted.

Although some caravanistas are critical of Waler, and some worship the ground he walks on, the Caravan to Cuba community is united. Scores of caravanistas go year after year, or see each other at other progressive functions or on other caravans (one goes to Chiapas, Mexico, this fall, for example). They room with each other when they happen to be in each others’ part of the country, and support each other politically and financially.

In the U.S., it seems no one supports George W. Bush anymore (in the three-and-a-half weeks I was there, no one said anything positive about him to me, but I heard many complaints against him) and those who protested the Vietnam War cannot believe they are now having to protest the Iraqi War. At a grassroots level, the Caravan inter-connects progressive thinkers across the country, creating a vehicle for the U.S. left — one that reminds them they are not crazy for thinking the way they think, and that they are not alone.

In a country where most of the people seem to be sedated behind the wheels of their SUVs or in the lines at fast-food restaurants plugged into their iPods and cell phones with eyes locked onto their laptops, those who are awake yearn community. The Caravan to Cuba provides this.
To read the first posts in this blog, please go to
Facebook. LinkedIn. Twitter. Google.
Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or by going to the title and author name — to read the first few pages and buy — at
Tanya Lester’s other books are Dreams & Tricksters, Women Rights/Writes and Friends I Never Knew. These books are available in some library systems, archives and elsewhere.


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