Sending Off the 23rd Friendshipment Caravan
It’s an honor to be here once again to help send off another Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba. But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to break the law in order to visit Cuba or to send humanitarian aid to people in Cuba? When Rev. Lucius Walker called me 20 years ago to ask me to speak at a press conference where he would announce plans for the first Friendshipment Caravan, I never imagined that I would still be speaking at Caravan events 20 years later.
In poll after poll, year after year, we see that most Americans, including Cuban-Americans, want improved relations with Cuba. Yet Washington persists in trying to turn back the historical clock.
Meanwhile, the desire to end the trade and travel embargo has gone global. Every year, starting in 1992, the same year as the first Caravan, Cuba takes the issue of the trade embargo to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The number of nations voting against the embargo increased rapidly year by year until it has become almost unanimous. Last year the vote was 186 to 2. It cannot be totally unanimous because the United States Ambassador is one of the two voting for the embargo.
In the United States people hear that it is Cuba’s economic system, not the trade embargo, that hurts the Cuban people. Yet the genesis of the trade embargo was explicitly to starve Cubans into submission. Six months after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, an extremely wealthy Texan, Robert Kleberg, owner of the King Ranch in Texas – one of the largest ranches in the world, was worried about his cattle ranch in Cuba so he met with Secretary of State Christian Herter. According to a State Department memo, he told Herter that depriving Cuba of its sugar quota would cause “widespread further unemployment” meaning that “large numbers of people thus forced out of work would begin to go hungry.” The Secretary of State cautioned that such a policy would be “economic warfare” in peacetime.
Which would Washington choose? Warfare or Peacetime? The answer came in less than a year when a State Department official sent another memo pointing out that the “majority of Cubans support [Fidel] Castro” and concluding that the “only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” Therefore “it follows that every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba….to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
So the Eisenhower Administration terminated Cuba’s sugar quota and launched “economic warfare” which turned into a State of Siege that continues more than half a century later.
To defy and expose this cruel policy, the Caravans began their journeys to Cuba in November 1992 when Lucius Walker and over a hundred other people risked fines and jail terms, just as the Caravanistas are doing today, to take the first Friendshipment Caravan across the Mexican border on their way to Cuba. Here is the historical context of what was happening when Pastors for Peace launched that challenge and as Cuba began to challenge the trade embargo on the international stage of the General Assembly.
That year, 1992, with the Soviet Union having officially disintegrated, Washington could have seized an opening for changing policy toward Cuba. When Cuban revolutionaries drove the dictator, General Batista, out of Cuba on January 1, 1959, about 83 percent of Cuba’s trade was with the United States, but Washington stopped that trade. Thus, when the Soviet Union officially collapsed in December 1991, about 83 percent of Cuba’s trade was with the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries. The Cuban economy was spiraling downward after the crash of the Soviet Union.
Washington could have declared that it approved of Cuba’s achievement of free health care and free education for its people and therefore would help Cuba maintain that standard of living by opening trade and travel with Cuba. But instead Congress tightened the trade embargo by passing the Torricelli Act in October 1992. That law is named for its main sponsor, whom many of us in New Jersey remember well -- Robert Torricelli, who was then a New Jersey Representative in the House and later became a senator until his corruption forced him to resign his Senate seat. The law was aimed, in Torricelli’s own words, to “wreak havoc on that island.” In other words, to continue the policy of trying to starve the Cuban people into submission.
Anti-Cuban terrorists recognized that the passage of the Torricelli Act gave them a green light. Four days after that law was passed, a hail of bullets fired from a speedboat hit their target, shooting up the Hotel Melia, one of Cuba’s main resort hotels. A week later, the Miami Herald reported that it had received a “war communiqué” boasting that “On the evening of October 7, 1992, Comandos L attacked a military objective off the coast of the province of Matanzas, Cuba.” A tourist hotel had become publicly -- not secretly -- a “military objective.” And three months later, Tony Bryant, who headed Comandos L, boasted on national TV at a Miami news conference of plans for more raids against targets in Cuba, especially hotels. Warning tourists to stay off the island, he declared, “From this point on, we’re at war.”
If arrested, these terrorists need not fear conviction. When Tony Bryant was charged with possession and transport of firearms by a convicted felon, Federal Judge James Lawrence King in Miami dismissed the charges, deciding that “Bryant didn’t act like he committed a crime.” The courts had become a cohort in the War of Terror.
