A group of American peace activists have defied the U.S. travel ban on Cuba and slipped into the country. They plan to begin walking some 50 miles today from Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southeast coast, to the gates of Guantánamo Bay, in protest of prison conditions and reported torture of detainees. The 25 travelers, all members of the Catholic Worker religious community, plan to arrive at the prison base on Saturday—International Human Rights Day—and request entrance into the naval base.
Before setting out, the activists are to meet with Cuban authorities to map out the best route.
In an effort draw attention to their cause, the group has set up an elaborate mechanism for blogging from Cuba, despite the extreme difficulties of connecting to the Internet there. Their plan is to go live today, posting commentary and photos on a website they’ve set up at www.witnesstorture.org.
“There’s a reason this naval base is on the island of Cuba: It’s one of the few places in the world where international law doesn’t exist—it’s a vacuum,” said Frida Berrigan, daughter of the late peace activist Phil Berrigan and a researcher at the New School’s World Policy Institute, who is participating in the trek. “It’s illegal for any sort of independent scrutiny of it, it’s illegal for Americans to go there, and we wanted to tell that story to the people.”
The prison at Guantánamo Bay, which houses approximately 500 detainees suspected by the U.S. government of terrorist activities, is inaccessible to American citizens or United Nations inspectors. In recent months, some 200 detainees at the prison —which Amnesty International has called the “gulag of our times”—have conducted hunger strikes to protest prison conditions and their extended confinement without trial. A number of those detainees have been hospitalized or force-fed through nasal tubes.
“These are people who are saying there’s no difference between life and death to me,” said Matt Daloisio, a member of the Catholic Worker group who runs a downtown hospitality program for the poor. “That is just shocking.”
The start of today’s march coincides with the day UN inspectors had planned to visit the prison before Washington denied their request to interview detainees. The protest—news of which could not be released until after the team arrived on Cuban soil last night—is the first of its kind by an American religious organization.
Berrigan said the group plans to walk between 11 and 18 miles a day, and will ask to be let into the camp to visit prisoners upon arrival. If the marchers are allowed inside, she said, they hope to carry out with them prisoner letters to family members back home. If the activists can’t get in, they plan to hold a vigil and fast outside the gates.
“We believe that in spite of everything—the checkpoints, the fences, the long walk—we’ll get in and perform the work that our faith asks of us,” Berrigan said Saturday from New York. “Under the cloak of war, we can no longer perform those without breaking the law.”
The penalty for Americans traveling to Cuba ranges from a $7,500 fine for first-time tourist offenders to $250,000 and 10 years in jail.