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HIGH-PROFILE ACT OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE TARGETS 'UNJUST' BAN ON VISITING CUBA

For a high-profile act of civil disobedience, it was as friendly and well-mannered as it gets.

After defying a U.S. travel ban by spending two weeks building schools in Cuba, about 90 activists from across the country made a symbolic return home Monday by walking across the Peace Bridge carrying signs and chanting.

They were met at Front Park by about 75 supporters in a rally that was more festive than angry. It was organized by the Western New York Peace Center, but the message was firm, and the method was decidedly in-your-face.

For the 35th consecutive year, the Venceremos ("We Shall Overcome") Brigade defied travel restrictions and protested a trade embargo by traveling to Cuba to help with public works projects and visit with residents.

The message was even more pointed this year, in light of recent action by President Bush tightening travel restrictions to Cuba. "We feel we have a moral obligation to break an unjust travel ban," said Ann Sparanese, a Venceremos Brigade organizer from Englewood, N.J.

U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials seemed determined to avoid confrontation when the first group of protesters crossed the bridge on foot about 10 a.m. "It was routine," said Catherine Pottinger, 70, a participant from Seattle. "They just asked us to fill out a form. It was certainly civil, and it bordered on cordial."

Donna Hernandez, a Venceremos participant who works for nonprofit groups in New York City, said the United States could learn much from Cuba's universal health care system.

"We're a first-world nation, and there's no reason a person shouldn't be able to see a doctor because they don't have health insurance," said Hernandez, 25.

Tshaka Barrows, who works with youth in Oakland, Calif., said that the experience changed his life but that it wasn't leisurely.

Pottinger, a retired warehouse worker, said that the experience was well worth the $1,300 she paid in expenses and that she hopes to do it again. "It was marvelous," she said. "I've looked forward to this all my life."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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