My 1994 Visit to Cuba

On February 24, 1994, my Seattle/Cuba solidarity activist friends and I loaded up a truck with 150 boxes of material aid for Cuba. I'd been busy over the past year collecting donated medical supplies from Seattle-area hospitals and clinics, as well as bicycles and hand soap, to send to Cuba. Next day, Feb 25, I left town on the 3rd IFCO/Pastors For Peace Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba.

Seattle departure

The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) is a multi-issue national ecumenical agency, founded in 1967 by progressive church leaders and activists.
Pastors for Peace is an IFCO project, begun in 1988 to respond to the U.S. government's brutal low-intensity war against Nicaragua. In 1992, Pastors for Peace organized the first Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba in order to help bring an end to the immoral and unjust US economic blockade of Cuba and to provide humanitarian aid to the Cuban people. The Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee has participated in every IFCO/Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba since 1992.

IFCO / Pastors for Peace

We drove south through Washington, Oregon and California, stopping to visit with local Cuba solidarity groups and do press conferences. Here is our caravan group in Merced, California.

A week later we arrived at the US-Mexico border town of Laredo, Texas. Here all the caravan routes from across the U.S. converged, with 350 of us activists and about 100 cars, trucks and schoolbuses filled with tons of material aid supplies we planned to bring to Cuba, in contravention of the U.S. govenment blockade (prohibition) against aiding the Cuban revolution. We were stopped by U.S. Customs, who refused to allow us to carry the aid across the border.

After several hours of negotiations, Customs relented and allowed us to carry everything over to Mexico. The Clinton administration apparently wanted to avoid an "international incident" which would likely put the U.S. government in a bad light and generate sympathy for Cuba. We crossed the bridge into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

We drove 460 miles south through Mexico to the Gulf port city of Tampico. There, a Cuban ship, Reifens, was waiting to carry our aid directly to Cuba.

We helped the ship's crew to load all our aid. Here's me posing on a gurney I was able to finagle as a donation from a Seattle hospital.
I begged the captain to let me sail with the boat to Cuba. Nope.

Cuba sent two airliners to Tampico to carry all of us "caravanistas" to Cuba.

We landed in Havana and were met by a welcoming delegartion of government functionaries. No Fidel, but we were excited to arrive.

We were on Cuban TV news broadcasts every night for a week.
Our large delegation divided into smaller groups and traveled to different parts of Cuba. Lucky for me, I was able to secure a spot with the group going to Santiago de Cuba, the "birthplace of the revolution". Upon arrival at Antonio Maceo Airport, we were met by a boisterous crowd of several thousand, including this welcoming line of Cuban schoolgirls who gave each of us a rose.
I figured this this was my 15 seconds of fame, and I enjoyed it mucho.

We were given a grand tour of Santiago de Cuba: the mausoleum of national hero Jose Marti, the grave of revolutionary Frank Pais, the statue of national hero Antonio Maceo, and the infamous Moncada Cuartel (barracks), where Fidel and his July 26 revolutionaries had staged a disastrous raid in 1952 (you can see the original bullet holes from the 1952 attack have been preserved).

Santiago de Cuba schoolgirls

Returning to Havana, we went to the nearby port of Mariel, where the Reifens had arrived. Another huge crowd attended the ceremony of welcoming the arrival of the ship loaded with aid.

Another 15 seconds of fame, and I soaked it up.

On the Caravan's last night in Cuba, we were told to prepare for an important meeting. We would go somewhere, but were warned not to bring anything along: no cameras, tape recorders, purses, bags or notebooks allowed. 350 of us piled into buses and drove to an unknown location where we filed into an auditorium. We took our seats and a short while later we were greeted by Fidel Castro, El Commandante. He welcomed us to Cuba, thanked us for our solidarity and willingness to challenge the US government blockade, and gave a brief update on the situation in Cuba. He seemed very tired; but anyway, we saw him in person.

After a week in Cuba, the Caravan flew back to Mexico, then drove home to the U.S.
I wanted to stay, so I went to the office of ICAP, the Cuban Institute For Friendship With The People (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos), and begged them for a vias so I could stay in Cuba longer. They explained that Americans are not allowed to stay in Cuba except with official delegations such as the one I was a part of. I countered that my presence in Cuba with Pastors for Peace proved my support for the Cuban Revolution, and that I wanted to stay and do volunteer solidarity work. Amazingly, they agreed and issued me a three month visa.

