Thursday, March 18, 2010

A symbol of the slave trade joins U.S. and Cuba

Posted on Thursday, 03.18.10
A symbol of the slave trade joins U.S. and Cuba
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON -- Days from now, a stately black schooner will sail through
a narrow channel into Havana's protected harbor, its two masts bearing
the rarest of sights - the U.S. Stars and Stripes, with the Cuban flag
fluttering nearby.

The ship is the Amistad, a U.S.-flagged vessel headed for largely
forbidden Cuban waters as a symbol of both a dark 19th century past and
modern public diplomacy.

The Amistad is the 10-year-old official tall ship of the state of
Connecticut and a replica of the Cuban coastal trader that sailed from
Havana in 1839 with a cargo of African captives, only to become an
emblem of the abolitionist movement.

Its 10-day, two-city tour of Cuba provides a counterpoint to new and
lingering tensions between Washington and Havana and stands out as a
high-profile exception to the 47-year-old U.S. embargo of the Caribbean

For the Amistad, it also represents a final link as it retraces the old
Atlantic slave trade triangle, making port calls that are not only
reminders of the stain of slavery but also celebrations of the shared
cultural legacies of an otherwise sorry past.

When it drops anchor in Havana's harbor on March 25, the Amistad will
not only observe its 10th anniversary, it will commemorate the day in
1807 when the British Parliament first outlawed the slave trade.

The powerful image of a vessel displaying home and host flags docking in
Cuba is not lost on Gregory Belanger, the CEO and president of Amistad
America Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the ship.

"We're completely aware of all of the issues currently surrounding the
U.S. and Cuba," he said. "But we approach this from the point of view
that we have this unique history that both societies are connected by.
It gives us an opportunity to transcend contemporary issues."

It's not lost on Rep. William Delahunt, either. The Massachusetts
Democrat has long worked to ease U.S.-Cuba relations and he reached out
to the State Department to make officials aware of the Amistad's proposal.

U.S.-flagged ships have docked in Havana before, but none as prominently
as the Amistad. The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has
periodically approved Cuba stops for semester-at-sea educational
programs for American students, and the Commerce Department has
authorized U.S. shiploads of exports under agriculture and medical
exemptions provided in the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2000.

"Obviously we have serious differences, disagreements," Delahunt said.
"But in this particular case the two governments, while not working
together, clearly were aware of the profound significance of this
particular commemoration."

The original Amistad's story, the subject of a 1997 Steven Spielberg
movie, began after it set sail from Havana in 1839. Its African captives
rebelled, taking over the ship and sending it on a zigzag course up the
U.S. coast until it was finally seized off the coast of Long Island. The
captured Africans became an international cause for abolitionists; their
fate was finally decided in 1841 when John Quincy Adams argued their
case before the Supreme Court, which granted them their freedom.

Miguel Barnet, a leading Cuban ethnographer and writer who has studied
the African diaspora, said it is only appropriate that the new Amistad
would call on the place of the original ship's birth. Indeed, he said in
an interview from Cuba on Wednesday, it is the horror of the slave trade
that left behind a rich common bond - not just between the United States
and Cuba, but with the rest of the Caribbean - that is rooted in Africa.

"That's why this is an homage to these men and women who left something
precious for our culture," he said.

The new Amistad has crossed the Atlantic and wended its way through the
Caribbean since 2007. It has worked with the United Nations and UNESCO's
Slave Route Project. Using high technology hidden in its wooden frame
and rigging, the ship's crew of sailors and students has simulcasted to
schools and even to the U.N. General Assembly.

It will do so again - with Cuban students - from Havana.

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