“We act not just in defiance of our government, but in obedience to our conscience,” declared Rev. Lucius Walker, founder of IFCO, the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization and initiator of the group’s shipments of medical supplies to Cuba. This year’s Friendshipment Cuba Caravan is once again defying the US embargo of the island that “has produced one of the healthiest and most educated communities across the globe.”
This interview took place at the historic Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC. I interviewed Gail Walker, Executive Director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace during the official launch of the 26th Friendshipment Cuba Caravan. The Caravan, with volunteers (called caravanistas) and material support for Cuba will travel throughout the United States en route to Cuba. In Cuba, the caravanistas will engage in community support activities and provide material support to aid Cuba’s health and education sectors. In this two-part interview, I explore the role of Ms. Walker’s father, the late Reverend Lucius Walker, Jr., a monumental figure in both the US and Latin America human rights movements. I also explored the history of IFCO and Pastors for Peace.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What was the impetus for the creation of IFCO – the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization /Pastors for Peace?
Gail Walker: IFCO, as an organization, got its start in 1967. It was organized by faith leaders and community activists interested in fighting for social justice. It was organized by people motivated by their faith, people of conscience who felt that there must be ways that people could creatively respond to injustice. Community organizing is in its name and the organization is focused on mobilizing the community to respond to inequity.
Pastors for Peace is a project of IFCO that began in 1988 when IFCO organized a study delegation to Nicaragua that was attacked by Nicaraguan Contra. In that attack the Director of the organization, my father, Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., was one of 29 people that were wounded. He conceived of the Pastors for Peace project as a way to respond to that act of terrorism. He began to organize caravans that would allow the people of the US to collect and deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Nicaragua and to serve as an alternative people’s foreign policy. We began to organize the caravan for Nicaragua and ultimately, in 1992, we began to work in Cuba. Our work in Cuba is similar to the work we did in Nicaragua because of the long-standing embargo or blockade that was in effect. But the Pastors for Peace program had its early start in 1988 and it continues today.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Why is IFCO important to African-Americans?
Gail Walker: IFCO has always been an organization concerned about the plight of Black people in the diaspora, whether that is in the US or globally. People of color are often victims of social inequity/social injustice and that is something that IFCO has been historically concerned about. It’s the first national organization that was led by people of color that organized to fight against social injustice so this has always been a part of IFCO’s mission – its reason for being. It’s very much at the center of much of the work that we do.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Does Pastors for Peace only operate in Cuba or does your work extend to other Latin American countries?
Gail Walker: IFCO works on the local, national and international levels. We continue to operate on all of those various levels. We not only work in Cuba but in various parts of Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean and we continue to look at ways of expanding our mission. IFCO is prepared to recognize ways in which we might be supportive of the fight against injustice wherever it might be.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: How does the Caravan work across the country and what is the political importance of connecting communities in the US?
Gail Walker: IFCO has organized the Caravans as a way to work with various communities across different parts of the country. The Caravans travel along different routes from the north to the south, stopping in different communities, talking about whatever the issue of the day might be and collecting people and aid in an effort to allow people to speak directly to the impact of their work related to Cuba. For example, the work of the folks in New York may be different than the work of the people in LA or Atlanta. It’s a way to allow local activists to express their own solidarity with Cuba in a way that resonates with the work and issues that are most prevalent in those communities. So we don’t dictate to communities how to support the caravan initiative but we hope that there are ways in which they make connections between the issues that they are concerned with and the ways that Cuba has provided an example of how to address.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Why did the United States government, in 1960, decide to blockade Cuba? After all, the US government has created different modalities in China, Russia and other countries?
Gail Walker: There are so many ways to address this question. Cuba is certainly not a threat to the US government. It’s often said that Cuba is the threat of a good idea. Cuba is a nation that has shown, through its example, how to address the issue of health disparity, how to address the issue of illiteracy – ways that we might look at the environment and how we can be good stewards of the earth. There are countless ways that Cuba has put forth ways to think differently about these various issues. Cuba, from its inception had determined that it was a revolution that had a socialist perspective and they weren’t afraid to name it that.
There was a resistance to Cuba’s self-identification as socialist and that became a flashpoint for some people within the US government. I think we also have to look at the fact, that at the same time, there were claims that Cuba was directing missiles towards the US, during the so-called US-Cuba missile crisis. There were missiles that the US was directing towards Turkey, so it was a time during the cold war when tensions were high. But, often we only hear one side of that story. But, all of that has led the US government to punish Cuba and the US blockade of Cuba has become the longest and most abusive form of collective punishment. We are grateful that there is finally a shift, a sea change, a rethinking of the best ways for there to be relations between the US and Cuba.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: How has the blockade impacted the public health sector in Cuba?
Gail Walker: The blockade has prevented the ability of Cuba to have a free exchange of services. As a result of the blockade there is a loss of income and these are resources that could have been used to enhance Cuba in the areas of health or education. But, remarkably, in spite of the longest and most egregious blockade in history Cuba has been able to withstand all of those pressures and continue to put an emphasis on health and education and has produced one of the healthiest and most educated communities across the globe.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: We wish you a productive and safe mission to Cuba. We hope that communities across the country will provide the Caravan with the necessary material support to demonstrate our solidarity with ending the blockade in Cuba.
Part II of this interview will explore the US-funded contra attack on an IFCO mission to Nicaragua as well as Pastors for Peace work with the Latin American School of Medicine. The Caravan will leave Sunday, July 5th to travel across the country on its way to Cuba. Please see Caravan route link below and support this effort.
For more information and to contribute to the work of IFCO and Pastors for Peace, please see: http://ifconews.org/about-ifco-2/
to see caravan routes: http://www.cubacaravan2015.org
See a documentary on Cuba’s health system – Salud!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dthF5P7cBrg