WORLD

Hungry for change in America's Cuba policy

Activists—and some academics—urge a shift

CARL MOLLINS April 29 1996
WORLD

Hungry for change in America's Cuba policy

Activists—and some academics—urge a shift

CARL MOLLINS April 29 1996

Hungry for change in America's Cuba policy

WORLD

UNITED STATES

Activists—and some academics—urge a shift

REPORT FROM WASHINGTON

CARL MOLLINS

Open debate among Americans over the tough U.S. treatment of Cuba has been muted by long political habit: official abhorrence of Fidel Castro’s Marxist Cuban regime. Since 1962, commerce and discourse with Cuba has been rigidly restricted under the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act and recent reinforcing laws. But now, more than in the past,

American academics and business leaders are quietly questioning that policy. And last week, church-based activists with allies in Canada took a louder challenge—and a protest over the seizure of used computers collected for Cuban hospitals—to the steps of the U.S. Treasury, whose customs officers impounded the shipment. “The Bible tells us to meet the needs of all who suffer,” said Lucius Walker, leader of the demonstrating Pastors for Peace group, “not just people who happen to be of our own political persuasion.” Walker, a 65-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., Baptist pastor and three of his group’s supporters, including 28-year-old Brian Rohatyn of Vancouver, attended the demonstration in wheelchairs. The rally at the massive stone Treasury building on April 19 coincided with their 59th day on a protest hunger

strike. They have been weakened by a diet of water laced with lemon juice and maple syrup. So have fellow fasters Lisa Valanti of Pittsburgh and Jim Clifford of Louisville, Ky. (Valanti was one of five demonstrators briefly arrested for blocking a Treasury doorway). But even before 60-odd people began parading with their placards and chants, an official response offered little hope to the protesters or to other Americans disturbed by their government’s Cuba policy.

The law is the law, said Treasury spokesman Darren McKinney. “The rules preclude any shipment of aid of any kind directly to the Cuban government and/or an entity controlled by the Cuban government,” he said. ‘The Pastors, as I understand it, are seeking to send computers to state-run medical clinics which, on its face, is illegal.” He added: ‘The fact that they have refused to apply for a specific [export] licence flouted that process, presumably in their effort to protest more broadly Cuba policy in general.”

The demonstrators affirmed that presumption. Their placards urged flatly: “End the Blockade of Cuba.” And rally leader Ellen Bernstein, Walker’s adminis-

trative aide, explained why the group refused to apply for an export licence. First, five earlier aid shipments—including 17 computer terminals, a satellite TV dish and a school bus—got through to Cuba via Canada or Mexico, if only after resistance from U.S. customs officers. More important, Bernstein said, complying with Treasury licence regulations would “legitimize an immoral policy.”

The policy prompted customs officers to seize a total of more than 350 old computer terminals in two attempts to take them across the California-Mexico border south of San Diego, first on Jan. 31 and, after Pastors for Peace collected more terminals, on Feb. 17. The equipment was requested by a Cuban church group, says Walker, to expand a hospital network based on a mainframe computer supplied by the United Nations and the Pan American Health Organization.

“The first seizure was real brutal,” according to Bernstein. “They had four and five officials on top of people ripping boxes of medical aid out of their hands, pulling hair.” The second export attempt was more orderly. But three weeks later, Treasury officers « raided a San Diego storage facility 1 and impounded more material cold lected by Pastors for Peace across I the United States and Canada— g computer gear awaiting repairs, f crutches and medicine, according 5 to members of the Pastors group. The impounded equipment includes gifts from Canadian church groups and others—one terminal, says Rohatyn, “from my father’s basement in Regina.” Rohatyn said he took 35 boxes of computers labelled for Cuba across the U.S. border at Blaine, Wash., on Jan. 21. He paid a $100 bond in U.S. currency as a re-export guarantee, a fee to be repaid at the Mexican border. “It’s pretty outrageous that after we paid the bond they seized the computers anyway,” said Rohatyn, a sometime student and printer’s apprentice, who says the fast has reduced his weight from 140 to 117 lb. “People all across Canada are aware of what’s happening and they are asking Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy to make a statement.”

