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VENCEREMOS BRIGADE RETURNS FROM CUBA OVER PEACE BRIDGE; HARASSMENT-FREE CROSSING GREETED BY CANADIAN AND BUFFALO RALLIES
The eighty members of the 34th Contingent of the Venceremos Brigade, returned from their two week stay in Cuba by walking over the one-mile long International Peace Bridge from Ft. Erie, Ontario, Canada, to Buffalo New York at 8:30am on August 4. As groups of twenty or twenty-five walkers emerged from U.S. Customs on the Buffalo side of the bridge, they were greeted by banner and sign-waving supporters who had come from as far away as Maine to witness their return. The Brigade members were also accompanied by Canadian and U.S. supporters who joined them in the walk over the Bridge.
The Brigade's chant of "We Demand: End the Travel Ban" rang through the morning air and was answered by the line of supporters who picked up the rhyme and held signs that said "Welcome Venceremos Brigade!," "End the Travel Ban" and "End the Economic Blockade Against Cuba."
Members and organizers of the Brigade report only minimal or no questioning at all by the U.S. Customs officials, who generally scanned their passports and waved them through. The few Brigadistas who were asked such questions as "Did you spend any money in Cuba?" refused to answer -- as is their legal right --and passed through without incident. No one was asked where they had been, even though some of the supporting walkers had only come from Fort Erie that morning.
The 34th Contingent of the Venceremos Brigade was organized as a "Travel Challenge" to directly confront the travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government against U.S. citizens. They joined with the 14thPastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan in this campaign; the Caravan returned on July 29 through México, also without harassment by U.S. Customs and Immigrations.
"The Bush Administration has greatly stepped up harassment of individual travelers to Cuba, but our crossing shows that when we unite in collective action to assert our right to travel to Cuba, we have the political power to confront this unjust travel ban and prevent their tactics of intimidation at the border," said Bonnie Massey, a national Brigade spokesperson. But Brigade leaders are fully aware that, although their crossing was trouble-free at the border itself, the U.S. government's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) may still attempt to levy hefty fines against Brigade participants. "This too will be met by collective action, both legal and political," stated Massey. "We will not stop our opposition to the travel ban until it is ended."
These sentiments were echoed by the rallies that were held at both sides of the Peace Bridge. At Mather Park in Fort Erie, Ontario, speakers denounced U.S. policy towards Cuba at a gathering organized by the Canadian Cuban Friendship Association. At Front Park in Buffalo, speakers from many peace and justice and solidarity groups in Western New York, including the Western New York Peace Center, the International Action Center, the Latin America Solidarity Group, the Raging Granniesand Buff State Students for Peace also reaffirmed their determination to fight both the travel ban and the economic blockade imposed for more than 40 years against Cuba.
The events were documented by much of the local media and legal observers for the return were provided by the Buffalo office of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
A picnic followed the rally, with drumming and music by Buffalo-Niagara local artists. At 1 pm, Brigadistas boarded their charter buses to New York, where they then dispersed to their homes in towns and cities across the United States. Once home, they will speak to others about their experiences in Cuba and organize against U.S. policy. The Brigade calls for the active support of the following bills which would end the travel restrictions: HR 2071 in the House and S 950 in the Senate.
The Venceremos Brigade is an educational work project that has sent over 8,000 U.S. citizens to Cuba since 1969. It is the oldest friendship organization with Cuba in the country. This year's contingent is comprised of 85 participants from all over the United States including San Francisco, New York City, Northern New Jersey, Washington DC, New Orleans, Massachusetts and other places in the U.S. According to a statement signed by Brigade members, "we are young and older; African-American, Latino, Asian and white; gay and straight; students from high schools and colleges; and workers and professionals."
The Brigade's statement further proclaims, "We are united in opposing the travel ban and the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba. We have not asked for a U.S. Treasury Department license and we will not do so." Seventy-five percent of the U.S. population, including a majority of Cuban Americans, want an end to the travel ban. There are currently two bills in congress to end the travel restrictions; however since Bush has taken office, harassment of travelers to Cuba, both licensed and unlicensed, has greatly increased.
Brigade participants stayed for one week at an international camp outside Havana where they worked painting a local health clinic in the town of Caimito. "Brigadistas" also traveled to Santiago to celebrate July 26th, Cuba's national holiday, the 50th Anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Garrison that began the Cuban Revolution.
Copies of the full Brigade statement and the Brigade's "Fact Sheet on Travel to Cuba," a chronology of the U.S. travel ban are both