Break the US Blockade: Interview with John Waller
By Max Tennant
In July 2007 the United States based Pastors for Peace Caravan successfully challenged the US blockade of Cuba for the 18th time by taking 135 people and 60 tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba. Last year in 2007, I had the opportunity to meet John Waller when I participated in the Caravan. It was an amazing experience where I had the opportunity to discuss with hundreds of people in the US, from different cities, why there needs to be an end to this unjust and immoral blockade of Cuba. As well I had the opportunity to see first hand the example of hope that Cuba demonstrates in its fight for a better humanity.
Below the caravan coordinator John Waller talks to Fire This Time about that caravan and the next one in June/July 2008.
FTT: How did Pastors for Peace first become involved with Cuba?
John Waller: Our first caravans in the late 80s were to Nicaragua at the time of the progressive Sandinista government there, which the US government was also trying to overthrow. In Nicaragua we were approached by Cuban pastors, who asked us to start caravans to Cuba as well, bringing both aid and challenging the blockade. And we responded – starting in 1992.
FTT: Could you say more about challenging the blockade?
JW: US citizens and organizations cannot legally visit or send aid to their brothers and sisters in Cuba without getting a license from the US government, which is usually denied. As a matter of principle, we go without a license. By taking ourselves, and the aid, we are symbolically breaking the blockade. The aid is helpful, but more important is the publicity we generate, the people we educate as we go, and the contribution we make to challenging, and one day ending, the US government’s policy of trying to blockade Cuba and grind down its people to submit to US domination.
FTT: A year ago in FTT you were predicting that there could be a major border confrontation - what actually happened?
JW: A year ago the Bush administration was threatening to stop all aid going to Cuban churches. We carried on regardless, and they simply backed down for fear of the publicity it would generate. At the border only local customs officials met us. They had instructions under general customs rules to ‘detain’ any computers to ascertain whether these could be potentially used for military purposes. They searched two vehicles, took just 12 CPUs and then stopped searching for the other 60 computers we were carrying. The local officials had made a token attempt to follow their instructions – and we drove on.
When we returned from Cuba they gave us back the detained computers (which we will take to Cuba this year). And their attempt to get caravanistas to answer questions about their trip was equally tokenistic – a far cry from the aggressive interrogations in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Since then not a single caravanista has heard anything more from the US government.
FTT: So what does that mean for this year, what are your plans?
JW: We have to occupy the space they have ceded to us by organizing as large a caravan as possible. We particularly hope to take many more young people. In 2007 almost 40% of the caravan was under 30, and we had eight aspiring hip hop artists from Albuquerque and Pittsburgh who participated in an international hip hop festival in Havana. This year we hope for a larger contingent of hip hop and other artists, with already a lot of interest, particularly from Hip Hop Congress chapters in the western and southern US. As one part of our humanitarian aid effort we aim to take musical equipment to help resource a hip hop cultural center in Havana.
We also plan to donate five school buses to Cuba, each decorated in honor of one of the Cuban Five, and to hold caravan events about the Five in the cities closest to their prisons.
FTT: This is election year in the US. What difference do you think a new president will make?
JW: Everybody knows that nothing will change under Bush. But after? Well McCain and Clinton are both talking tough on Cuba. Obama has partially broken ranks, stating that he will allow Cuban Americans to travel freely to Cuba and send as much money as they like to their relatives. That would be good in its own right, but would also open the door to a deeper challenge – how could he allow Cuban Americans the freedom to travel to Cuba but bar other US citizens?
But there is a deeper issue that will come into play for whoever wins. For several years US policy has been to wait till Fidel Castro goes, assuming everything would then immediately fall apart in Cuba. Well Fidel Castro has not been in the presidential role for 19 months and everything in Cuba has carried on normally. Under the next US president there will be a rethinking of Cuba policy because the blockade has failed. That will present both challenges and opportunities. We will have to maximize our efforts to intervene in those debates.
FTT: Can you talk about the Canadian role in the caravan?
JW: In 2007 five of fourteen routes started in Canada. There were 12 caravanistas from Canada including seven from BC and four of which are part of Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC), including yourself. At your border crossing at Blaine you had 150 people participating, which was amazing. Randy Caravaggio from the Victoria Goods for Cuba group launched a country-wide appeal for funds to send a vehicle to Cuba with us and nearly $9000 was raised to donate a large truck full of aid. This year we are planning something similar to raise funds for one of the school buses in honor of the Cuban Five.* And I am hoping for even more caravanistas from BC including maybe some hip hop artists from Vancouver?
FTT: For Vancouver hip hop artists who might be interested in going, could you say more about the hip hop exchange?
JW: Once in Cuba our artists, hip hop and maybe other types of musicians will have opportunities to perform, workshop, discuss and interact with Cuban artists – as well as attending many of the caravan visits to social projects. We would also like them to be participating in caravan outreach events on the road in the US and Canada.
FTT: How did you personally become involved in solidarity with Cuba and in the caravan?
JW: In 1991 I was working as a health researcher and I heard a talk by a Cuban doctor and trade union leader. Having told us about Cuba’s many achievements in bringing free quality healthcare to all its people. He said “Don’t just believe me – come and see for yourself”. So I went to Cuba in 1992. By going on a study tour of Cuba’s health service – and I was immensely impressed with what they had achieved, but also deeply angered by what the US was doing to try and destroy their society. I have been active in solidarity and sending aid to Cuba ever since.
I first heard about Pastors for Peace Caravans in 1993 and supported them, but work and family commitments meant I couldn’t actually go on one till 2000. From there I got progressively more involved and in 2004 became the caravan coordinator.
FTT: Thank you John.
*A Pastors for Peace Caravan route will leave Vancouver on Sunday June 15th and will be in Cuba July 5-12
For more information or application forms contact John Waller at email@example.com.
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