At the Treasury, spokesman McKinney acknowledged that the Canadian shipment “may have been intermingled and thus the confiision with respect to that.” Treasury officials “are working through this matter and we will have more to say on this later.” But, referring to news releases issued by Pastors for Peace that cite the impoundment of bonded Canadian equipment, McKinney added: “Rev. Walker issues his daily, and sometimes more than once daily, press statements, news releases and whatnot, but there’s just no motivation for the treasury department to engage in a daily

rhetorical Ping-Pong match with the Pastors, and we shall not.”

Walker agrees that the Pastors group is trying to attract attention to its cause. To that end, the tasters moved their protest tent early in April to Washington from a spot near U.S. customs buildings on the Mexican border at San Ysidro, Calif. They are now camped behind the U.S. Capitol on a lawn of United Methodist Church headquarters, where they have been provided indoor office space. Group members, lobbying on the Capitol, have lined up support from about 40 members of Congress, Walker says. But he adds that it is hard to overcome what he describes as “a blackout of what we think is a very important project.” He and his staff are accustomed to overcoming trouble. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to social and civil abuses in the 1960s, Walker founded his Harlem-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) to help inner-city people achieve “social, economic and racial justice.” Associated groups sprang up in other U.S. cities and Walker later took his movement abroad.

It was in Nicaragua in August, 1988, that he decided to establish Pastors for Peace, drawing on churches to assist people he believed were suffering as a result of his government’s policies. He reached that decision after being wounded in an attack by U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries fighting the Marxist Sandinista government. The contra force fired on a ferryboat, killing two Nicaraguans and wounding 27 others. The bullet that hit Walker narrowly missed his spine. “I realized as I lay on that boat that my tax dollars were paying for that bullet,” he recalls. “So I decided we had to do something.”

Four months later, Pastors for Peace sent its first aid shipment to Nicaragua. Since then, collecting donations on touring caravans, the Minneapolis-based group has aided other Central Americans, Mexicans and, since 1992, Cubans. From the outset, the Cuba project has collided with U.S. policy. U.S. customs officers at the Mexican border in Laredo, Tex., balked at the first two shipments. The first—milk, medicines, bibles and bicycles—got through only after TV footage showed officers prying Bibles out of the hands of a priest, said administrator Bernstein. The second, a school bus, was allowed to pass after a 23-day protest fast by 14 people on the vehicle drew publicity. It was absurd, said Bernstein. ‘Why is the most powerful nation in the world so afraid of a little yellow school bus?”

Similar questions are raised in the current Foreign Affairs, the scholarly U.S. journal published six times a year. Many American corporate chief executives and their associates—manufacturers, bankers, retailers, hoteliers—are scouting Cuba, reports Pamela Falk, a former staff director of the House of Representatives subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, now a company adviser on Cuba. The executives, she

writes, “grouse openly at what they are being denied by the U.S. embargo.”

Wayne Smith, twice a U.S. envoy in Havana—before and after Castro’s revolution—writes in the same journal that “U.S. policy towards Cuba still seems to be in a Cold War time warp.” It is high time, Smith argues, to start relaxing the U.S. trade boycott. “Current policy does not serve U.S. interests or further its objectives in Cuba,” he adds, and it denies Americans any share of the Cuban market. From his wheelchair, Pastor Walker used stronger language last week. “The embargo represents the meanest and the most despicable aspect of our life as a nation,” he said in an interview. “It

is a policy of death and starvation against innocent children and women because grown men refuse to talk to grown men. It is a policy intended to destroy a nation that has never declared war on us and we have never declared war on them.”

Smith, in his essay, sees little prospect of a policy change in the near future. Walker rests his own case on a hope that the American people will begin to demand change. “Our country has distinguished itself in social policy and foreign policy when the people have taken an interest,” he said. First, however, the American people will have to shake free of habit, one deeply ingrained by politics for more than 30 years. □