Travel Right
  Stuck in Vac
by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)

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Travel Right

I FIRST WENT TO CUBA IN 1986 with the Center for Cuban Studies, which helps “U.S. citizens see Cuba for themselves within the limits set by U.S. government regulations.” The Center has its own licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department and, since its founding in 1972, has sponsored many study tours in the areas of health, education, ecology, and the performing arts, to name a few. My own tour included a packed schedule of visits to educational centers ranging from infant day care through university.
     Although I was impressed with the literacy level of the people, their basic, universal medical coverage, and their affection for U.S. citizens, despite our policies, I was disturbed by the absence of a free press, reported human rights abuses against dissenters, and the subtle threats against those who practiced their religions.

A second trip brings a threat
In 1994, after returning from my second trip to Cuba, where I had signed a memorandum of agreement establishing a faculty and student exchange program between the University of West Florida and the University of Havana, I received an intimidating letter from Alpha 66, an organization dedicated to the fall of the Castro regime. Alpha 66, whose motto is “Death before Slavery,” declared that its members were at the “final confrontation, about to achieve . . . the definitive victory that will bring about the longed-for liberty and democracy to suffering Cuba . . . ”
     The letter continued: “Conscious that we are the valorous and tenacious flag-bearers, we proclaim today that all those persons who visit Cuba, dialogue, or directly or indirectly support the ungovernment [sic] that oppresses our people, regardless of nationality, will be declared a military objective and will suffer the consequences, within or outside of Cuba. Our commandos are ready to complete the glorious missions that our country demands . . . . We will not stop until we achieve victory . . . .  Those who dare ignore our call will tremble in fear before the violence of our actions. We will not make useless and unjustified distinctions.” Apparently, members of Alpha 66 saw no similarities between the totalitarian philosophy and actions they espoused in the United States and what they purported to condemn in Cuba.

The Cuban Health Network
Wanting to chart the changes since my first visit in 1986, and my second in 1994, I welcomed the opportunity to return in January, 2002. My husband and I were members of a small group affiliated with the Cuban Health Network (CHN), begun by Joe Thomas, a business entrepreneur from Mobile, Alabama. CHN provides desperately needed medical equipment and supplies to Cuban clinics and hospitals. It is also a legal catalyst that brings U.S. citizens and Cubans together. Joe had made several trips to Cuba with Society La Habana, Mobile’s Sister City program. During his visits, he noted the dire need for updated medical equipment, supplies, and pharmaceuticals that had not expired.
     Joe procured the first major donation of medical supplies through the generosity of the San Francisco-based Vida Foundation, but how could he ship it to Cuba? Later, on his way to Cuba while personally carrying a small aneurysm detection machine purchased out of his own pocket, Joe met a representative from World Reach. After describing his mission to this new acquaintance, Joe learned that World Reach had a U.S. Treasury license to ship goods to Cuba and a long history of humanitarian assistance there. As a result of this meeting, World Reach paid for CHN’s first shipment from North Carolina to Montreal, where it was picked up by a Cuban ship and taken, free of charge, to Havana. Participants in CHN groups are also licensed through World Reach.

Joe and Patricia Edmisten
on way to Cuba
Crossing the Florida Straits by boat
Although we were insecure about going to Cuba by boat, on January 16 my ecologist husband, Joe, and I drove from Pensacola to Marathon, in the Florida Keys. At the Tiki Bar we met our traveling companions: Joe Thomas, president of CHN; a Mobile writer and historian who began Mobile’s Sister City Program with Havana; a competent business woman, who speaks little Spanish but manages to skillfully communicate across any breach; a couple who own a little farm, raise horses, and publish an apartment rental guide, and a graceful southern couple who opened themselves to the wonders of Cuba, despite the flexibility that travel in Cuba requires.
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