President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Cuba on March 21-22. He is the first sitting U.S. president to do so since Calvin Coolidge, 88 years ago in 1928.
Two years after the 1959 Cuban revolution, Washington first prevented U.S. residents from seeing Cuba for themselves by imposing restrictions — in force except from 1977-1982 — on those who wanted to traverse the fabled 90 miles from Key West, Fla., by ferry or the short plane ride on a charter flight from Miami.
During that period, it took a struggle to confront, circumvent or defy the U.S. regulations banning travel to Cuba. Cuba is still the only place on the globe where a special U.S. government-granted license is required before traveling. The license is still required, even if now the restriction means checking a box and certifying that your personal visit to Cuba falls into one of 12 permitted categories.
Looking back, travel to Cuba has been dangerous, even deadly. The first midair bombing of a commercial passenger aircraft was of Cubana 455 in 1976, as it left Barbados. The architect of the plane bombing, anti-Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, still lives freely in Miami under U.S. protection. Agencies organizing travel to Cuba located in New Jersey and Florida have been bombed by terrorist groups.
The U.S ban forbids travel and threatens to punish those who dare to go to Cuba. In 1961, soon after the U.S. broke diplomatic relations and initiated the economic, commercial and financial blockade, noted African-American journalist William Worthy was arrested and jailed in Florida for traveling to Cuba without a passport — the U.S. had refused to renew Worthy’s passport after he filed stories from the Soviet Union and People’s China.
Beginning in 1969 with the Venceremos Brigades, hundreds of revolutionary youth defied the blockade by traveling through Mexico or Canada to do volunteer work to support the Cuban Revolution. This defiance became a movement. Some even made the trip to Cuba on a converted cattle ship that encountered stormy seas.
In those early years — and every subsequent year — the VB participants openly declared they were traveling to Cuba in defiance of the travel ban. One early brigadista’s notes and literature were seized at the Canadian border on her return, but she still proudly displays the machete she used to cut sugarcane.
In one of the most dangerous moments Cuba’s history, counterrevolutions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe restored capitalism to socialist Cuba’s main trading partners. Cuba lost the buffer of partners it traded with on the basis of solidarity. At that time, in the early 1990s, the unprecedented U.S. economic, commercial and financial blockade fell full force on Cuba and its people. Those difficult years were referred to as “the Special Period.”
Despite incredible suffering and shortages caused by the sudden sharp crisis, socialist Cuba closed not a single school or hospital, for which the Cubans are rightly proud. When the Cuban socialist planners decided to expand tourism to relieve the economic crash, CIA-trained, U.S.-based paramilitaries launched a wave of terror bombings on Cuban hotels and restaurants.
At that grave moment, the Rev. Lucius Walker, from the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, proposed to mobilize Pastors for Peace Friendshipment solidarity caravans. Starting in 1992, these caravans traveled throughout the U.S. and gathered humanitarian aid to take to Cuba to symbolically break the U.S. blockade and travel ban.
Pictures of U.S. Border Patrol agents wrestling bibles out of the hands of ministers to block the Friendshipment and of the “Little Yellow School Bus,” which was held at the Texas border with hunger strikers on board, are now iconic in the struggle to show solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.
Many who visited Cuba, especially those who took part in solidarity actions with the VB or Friendshipment Caravans, will attest to the enduring personal impact that seeing Cuba had on them.
Even Miami-based attorney Antonio Zamora, who actually took up arms against the Cuban revolution in the 1961 U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion at Playa Girón, was changed by a visit. Zamora was captured in 1961 and served two years in Cuban prisons until he was repatriated to the U.S. He then helped to found the virulently anti-revolution Cuban American National Foundation.
Zamora wrote in his book, “What I Learned about Cuba by Going to Cuba,” that the word in 1995 in Miami was that counterrevolution in Cuba was in full swing, fueled by the privations of the Special Period. Urged by his spouse, Zamora decided to see for himself. He found to his surprise that the right wing in Miami had been lying. Although Cuba was facing great economic stresses, it was a country functioning normally: Cubans attended school and went to work.
Strikingly different from what he saw on visits to other Latin American countries, where armed military and police patrol everywhere, the calm in Cuba was not enforced by state repression against the people. That visit changed Zamora’s view of Cuba and his actions.
Now is the time to end the blockade
The National Network on Cuba, the International Committee for Peace, Justice and Dignity and IFCO/Pastors for Peace all issued statements regarding Obama’s visit. The statements all called for heightened popular action to end the U.S. blockade of Cuba, to take place on March 21-22 and continue with Days of Action in Washington, D.C., on April 18-22.
The NNOC statement asserts: “The majority of United States people want normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba. The majority of United States people see Cuba in a favorable light according to a recent Gallop poll. We must remind our elected officials in Washington that it is time for them to take action to end all aspects of the blockade. Let’s show Washington our faces; let’s make Washington hear our voices. We are the people who want and demand a just policy toward Cuba.”