By Lauren C. Rivera
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON Wanting to see for themselves what the United States calls an oppressive regime, a group of young Americans is preparing to violate U.S. law by traveling to Cuba.
Armed with T-shirts bearing a logo that displays the star from Che Guevara’s hat and two machetes symbolizing guerilla warfare, about 80 members of the Venceremos Brigade are getting ready to make the trip again this summer without permission from the Treasury Department.
For $1,300 per person they will fly from Toronto to Havana, where a government organization called Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP, sets their schedule and helps them get acquainted.
“You don’t see as many negative things as the U.S. government would have us think,” said Arturo Perez Saad, 34, an New York elementary school teacher who took the trip last summer.
“It’s an alternative society, and I fully support the revolution,” said Diego Iniguez-Lopez, 18, a Leonia, N.J., high school student whose parents are Cuban and Chilean. After making four trips to Cuba, he said he was unaware of any civil rights problems for Cubans.
“It’s totally different when you go there and see it for yourself,” Iniguez-Lopez said.
In Cuba, group members attend political lectures, work alongside Cubans cutting sugar cane or hanging tobacco leaves to dry and take part in community projects.
Some argue the travelers see an unrealistic view of the country.
“If you go through a government-sponsored program to Cuba, obviously they’re not going to tell you the real story,” said Alex Ferro, executive director of Florida’s Hispanic Legislative Caucus. “It’s definitely a very biased story.”
The island may be beautiful, he said, but Cubans aren’t allowed to enjoy the beaches and other sights that tourists see. He said the government has had decades to perfect a system to deceive visitors. If Cubans are so happy, he asked, why do they keep trying to escape to the United States using unsafe, makeshift boats.
Earlier this month, Brigade members showed a video of a recent trip to four potential recruits at a Washington public school. In it, Cuban students perform dances, like el son and el mambo. Unlike pre-revolution fashion, when Cuban dancers might have worn two-toned patent leather shoes with their tropical ruffled dresses, these dancers wear inexpensive sneakers.
In the video, the program emcee gives a trophy to the audience, not the performers. He tells the Americans it is to maintain solidarity with the Brigade, which was started in 1969 by Americans in New York and Cubans on the island, to support the revolution and oppose U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Their video shows Brigade members singing the “Intern-ationale,” a Marxist anthem in a meeting with ICAP. It also shows parades during the day and bonfires at night where Cubans and American visitors carry anti-embargo and pro-socialism signs and chant “Cuba Si, Embargo No!”
The Brigade received a letter from the Treasury Department in September, shortly after the last trip, asking if the group is a religious organization, which would exempt it from the travel ban, said Marta Schmidt, a Brigade member.
The Treasury Department’s Web site said the basic goal of U.S. sanctions is to isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of dollars. Maximum criminal penalties for individuals who violate the ban are 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Civil penalties of up to $55,000 per violation may also be imposed.
The Brigade would not comment on whether anyone who made the trip has been charged.
Brigade members said they go anyway because they believe the law violates their First Amendment rights. When they return from the trip, they will march over the International Peace Bridge from Fort Erie, Ontario, to Buffalo, N.Y., as they did last summer.
“At first I was apprehensive about disobeying the law,” said John Murillos, 33, a Washington elementary school teacher who went on last summer’s trip. “But when I went, it just strengthened my desire to embrace a new perspective.”
“It’s a beautiful place where life isn’t measured by the dollar, and goods and services are distributed evenly,” said Murillos, who is also a poet.
He remembers painting and repairing a school in Santiago de Cuba. The man next to him, who took off his shirt and broke a sweat just like the rest, turned out to be the school principal, and the woman passing out ham sandwiches was the counselor, Murillos said.
It begins to get gray.
The sharp contrast between media reports he heard at home and what he saw in Cuba is enigmatic, Murillos said.
“Now I want to talk to more Cuban-Americans and read more about the history, because I believe you have to look at all sides of the story,” Murillos said.
Denice Dorchak-Ochola, 21, a Denver political science student who is transferring to City University of New York, said she saw happy people but has questions nonetheless, mainly centered on Fidel Castro.
“There seems to be a clash between reality and the information coming from both sides,” Dorchak-Ochola said. “Is he an Iconic figure as he is seen in Cuba, or is he more like the way that he is described in the exile community in the U.S.?”
“And the answer is a little bit of both,” she said.
As it has in past years, the United States plans to introduce a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record at the human rights talks beginning this week in Geneva. But after their trips to Cuba, the Brigadiers cannot agree with that position.
A bad record is not apparent, Perez Saad said: “There is no police brutality, and the people speak out openly against the government.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote Castro last week urging him to release 23 independent reporters jailed since a the crackdown on dissidents in March 2003.
But Perez Saad said he does not believe the crackdown violated civil rights. He said the 75 activists and reporters were jailed because “they were accepting money from the American organization, the National Endowment for Democracy, which is illegal in Cuba.”
Dorchak-Ochola admitted she did not know enough to comment on human rights abuses. “But then again, we didn’t go there to ask those questions,” she said.
She said she made the trip to observe socialism, which “reads so good on paper. … I think that all the good things happening there need to be spoken about more.”
But like other countries that have had “experiments with socialism … to garner as much support as it does, it must practice repressions,” Dorchak-Ochola said.
Cubans are about to have their local one-party elections, in which all candidates are Communist and can be as young as 18, Perez Saad said.
“How could they say that there is no democracy in Cuba?” he asked.
Iniguez-Lopez said of Cubans, “They are very astute and involved politically and I think it’s because of such a good education that they have. …They are very well represented at the local level.”
“It’s beautiful to see what they are capable of,” Murillos said. “At the same time it is so sad to see how poor they are and that it’s because of the embargo.”
“Despite lack of medicine and supplies, they don’t have to worry about having the burden of being sick,” Perez Saad said. “It’s remarkable.”
He got sick and was healed at a clinic, he said. The doctor massaged his calf to make his stomach ache go away.
He said he was surprised to find he would not be charged for the services. The live-in doctor told him that health care was the right of the people.
Murillos compared billboards he saw featuring Castro, Che Guevara and 19th century Cuban hero Jose Marti that advertised maintaining the revolution to commercials that promote consumerism in the United States.
Cubans are happy despite poverty, said Dorchak-Ochola, who also observed that everyone is educated despite a lack of pens. She said, however, that she couldn’t imagine what they did without toilet paper or soap in their bathrooms.
She said she found out they used crumpled pieces of the Cuban newspaper, “The Granma.”