First thing I had to do was find a place to stay in Cuba. My friend Chris Martin was working in Havana as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and offered to let me stay with her until I got my feet on the ground.

Chris was renting an apartment in the FOCSA Building, an iconic Havana landmark housing foreign work delegations and Cubans.
Below the FOCSA building, I managed to include this famous billboard in my photo: "SENORES IMPERIALISTAS !NO LES TENEMOS ABSOLUTAMENTE NINGUN MIEDO!" ("Sir imperialists !Of you we have absolutely no fear!")

Then I set about finding volunteer work. I went to the national office of ACLIFIM, the Associacion Cubana de Limitados Fisico-Motores (Cuban Association of Physically-Motor Limited). They were happy to have me join them as a volunteer, although we struggled to agree on how I could help. Most of my initial ideas were met with "We'll consider your proposal and get back to you"... you can guess where that led, lol.
They finally agreed to have provide English lessons to the staff, important for their international outreach efforts.

ACLIFIM is a government-supported, but non-governmental, organization of and for the physically disabled.

For my second volunteer job, I went to the Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, Cuba's premier hospital, located not far from Chris's place at the FOCSA Building. I found the administration office and told them I was an American physical therapist and wanted to volunteer. The response was "Well... we don't accept volunteers here. Anyway, you're not Cuban." So I wandered around the hospital until I found the rehabilitation department. I started talking with a Cuban "fisio" (fisioterapista) who invited me to join him in the clinic. So I went once a week to treat patients with Alberto and compare stories of physical therapy in Cuba and the U.S.A.

In my free time I rode my bike. I had brought an old bicycle along on the caravan and with difficulty was able to separate it out from our donations to keep it myself. I rode all over Havana, having a great time because there was very little traffic (more on that later). This is me with Chris Martin (sunglasses) and two of her international teaching colleagues at the Pedagogical Institute.

After a month staying with Chris Martin, I rented a room with a Cuban family also living in the FOCSA building.
* Marta (center) was a teacher who had volunteered with the Cuban Literacy Campaign (Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba) in 1961, teaching reading and writing to campesinos in the "campo."
* Bienvenida (right) was her retired mom.
* Raul, Marta's son, just wanted to move to Miami and get a Harley Davidson. His mom was disappointed, but every generation rebels, right?

After a second month in the FOCSA, I moved again, to my own tiny apartment in La Lisa, a western Havana suburb. Disaster struck when I broke a couple spokes on my bicycle. There were at this time no bicycle shops in Havana and no spare parts - therefore rendering my bicycle unrideable. I was suddenly dependent on public transportation to travel the several miles to my volunteer jobs.
This was the height of the "Periodo Especial", the so-called Special Period in Cuba. For decades, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc had supplied Cuba with manufactured goods and petroleum, in trade for Cuban exports of sugar, tobacco and citrus. This was advantageous to Cuba, allowing the country to escape the poverty of other Caribbean nations caught in unfair trading relationships with the wealthy Global North. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia gradually stopped sending aid to Cuba. By the time of my stay in 1994, Cuba had reached a low point with very little petroleum to power its rapidly-decaying fleet of Eastern European buses and cars. This was my bus ("gua-gua") from La Lisa to downtown Havana. Often, I just walked rather than hang on the outside of the bus.

One of the highlights of my stay was the annual Primero de Mayo march parade. All of Cuba celebrates International Workers Day on May 1st, and it was a huge, fun event.

Shortly thereafter, my 3-month visa was expiring and ICAP refused to grant me an extension. It was time to leave Cuba.
I booked a flight to Mexico City and spent a few days in the huge metropolis. Due to the Special Period in Cuba, food had been scarce and I'd lost weight. Mexico City seemingly had food stands on every street, and I gobbled up everything I could get my hands on. Food heaven.

From Mexico City, I flew home to Seattle, Washington. I was exhausted and inspired.
Thank you Cuba, I never forget you.