To Cuba with love

Sacramento public-health advocate defies embargo to help Cuban mothers

Homeland Security agents search donated medical supplies and computer equipment bound for Cuba.

Homeland Security agents search donated medical supplies and computer equipment bound for Cuba.

Courtesy Of Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization

First comes love; then comes marriage. And then comes Uncle Sam to hassle Americans who provide Cuban moms with baby carriages.

Just ask Sacramento resident Kathryn Hall, recently returned from Cuba. “This was one of the most terrifying and wonderful two weeks of my life,” she explained, neatly summarizing an unusual summer trip that included breaking the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, a scary tangle with Homeland Security agents and—eventually—her own wedding.

Hall is one of 130 Americans facing possible criminal and civil penalties for bringing donated medical supplies such as over-the-counter medications to Cuba. The nation is strapped for cash, having been under a U.S. economic embargo for more than 40 years.

Last year, Hall met Arnold Trujillo, a media specialist from Las Vegas, N.M., on an aid trip to Cuba. They were wed in the Havana House of Friendship this July 26, the 52nd anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution.

“This is not the first marriage for either of us,” Hall said. “But we consider ourselves to be homestretch honeys.”

Their matrimonial union was a marked contrast to a border confrontation near McAllen, Texas, five days earlier. More than three dozen armed agents with the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and the Treasury had halted the couple and some 150 others on the 16th Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba.

These activists, from a total of 11 countries and traveling in yellow school buses, were preparing to cross the border into Mexico. In addition to the medications, the buses carried medical equipment such as crutches and wheelchairs for disabled Cubans.

Hall is a midwife and the director of the Birthing Project, which she founded in 1988 as a community-based maternal and child health program in Sacramento. For this trip, Hall organized donations of double strollers for women with twins.

Hall said U.S. authorities initially told the group that they were looking for a $50,000 donation that was rumored to be headed to Cuba along with the medical supplies. But there was no money. Hall said the agents then searched the buses and confiscated 43 boxes full of used personal computers and computer equipment (cables, modems, printers and toner).

Hall and the caravan members were in a pickle, and people in the border community of McAllen, Texas, were the first to come to their aid. Hall said people from nearby stores brought cookies and cold water. And when she and the other detainees realized that their cell-phone batteries had died, local businesses let them recharge the phones to call their congresspersons and the press. The police chief in McAllen even brought the Cuba activists water, Porta-Potties and shade cover.

Kathryn Hall walks a donated stroller across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Courtesy Of

The confiscated PCs were going to help in the organization of the donations, especially the medications, Hall said. Officially, the government seized the computers for being communication equipment and not humanitarian aid, she explained.

“At that point, we got busy calling our congresspersons, including Representative Doris Matsui and Representative Maxine Waters,” Hall said. Back in Sacramento, activism aimed at convincing federal agents to withdraw and to allow the buses to cross the Mexican border gathered steam.

Faye Kennedy, a local peace activist and a past president of the Sacramento Area Black Caucus; Bill Camp, Sacramento Central Labor Council’s executive secretary; Tchaka Muhammad, a local poet; and Kennya Craft, Hall’s daughter, organized a campaign of phone calls and faxes to elected officials and journalists. Public awareness of the humanitarian caravan to Cuba grew.

Eventually, the caravan was allowed to cross the border into Mexico—without the computers, which remain confiscated. Hall and most of the group drove 12 hours from Reynosa to Tampico, a city on the Gulf of Mexico.

In Tampico, the aid and the buses (also to be donated) were loaded onto a freight ship. Then the activists took a two-hour flight to Havana.

Currently, the computers and computer accessories are being held by the U.S. government in an unknown location. Meanwhile, the Pastors for Peace are leading prayer vigils and demonstrations across the United States for the release of the seized equipment.

Hall, a veteran health-care professional, has visited Cuba more than 20 times. She’s interested in the nation’s universal health-care system—and the fact that Cuba has an infant-mortality rate lower than America’s. And she thinks the Cuban health-care system offers valuable insights into improving the health of African-American mothers and babies.

“I feel a personal obligation to help Cuba, which has done so much to teach me how to do my job better, learning how to help more African-American babies to be born healthy,” she said. “As a person of faith, I feel obliged to provide food and medicine to people who need both.”

Hall returned to Sacramento on August 8 but may face charges for violating the U.S. embargo against Cuba. For taking baby strollers and other aid to Cuba without government permission, Hall and the other U.S. “caravanistas” face fines of up to $65,000 for each offense, plus 10 years in prison. Activists from the Dominican Republic, Denmark, England, Italy, Germany and Switzerland face no such prosecution by their governments.

Late last week, Hall, Trujillo and other members of the caravan received certified letters from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, asking for information about their recent trip to Cuba.

The activists have 20 days to respond to the government’s “requirement to furnish information,” or they’ll face civil penalties.

Hall doesn’t know yet whether the letters mean the activists will face more serious charges. “But if we do,” she said, “we’ll get our day in court.”