Schenectady County

Woman pushes for legal travel to Cuba

Mabel Leon’s front hallway is lined with black and white photographs. There’s a young woman walking

Mabel Leon’s front hallway is lined with black and white photographs.

There’s a young woman walking down the street, a baby in her arms.

There’s a girl celebrating her quinceanera — a coming-of-age ceremony held for a girl’s 15th birthday.

And there’s a man watering his sunflowers.

Leon, 68, has visited Cuba seven times since 1991, most recently in March. She has taken numerous photographs on her trips, many of which hang in her home.

“The one thing about taking pictures in Cuba is that Cubans don’t pose,” she said.

Leon supports ending the United States trade embargo against Cuba, which was enacted in 1962. She believes that if more Americans were to visit Cuba and get to know its residents, the U.S. would be forced to establish a friendship with the small island country, one of the few communist nations left in the world.

Right now, Americans are barred from visiting Cuba as tourists, a restriction that includes travel from or through a third country, such as Mexico or Canada. On her last trip, Leon was questioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Philadelphia for two hours. She said that she has also been fined $67,000 for traveling to Cuba. When you travel to Cuba, “you’re doing civil disobedience,” she said. “If you break the law openly, there may be consequences.

“We want to end the blockade,” Leon said. “We want friendship with Cuba. … This wasn’t a frivolous tourist trip.”

A longtime peace activist who lives in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, Leon is active with Schenectady Neighbors for Peace, Grannies for Peace and Women Against War. She sees the situation in Cuba through the same prism through which she views the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I see them linked in terms of peace and justice,” she said. “There’s a Martin Luther King quote on my door. ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension: It is the presence of justice.’ ”

friends’ support

“Mabel has always been interested in peace and justice issues,” said Scotia resident Anita Paul, a member of Schenectady Neighbors for Peace. Paul said she has known Leon for more than three decades.

“Way back then, she was working on food security for low-income people,” she said. “She’s always been where peacemaking is happening. She has high energy and she can go all the time. I admire her immensely.”

On her March trip, Leon traveled to Cuba for 10 days with a group of women. The trip was organized by a friend, Donna Neff, who had recently lost her 36-year-old son, Ryan Neff, to cancer.

“I wanted to do a living memorial to him,” Leon said. “I felt a personal commitment to do something positive.”

While there, Leon and the other women built houses and visited schools, celebrating at the end of the week with music and dancing.

“There’s a shortage of housing in Cuba,” she said. “No one is homeless, but lots of families live together.”

On past trips to Cuba, Leon has traveled with Pastors for Peace. The group is a ministry of the New York City-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, which was created in 1988 to bring humanitarian aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 1992, Pastors for Peace has delivered 17 aid shipments to Cuba.

Pastors for Peace spends several weeks traveling through Canada and the U.S. in buses, collecting supplies and staying at the homes of volunteers. The group of about 120 gathers in Texas for an orientation, then crosses the border and traverses Mexico before flying to Cuba from the Mexican city of Tampico. Leon said there are usually between 10 to 12 buses and several trucks. Pastors for Peace maintains that the U.S. embargo of Cuba is ineffective and immoral, causing shortages of food, medicine and other supplies.

cuban survival

Leon said that Cuba has its flaws — the country has been criticized on the issue of human rights — but there are certain things it does well. The country provides free health care for all of its residents, as well as free college education. The country also has a very high literacy rate and a vast system of urban gardens.

“Cubans are very competent to take care of Cuba,” she said. “They’re very articulate about what needs improving. I don’t think Cuba is perfect or a utopia. But our failed policies have been in place for years, and they have not changed the government.”

The Pastors for Peace caravan will pass through the Capital Region in July, stopping at First Presbyterian Church in Albany on July 6. The caravan will be traveling through more than 100 U.S. cities, collecting construction tools to send to Cuba. In the past, the group has sent medicines and medical supplies such as wheelchairs and crutches.

The group’s stay in Cuba will run from July 24 to Aug. 1. Leon has no plans to join the group but will collect tools to give to the caravan. This year’s trip marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, which led to the overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Leon is an energetic woman whose house is filled with art. There are copies of famous paintings — Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” — but also lesser known works by Cuban artists.

Now retired, Leon spent her career working in child care and early child care education.

She ran a day care program serving low-income children at Christ Church in Schenectady.

“I’ve always advocated for poor children, and I’m aware of how society fails poor children,” she said.

The Obama administration has made some changes regarding Cuba, lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel and send money back to their homeland and allowing U.S. telecommunication companies to seek business there. But Obama has not expressed interest in lifting the embargo.

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