Cubans were amazed last month to see a group of 25 U.S. citizens marching with banners along roads on the eastern end of the island leading to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, where the United States has been holding suspected terrorists, some for more than four years without due process.
For four days, a group of Catholic Workers and Christian activists from around the country walked more than 60 miles from Santiago to within five miles of Guantánamo to protest the detention and torture of suspected terrorists. The march coincided with the Dec. 10 observance of International Human Rights Day.
Scott Langley and Sheila Stumph, co-founders in 2004 of the Raleigh Catholic Worker House near Central Prison, which offers a place to stay for families visiting loved ones on death row, were among the 25 marchers who had hoped to be permitted to enter the prison. Instead, the marchers were stopped at a Cuban checkpoint about five miles from Guantánamo and about nine miles from the prison.
After their arrival Dec. 5, the marchers began a series of what became ongoing meetings with officials, Stumph said. They were initially threatened with deportation by Cuban authorities, who clearly did not want the efforts of the 25 to provoke a U.S. government reaction.
"When they said, 'This is impossible to do in Cuba,' we said, 'Well, we're a group that believes in the impossible, and that's what faith is for us,'" Stumph said.
The concessions of the Cuban authorities were what Stumph called "the miracle of the trip. The first day, we were threatened with deportation, and after a four-day walk, we were allowed to stand as close as is physically possible on the Cuban side of the military base.
"We felt close. We felt very close to them [the detainees] physically because we were closer than anyone has been; certainly closer than their families will ever be."
While marching, the group attracted gawkers from among Cubans, but the reactions were never negative, Langley said. In one village, teachers allowed the students to come out of a school to watch the marchers pass by.
Langley said a man named Jesus, who accompanied them from the hotel to the airport the day they left Cuba, offered high words of praise for the group.
"I know it was a great risk for you to come to Cuba. I want to thank you for coming here and to thank you for what you have done for the prisoners," Langley said the man told them. "This was a powerful statement to us all, as it confirmed that our message about this witness being about the prisoners was heard."
Both Stumph and Langley were disappointed that they were not able to get inside the Guantánamo prison, but media coverage was good and, most importantly, news of the march may have reached the prisoners and their families.
Al Jazeera television carried news of the march in the Middle East, and Michael Ratner, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has met with some of the Guantánamo prisoners, is making sure that lawyers going into the prison carry news of the march with them.
"It didn't feel like a failure that we didn't get in," Stumph said. "It felt like the first step was made."
Said Langley: "I think we accomplished far more than we thought we would. The fact that we were able to set up a camp 24 hours a day and have a vigil and to fast and pray at the actual military fence boundary was more than we thought we were going to be able to do.
"The prisoners know we were there, and the U.S. government knew we were there."
Because of travel restrictions to the communist nation, the 25 activists had to fly into Cuba from other countries. Stumph and Langley entered Cuba via the Dominican Republic.
Upon their return at Newark airport, 14 delegation members, including Stumph and Langley, were detained and questioned by the Department of Homeland Security. Stumph said they all told the truth to interrogators, saying they had traveled to Cuba to visit the Guantánamo prisoners. Langley said the Homeland Security officials photocopied their identifications, as well as some of the information they carried. Others who have traveled to Cuba illegally have faced fines as high as $5,000 for violating the U.S. travel ban, fines Stumph and Langley say they will refuse to pay.
Langley said the trip to Cuba "was an extension of our work against executions in the United States. ... The torture at Guantánamo is the same as executing prisoners at Central Prison. These are all violations of human rights, and our common message from Raleigh's death row to the detention center at Guantánamo is that our government has no business killing or torturing prisoners, and that there is no such thing as a lesser human being. I really believe that our work in Guantánamo is consistent with our work in North Carolina."