Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"No We Won't" (pay your bribe)

photo from 2008, as we arrived at the Martin Luther King Jr. Centre in Marianao, Havana. The Reverend Lucius Walker, founder of Pastors for Peace, is in the foreground, Gerry's the grey haired fellow just behind him.

My friend Gerry just called from Mexico. He’s participating with the 21st Humanitarian Aid mission to Cuba.

Gerry called from Reynosa, a town that borders the USA at McAllen Texas. You leave the "we have way too much stuff" USA, drive over a bridge that crosses the Rio Grande, and enter Reynosa. And there, everything changes – or at least the language, much of the history, and the level of poverty (for now). Gerry called me from a 7/11, across the street from the Hotel Capri where the caravan stays the night (sleeping four to a room with two double beds in each. Boys in one room, girls in another).

Reynosa is an interesting place, border towns often are. There’s the typical pedestrian market where you can find all kinds of clothing and trinkets, street corner food vendors, buskers of various types, and of course there’s the zocalo (the central gathering area that every Mexican town seems to enjoy), and restaurants and bars. If you climb onto the roof of the Hotel Capri, you can see an amazing number of 7/11s on various street corners. If you’re really lucky, you can smell the stench from the open sewers. Some things are different in border towns, some things just aren’t.

Gerry told me that there are just over 80 caravanistas bringing humanitarian aid to Cuba this year and, while the US authorities only held them for about 2 hours while Homeland Security checked through the aid, it’s the Mexicans who are insisting on being the sticks in the mud this year.

The Caravanistas, US citizens and internationals among them (including some from Canada) arrived at the US/Mexican border at about 8 am this morning, spent two hours as Homeland Security checked through the goods, and then proceeded across the bridge into Mexico. There they spent about 2 and a half hours with the Mexican authorities who also insisted (as they so often do) on searching through the material aid.

The Pastors for Peace provide a very detailed list of everything they’re transporting, these lists being lovingly prepared by volunteers who unload every box from every bus during a weekend in McAllen, and this after every box has had a list of its contents provided when it was initially collected along the route. The Mexicans often use dogs to sniff the aid but don’t usually take anything, and they didn’t this year either, but the US-Americans ‘detained’ five computers – the new Pentiums … they let the older computers go on to Cuba. Hopefully the P4P will be able to retrieve these computers after they’ve ensured the rest of the aid travels safely to Cuba, after they themselves spend a week in Cuba learning about their revolution and interacting with the natives. Then they'll concern themselves with those computers, that were donated by someone with the intention that they go to Cuba. The Pastors for Peace collect specific computer technology that will fit the network used by Cuba’s world class health system. If Homeland Security needs computers so badly they ought to tell Obama to quit spending so much money killing innocent people overseas and spend the money at home instead.

Anyways, back to Gerry's story from today. At some point the Pastors for Peace were told by the Mexican authorities that they would be charged $1000 a bus – some kind of fee to enter Mexico. There are 13 buses this year carrying aid destined (along with most of those buses) for Cuba which has been the victim of an economic blockade imposed by the US government these past 50 years. After some negotiation the Mexican authorities reverted to a $25 per person fee, an entry tax that’s usually only imposed on tourists. This was not acceptable to the Pastors for Peace caravanistas. After about eight hours of negotiations, including high level talks between embassy representatives and P4P lawyers, while the 80+ caravanistas waited and refused to leave, it was announced that the Mexicans would allow the caravanistas to attain their travel visas (as everyone entering Mexico must do) and proceed.

I asked Gerry why the Mexicans are suddenly the bad guys … through the years the challenge has been getting through the US border, the Mexicans are usually much more understanding and seem more willing to allow aid to travel to their Cuban cousins. Gerry suggested that these ‘bribes’ for entry are “probably in exchange for some other favour, maybe getting Mexico to do the US’s dirty work … either that or the officials saw some opportunity to line their pockets. But Lucius (Walker, founder of P4P) made it clear that they’ve been asked for bribes before and never paid one.”

The caravanistas are preparing for a 4:30 awakening from their cramped quarters at the Capri Hotel, at 5:30 they’ll leave for Tampico. Gerry reported having only four hours sleep two nights in a row because he was on night duty at McAllen, then two hours sleep last night. I know he’s vegan and I hope he (and everyone else) has enough food. It’s a long drive, along the highway of death (as its known), all the way to Tampico, and they want to get there in plenty of time to deal with the next group of Mexican authority. Last year we arrived just after night fall and were prevented from entering the dockyard for several hours – they used the excuse of ‘drug war’ to suggest that perhaps we’d be better off if the Mexicans unloaded all the aid (over 100 tons) into the shipping containers. We insisted that we had protected this aid from Canada, all through the USA, and weren’t about to trust it to anyone. Eventually we were allowed into the dockyards, and finally finished unloading in the wee hours.

You’re in my thoughts, brave caravanistas, and I know that when you finally arrive in Cuba you’ll be welcomed as the heroes you truly are.