American caravan seeks to improve U.S.-Cuban relations

Caption: Lisa Valanti (left) and Maribou Latour explain US-Cuban relations.

By Talia Whyte
Originally published in The Bay State Banner

Where the United States government sees danger, some American activists see opportunity.

For nearly the last five decades, the relationship between Cuba and America has been contentious. But now that an ailing Fidel Castro has ceded power to his brother Raúl, American activists say they want to change the dynamic between the two countries, largely by denouncing what they believe to be outdated U.S. policies toward the communist-aligned nation.

Nearly 100 people plan to spend the next month traveling across the United States and Canada as part of the 19th annual U.S. Cuban Friendshipment Caravan. Last week, the caravan made a stop at a packed Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain.

The goal of the caravan is to educate Americans about what those onboard say are the detrimental effects that U.S. policies have on Cuban society.

Leading the charge was Lisa Valanti, the founder and president of the national U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association and founder of the Pittsburgh Cuba Coalition. She has traveled to Cuba 20 times without applying for or accepting a license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Valanti first traveled to Cuba in 1971 as a college student. She said she felt strongly then — as she does now — that the U.S. shouldn’t prohibit Americans from going there and seeing firsthand how U.S. policies are impacting the island.

Having grown up in a privileged, white community in the Midwest, Valanti says she became instantly radicalized after seeing Cuba’s extreme poverty and class warfare. For the first time, she said, she began to look at ways to not only bring social justice to Cubans, but also to marginalized Americans.

“As someone from the First World, it was unfathomable to see the poverty in Cuba,” Valanti said. “When I came back from Cuba, I realized that I lived in my own little world. I didn’t think about these issues before. I began to see class inequities and racism in a different light.”

In 1992, Valanti went back to Cuba, this time with Pastors for Peace, a ministry of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization and the organizers of the caravan. The objective of the trip was the same then as it is today: to help communities caught up in the crossfire of world politics.

Valanti contends that current U.S. trade policies victimize both those Cubans living on the island and those in America.

As evidence, she cites the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which prohibits foreign companies that trade with the U.S. from also trading with Cuba. The law also prevents travel to Cuba by American citizens and imposes limits on how many times Cubans living in America can travel to their homeland to visit family. In 1996, the U.S. enacted a penalty of 10 years imprisonment and a fine for violators of the embargo.

As Valanti sees it, such restrictions are too harsh.

“Americans don’t realize how egregious this Cuba law is,” she said. “When the U.S. government tells you when you can visit your family, how free is our country?”

After their North American tour, the caravan will head to McAllen, Texas, which is located five miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, and then drive to the coastal town of Tampico, Mexico. There, the caravan will meet up with a Mexican union group that will help them load a ship with donated aid and supplies for delivery to Cuba. The group will then fly into Havana.

Maribou Latour, a Cuban American living in Leverett, will be joining the caravan for the first time on this trip. Word of her trip would likely dismay her parents — both of whom back U.S. trade restrictions against Cuba. She hasn’t yet told them that she is going.

Latour said she is joining the caravan because she wants to know what is really going on in her family’s homeland.

“I need to see Cuba for myself,” she said. “I have been told a lot of things about it by my parents that now I am realizing are not true. I need to see it for myself and tell my family what I saw.”

Valanti said that the hallmark of the trip is the “people to people” exchange between the caravan members and the Cuban civil society activists working to improve life on the island.

“The Cubans love this project,” she said. “They warmly welcome us, and genuinely want to learn more about us.”

Valanti said that the Cubans she meets are particularly concerned about the plight of African Americans. The rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans and the possibility that Barack Obama will be elected the first African American U.S. president are regular topics of discussion all over the island, she said.

As far as the future of U.S.-Cuban relations is concerned, Valanti said there is a slight chance that an Obama administration would eliminate the Cuban Democracy Act. There is no such chance if presumptive Republican nominee John McCain is elected, she said, because he has stated before that he will not negotiate with the communist state.

However, Valanti thinks that the American people, not politicians, are the ones who can really be agents of change.

“Most Americans favor ending this embargo,” she said. “What kind of people are we if we don’t demand this?”

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