Busting the Cuba embargo
Lila Nordstrom: Cuba is an inspiring country for Americans like me to visit – and going there is an important act of civil disobedience
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
The 18-year-old Canadian next to me on my flight from Toronto to Cuba had, like me, undertaken a 10-plus hour journey to get to the airport. She lives in a small town that sends children to school by helicopter. I had taken a bus from New York City, which only feels like the wilderness if you are trying to get to Cuba. While we looked similar in our summer clothes, she was going to Cuba for a week of sun and surf. I, on the other hand, was embarking on an act of civil disobedience, breaking US law merely by being on that flight.
Aside from a brief reprieve during the Carter administration, the US has prohibited travel by US citizens to Cuba since 1961. The restrictions are enforced through the US Treasury department, so Americans are able to travel to Cuba through third countries. However, the restrictions make it illegal for tourists to "engage in any travel-related transactions". Essentially, then, it is illegal to buy a ticket to Cuba or spend any money there. In doing so one risks receiving a substantial fine from the US government and potential harassment by customs and immigration officials upon returning to the US.
I was on this flight to Holguin as a member of the Venceremos Brigade, a US-based Cuban solidarity group that returned to the US on 3 August. Communist countries have a tradition of inviting international brigades to visit, do some sort of revolution-furthering volunteer work and learn about the successes of the revolution.
The Venceremos Brigade is somewhat unique among Cuban solidarity brigades, however, since in travelling to Cuba participants are not just showing support for the ideals of the Cuban revolution but are also protesting the travel ban and economic blockade that the US continues to enforce against this small island nation.
As a result, the most exciting, terrifying and arguably important part of this voyage is the trip back over the American border, something my Canadian friend from the plane did not have to worry about. In fact, it hadn't occurred to her that Americans might worry about it either, until I told her that it was the main purpose of visiting Cuba more than 90 of the passengers on our flight.
Cuba is an inspiring country for Americans to visit. Despite the poverty, Cubans enjoy many of the things Americans lack: truly universal healthcare, free education and a spirit of internationalism that is focused on helping people, not attacking them. Cuba also faces the increasing number of major hurricanes that batter the island with a focus on saving people over preserving profit. Citizens of New Orleans, Galveston and even lower Manhattan can attest to the fact that that in major disasters in the US, the wellbeing of citizens is not always the main priority.
This is not to say that Cuba is perfect. Like anywhere else, there are problems with the Cuban system that any average citizen will talk your ear off about. Banning exchange, however, ensures that nobody gets all the sides of the story, and that, for Americans, learning about Cuba will continue to be taboo.
This year, more than 140 people went to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade and walked across the US border with Canada at Buffalo, New York. Another 130 Cuba travellers walked across a Texas border on the same day with Pastors for Peace. All participants in this act of civil disobedience were fully aware that they may receive letters or fines in the future from the US Treasury, but perhaps because of our sheer numbers (the Buffalo customs and immigration office had to devote five windows to our group exclusively), we faced little trouble crossing the border.
We were handed a four-page questionnaire about our trip, but all 140 of us refused to fill in any information that we had not already provided on the regular customs sheet. As the last members of our group crossed, to expedite matters, customs agents were handing out these sheets saying: "Here is the questionnaire for you to cross out."
Though participating in this border crossing felt empowering, when I think of my Canadian friend from the flight to Holguin, the whole charade seems unnecessary. For Canadians of all political stripes, Cuba is just another Caribbean island. Their citizens enjoy the sand and sun, and those who care to learn about the Cuban system are able to do so without restriction.
And so what if Americans go to Cuba? So what if Cubans survive, or even thrive, on our tourism dollars? So what if some Americans are impressed with what Cuba has done? The cold war is over. The future of Cuba is not what America wanted to make it, and Americans need to live with that.
It is time for the US to re-establish relations with Cuba, end the travel ban that stifles exchange between the two countries and, most importantly, end the inhumane economic blockade.
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