In 1996 Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Helms-Burton Act that tightened the trade and travel bans even further. The threat level to the Caravanistas increased, but the Caravanistas’ courage and importance also increased. They continued to challenge laws that keep U.S. citizens ignorant about what is happening in Cuba by demonizing the Cuban government while preventing ordinary citizens from seeing Cuba for themselves and having a chance to make up their own minds.
Let’s flashback for a moment to the end of the Batista dictatorship. When Cuban revolutionaries defeated General Batista, foreigners, mainly in the United States, owned 75 percent of arable land; 90 percent of services like electricity, water, and telephones; and 40 percent of the sugar industry.
The Cuban Revolution of course immediately launched programs aimed at a redistribution of wealth, including the right of all citizens to basic human rights like education and medical care.
Washington used the CIA to respond. Air raids repeatedly struck the sugar industry, mainstay of the economy at that time. Others bombed Havana itself. Another attacked a train full of passengers.
Cubans, on the receiving end, experienced the deaths and destruction. But in Washington, those attacks were discussed in secret memos among people with security clearances on a need-to-know basis, developing an addiction to the drama and the power of being among those who are privy to Washington’s secrets and plots.
The War of Terror forced Cuba to distort its economy by having to develop its Revolutionary Armed Forces and the popular militia to defend the country from constant armed attacks and of course the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. From this dynamic between terrorists and their targets came two opposing agencies: On the one hand, the army of terrorists based in the United States and on the other, Cuba’s State Security Department or G-2. Cuba has no option of sending its armed forces to invade the United States in order to eliminate terrorist groups. Instead, G2 must infiltrate agents into those groups to uncover their plans.
The plots discovered by Cuban agents prevented many assassinations and bombings. But some of course were not detected in time. The most massive act of terrorism killed all 73 passengers and crew aboard a Cuban passenger jet when it was blown out of the sky in October 1976 -- the first time in the Western Hemisphere that civilians on a passenger jet were used as a political weapon deliberately aimed at creating terror. That did not happen again until 9/11.
The murders of the 73 people aboard the Cuban plane were masterminded by Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, the two most notorious terrorists in the Western Hemisphere. Bosch died last year in Miami of natural causes. Posada continues to live in Miami, but I understand that he is evidently in very poor health.
In 1998, Cuba invited the FBI to Havana and gave them reams of information gathered by Cuban agents about terrorists in the United States. But instead of arresting terrorists, the FBI arrested Cubans who had gathered the evidence. Now known as the Cuban Five, Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and René González were tried and convicted in Miami and put in separate prisons across the country. René González completed his sentence last year but must serve three years of “supervised release” before he can return to his family in Cuba. The others face longer sentences, including life in prison.
Fortunately, G-2 agents continued their work and uncovered another plot to kill Castro in the year 2000. Most of the hundreds of assassination attempts against Fidel Castro have gone unnoticed, but President Castro made sure to call attention to this one. After arriving in Panama City to attend an Ibero-American Summit meeting, Castro held a news conference to announce that Luis Posada and his three Cuban-American co-conspirators were planning to assassinate him by bombing the auditorium at the University of Panama where he would be speaking. He even revealed where the police could find the would-be assassins.
G-2 agents not only saved the life of President Castro yet again but also the lives of hundreds of people, mainly students, who packed the University of Panama auditorium to hear Castro speak. That would not have been a single assassination. It would have been a massacre.
When Posada was pardoned and smuggled into Miami, he was welcomed as a hero into Miami’s network of terrorists who aim to carry out Washington’s goal of controlling Cuba once again. It is instructive to note that the one piece of land in Cuba occupied by U.S. Armed Forces is the site of the most notorious prison in the world -- Guantánamo.
The Friendshipment Caravans have created a community of people, like the one here tonight, across the United States and around the world dedicated to changing U.S. policy toward Cuba from terrorism to Friendship, and that community is growing despite all obstacles. I want to thank our hosts, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, for hosting this event and the organizers, including Jim Price and Ana Maria Cárdenas from here in Montclair, and of course the Pastors for Peace organizers based in New York. To the Caravanistas, congratulations on your victory at the Canadian border last Sunday and we wish you a 23rd victory at the Mexican border.
Thank you all.