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Friendship As A Foreign Policy Tool

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The Reverend Lucius Walker, Jr. is the executive director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), the onlynational ecumenical foundation committed exclusively to support community organizing. IFCO assists poor and third world peoples in areas such as education, employment, and housing development. In 1988 Rev. Walker conceived of the Pastors forPeace Material Aid Caravans as a way to assist the vlctims of U.S. foreign policy. Pastors for Peace has delivered caravans to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba. The Cuba caravans or "Friendshipments" have served as a challenge to the U.S. government's blockade of Cuba. Two Friendshipments have already gone to Cuba - the first in 1992 and the second in 1993. A third caravan is set to leave this month. What follows is an excerpted version of a speech Rev. Walker gave In January at the First Baptist Church In Ann Arbor. For some years the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) sponsored study tours to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. During the course of one of the study delegations to Nicaragua we were on a regularly scheduled passenger boat on the Rio Escondido (a river in the Atlantic región of Nicaragua). It's very remote, very rural. We'd been visiting churches and projects in Bluefields on a very lovely day with no expectation of any strife or conflict - t was du ring the time that the Sapoa Accords were in effect - but the contra chose that day and place to break the accords and attacked the passenger boat we were on. It was a time when President Reagan was calling the contras "Freedom Fighters." The shots rang out on the boat and I dove for the deck. The 200 people on that boat were terrorized. It helped me to understand in a very existential way the experience the experience of ever) Nicaraguan in that period of time, every day all across the country where the contra operated. Two Nicaraguans were killed; 29 people were wounded. I was one of those wounded. As we continued on our way limping up to Rama, it occurred to me that at least up until that time, I was the only North American to have been shot and it seemed like I was going to live to teil the story. I wondered what was the responsibility for having had such an experience. That night in the hospital in Managua, as I was praying and reflecting for some guidance on how to respond, the idea carne of the formation of Pastors for Peace - an organization to facilitate the donations by citizens across the U.S. of material assistance to the Nicaraguans. That was in August and I made the commitment that we would return by December with a caravan of humanitarian aid. On Christmas Eve, we drove into Managua with 26 vehicles and about 56 people - all the vehicles loaded to the gills with material aid. That was the beginning of our wonderful journey, countering and challenging the meanspirited policies of our government. We've taken seven caravans to Nicaragua and seven to El Salvador (the work was expanded after a year or two to embrace El Salvador as well). And a numberof Salvadoran refugees who had settled in Honduras were assisted in their repatriation. During the course of this, I met friends, pastors from Cuba who asked if we could find a way to assist them in their plight. [They were concurrently experiencing] a loss of the trade relations with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries and the tightening of the U.S. embargo. Cuba was on the ropes, hanging on for life. They weren'tfightingagainst a scattering of contra from their own country. They were fighting for their very lives against the most powerful nation in the world that had for 32 years, with increasing vengeance, tried to overthrow their govemment. On the first caravan to Cuba we took 1 5 tons of aid, 100 drivers, and 45 vehicles. We were carrying medicine, bicycles, bicycle parts, powdered milk, medical equipmentof all sorts, Bibles, bulk rice, and computers. When we saw the effect of that and saw how tremendous the response had been in the U.S., we announced the second caravan. Three hundred people responded. This was n spite of the fact that there had been arrests made on the first caravan to Cuba and that the U.S. govemment was making it clear that ourorganization could be fined one million dollars, which is simply a euphemism for saying they could kill our organization. Individuals could be fined a quarter of a million dollars and placed in jail for ten years (under the "Trading with the Enemy Act"). Just before we took off, the Torricelli Bill passed, which added the possibility of an additional $50,000 fine. [We carried] 100 tons of aid in 95 vehicles. There were no arrests the second time. We think there were no arrests because the public outcry during the first caravan, in response to the arrests, was tremendous. Ittook the government by surprise. To show that they could do something to try to impede this nonviolent civil disobedience, the [U.S. government] had to take something in the first caravan. After about 93 of the vehicles had crossed the [U.S7Mexico] border- aflerjustabout the entire 1 00 tons of aid had either been carried overbodilyor in the vehicles that didgetthrough- they captured one vehicle. It had 1 4 people in it. It was a little yellow schoolbus. I suppose if they had to capture anything, they could not have helped us more than to capture the little yellow school bus. When they captured the bus, I think they expected that we would get out of the bus and leave in disgust. We had a quick meeting on the bus and the occupants decided to stage a hunger strike and protest the seizure of this bus, which we had dedicated to Cuba. We would stay with the bus until the bus went to Cuba. The hunger strike lasted 23 days. The little yellow schoolbus becarre a symbol, internationally, of protest against the blockade. When the bus went to Cuba, the U .S. government had to make a full 180-degree turn. It was embarassing to say the least. But what it revealed is howtotally senseless is this blockade - a blockadedesigned to hurt simple, poor, ordinary people. It stops food, medicine, and petroleum - which means fathers and mothers have a hard time getting to work and spend as much as four or five hours a day just trying to get to work in some cases. I went to one hospital and the doctors explained that they do fewer operations than they used to. With some of the operations they do, they sew the patients up with vegetable fiber because they don't have enough sutures. Little things that we take for granted, like sutures, are affected by our blockade. The health care system in Cuba is probably one of the best in the hemisphere. Aside from the more esoteric and advanced technology of our medical system, at base it's probably a better medical system than the United States. But if a piece of equipment has even a little filter that's made in the U.S., that piece of equipment cannot be sold to Cuba. This comes in spite of the fact that the blockade has been outlawed intemationally. The last two years the U.N votes on the blockade against Cuba have put the U.S. in a very solated and embarassing situation. The first year, in 1 992, the resolution condemning the blockade passed by a vote of 59 to three. The only two countries voting with the United States were Israel and Rumania. And the Rumanian delegation said later that he had pushed the wrong button. The second yeartheessentially same resolution passed the U.N. by 88 to four. The three countries that voted with the U.S. were: Israel, Paraguay and Albania. These are hardly countries that are distinguished because of their own human rights records. They're not countries that we would want to be associated with for standards for liberty and justice in the worid. But in spite of this, the blockade continúes. It will not end unless we act. Pastors for Peace is still seeking drivers and vehicles for the third Friendshipment caravan to Cuba, leaving Ann Arbor on February 25. If you are in teres ted contact Kurt Berggren at 996-0722(w) or 665-9571 (h).


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