Pastors arrive in Cuba

Campaign News | Saturday, 10 July 2004

Religious group smashes US blockade

HAVANA July 9 - Members of the Pastors for Peace, an American humanitarian aid group, arrived in Cuba on Saturday in defiance of US law and wearing T-shirts calling for ``regime change" in the United States.

About 120 volunteers with Pastors for Peace flew in from Tampico, Mexico, where they had loaded a caravan of 12 vehicles filled with goods including medicine, computers and bicycles onto boats bound for Cuba -- all in violation of a long-running U.S. trade embargo.

``We know in our hearts and in our heads . . . that the blockade is immoral, is illegal, is illogical and is unjust," said the Rev. Lucius Walker, a Baptist minister from New Jersey who founded Pastors for Peace.

The volunteers, who ranged in age from 10 to 91, came in from the United States and six other countries. They wore T-shirts reading ``Regime Change in the U.S. -- Not in Cuba."

The Americans among the bunch were defying new U.S. measures that severely limit travel to the island.

``I think it's absolutely imperative for our citizens to claim their rights," said Alfred Dale, 78, a retired pastor from Bellingham, Wash. ``If we don't claim them, we lose them."

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which aims to squeeze the island's economy and push out Cuban President Fidel Castro, is now in its fourth decade.

A new round of U.S. measures that took effect June 30 aim to further pressure Cuba's economy by cutting the amount of cash coming in from the United States and limiting visits to the island by cultural and academic groups as well as Cuban-Americans.

The relief trip marked the 14th straight year that Pastors for Peace has sought to bring supplies to Cuba in spite of the embargo. The group violates the embargo by refusing to apply for documentation to export to Cuba and by using Mexico to bypass U.S. restrictions to the island.

This year's goods, totaling 126 tons, were collected in 127 U.S. cities and three Canadian ones. School buses and other vehicles loaded with the medical and office supplies crossed the border into Mexico from Hidalgo, Texas, on Wednesday.

Officials at the border handed out fliers warning that only three of the group's members were authorized to travel on to Cuba and the rest were subject to prosecution leading to jail time or fines if they went to the island.

``It has been a very long journey, a very tiring journey, but now that we are in Cuba, all our tiredness disappears," Walker said.

Other groups have also come in direct defiance of the new U.S. travel restrictions.

Seven members of the Virginia-based African Awareness Association arrived this week to show their solidarity with Cubans.

``Since the war against Cuba has been intensified, we wanted to make sure that as Africans in America we would not let Cuba down," Lee Robinson, the founder of the group, said as he waited at the airport to greet Pastors for Peace.

He said his organization is grateful to Cuba because the communist nation has consistently fought for the rights of Africans around the world and achieved much more success in eradicating racism than the United States.

Brigada Venceremos, a group of American activists, also arrived this week to the eastern city of Santiago to protest U.S. policy.

HOUSTON July 8 - A caravan of vehicles carrying 100 tons of goods crossed into Mexico from Texas on Wednesday bound for Cuba in a show of civil disobedience toward the US blockade.

It is the 15th year the Pastors for Peace humanitarian organization has delivered food, medicine and equipment to Cuba, but this year's trip comes as the Bush regime has toughened travel restrictions to put pressure on Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Pastors for Peace is an arm of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, "whose mission is to help forward the struggles of oppressed people for justice and self-determination," according to a statement on its web site.

"We feel this is a very crucial time to go because of the issues and hostilities being created between our country and other people of the world," director Lucius Walker said in a telephone interview from the Mexican border city of Reynosa.

"We're doing civil disobedience and we're prepared to suffer the consequences."

The caravan of 15 vehicles with 120 people on board received an escort to the border by helpful U.S. agents and local police at Hidalgo, Texas, Walker said.

He said the group had expected problems because of the new Bush policies imposed last week, but there were none.

"There was a lot of planned attention to us, but there was no effort to stop us, no effort to harass us," Walker said.

The group was set to arrive in Havana on Friday, then return to the U.S. 10 days later.

Government officials would not say whether the "caravanistas," as they call themselves, would be prosecuted upon return, but Walker said they had been told to expect something would be done.

"They wouldn't stop us (today), but they'll get us when we come back," he said.

SAN JUAN, Texas, July 7 - Old school buses emblazoned with pro-Cuba slogans were assembled at the U.S.-Mexico border for the 14th annual delivery of goods to the communist island in violation of U.S. embargo.

Pastors for Peace this year filled nine buses with donations including medical, sports, and office equipment gathered by church and other groups in 127 cities. The buses were to cross the Mexican border Wednesday.

More than 100 volunteers from around the nation and several foreign countries planned to ride in the caravan from the border to Tampico, Mexico, where they will load the goods, including the buses, onto boats bound for Cuba. The volunteers planned to fly to Cuba to help church groups there distribute the aid.

The U.S. embargo with Cuba is now in its fourth decade. President Bush last week stepped up the embargo with more stringent restrictions on U.S. residents' travel to visit family there.

"It's a policy that has no redeeming value," said the Rev. Lucias Walker, a New Jersey pastor who founded Pastors for Peace. "What we're doing is an act of civil obedience to a higher power that says you should love your neighbor."

The group violates the embargo by refusing to apply for documentation to export to Cuba and by using Mexico to bypass U.S. restrictions to Cuba.

Abelardo Ateaga, 82, arrived in Texas on Tuesday on one of three buses from Florida.

He clutched a picture of his 92-year-old sister and said the people he had grown up with on the island were suffering from the continued embargo.

"This is my sister and this is the people we take the help," he said. "Tell me who is against me. I like them to tell me what is wrong with that."

The group's inaugural "Friendship Caravan" in 1992 drew attention when news cameras filmed federal border officials trying to wrest a load of Bibles from a Catholic priest.

In 1993, 13 members of the group staged a 23-day hunger fast on one of the buses to protest border officials' attempt to seize their vehicle.

There was a 32-day fast in 1996, after the government seized computers they were delivering.

The caravans have in recent years passed through the border without much incident.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Rick Pauza said Monday that the group had been given license as a peace organization to pass through Customs.

Molly Millerwise of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which regulates U.S. travel in Cuba, said the Bush administration stood by its decision to keep wealth from entering Cuba and strengthening the Fidel Castro regime.

U.S. family members were spending too much money during visits to Cuba, she said, and the money was being funneled to Castro.

"The continuing crackdown measures are meant to help hasten the day to a free Cuba," she said.

She said she could not comment on whether the office planned to levy fines or seek jail time against the group.

| top | back | home |
Share on FacebookTweet this