Washington, D.C., to Boston to Buffalo and now Schenectady.
The Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba stopped at the First United Methodist Church on State Street on Tuesday. Volunteers picked up donations collected by people in the Capital Region to be sent to the island nation.
Mabel Leon, a Schenectady native, has been an activist involved in aid for Cuba for over 20 years. She organizes a collection for the caravan every year, driven by a personal and political connection to the country.
“I was very impressed that this poor, Third World country could do such impressive things, like providing free education and free medical care,” Leon said. “The work we do here is connected to taking tangible, humanitarian aid to the people of Cuba while saying lift the embargo because it makes no sense at all.”
The United States has had a commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba since October 1960. There are also travel restrictions in place.
President Barack Obama announced last December the U.S. would be changing its relationship with Cuba. Some of these efforts include removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and re-establishing diplomatic relations with the country.
If anything, these decisions encourage Leon to do more.
“While Obama has made some real moves to reconcile with Cuba that we haven’t seen in a very long time — and they’re important — it’s not enough,” she said. “Lifting the embargo and totally unrestricted travel is what we’re asking for. Our work is hands-on to show love for our neighbor.”
The items collected at the church for pickup were mostly medical supplies, including wheelchairs, walkers, a portable ramp, towels, crutches, sterile bandages and physical therapy equipment. The organization accepts other kinds of donations as well, like educational supplies, books, computers, recreational equipment, clothes, home supplies, some food, and more.
In addition to the material donations Leon was able to collect, she said she also has over $1,000 in donations for the organization.
Pastors for Peace is a project of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) and was created in 1988 after its founder, Lucius Walker, survived an attack by the Contra forces in Nicaragua. Since then, Pastors for Peace caravans have collected and delivered aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and, of course, Cuba.
This summer marks the 26th caravan to Cuba and employs a fleet of eight busses to travel Canada and the U.S., making stops for collections like the one on Tuesday.
The vehicle that arrived in Schenectady was a refurbished 1980 diesel school bus painted with symbols and messages promoting solidarity. Bill Hill was behind the wheel, as he has been for every Pastors for Peace caravan.
Manolo de los Santos, one of the caravan coordinators and a nine-year volunteer, is joining Hill on this particular bus’ cross-country journey.
“Collecting aid to take to Cuba is one part of what we do, but we’re also here to talk to people about what’s going on with the people of Cuba,” de los Santos said. “We applaud people like Mabel who have been doing this for such a long time because for years, when nobody wanted to talk about Cuba, she was there. Now, more people are talking about it and saying positive things.”
He said the caravan’s journey across the country will end in McAllen, Texas, where it will meet with the seven other buses, reorganize the aid, and prepare to cross the border into Mexico. Then, the supplies are driven to a port where they’re put on a ship and taken to Cuba.
De los Santos said it can take weeks or months for the aid to arrive, but the coordinators see to it the supplies make it to their destination.
“We don’t ask for permission from the U.S. government to take this aid into Cuba, so they give us a bit of hassle getting across the border,” he said. “But we do that as an act of civil disobedience to show how we want Congress to take action.”
According to the IFCO, all efforts regarding Cuba are “nonviolent, direct challenges to the brutal U.S. economic blockade of Cuba in favor of a more humane U.S. foreign policy in our hemisphere.”
Leon has taken multiple trips to Cuba on construction brigades, education trips, and even joined a caravan. A concussion kept her from taking what she called the “rigorous trip” this summer, but she said she will return to Cuba because the country and its people have inspired her.
“It’s like I always say. What I wish for my country is less bombs, more doctors. Less drones, more food. I just think there are simpler ways to win the hearts and minds of people than by killing.”
De los Santos said Leon is doing all the right things to promote peace.
“I don’t ever look at the amount [of items donated],” he said. “I just think every item that we put on the bus is so special because I know it came from the bottom of the hearts of people here in Schenectady. Year after year they do this, and it’s this type of stuff that in Cuba means so much. It’s worth millions, not in terms of money but just in terms of the love that gets put into the work.”
But Leon wouldn’t accept praise. She kept her end goal in sight.
“These caravans were conceived as a way of putting a different face on our foreign policy, a foreign policy based on love and helping. I can’t wait for these ideals to become reality.”