Clinton vs. Pastors: Fasting for Cuban PCs
Across from the U.S. Capitol but almost out of sight for the
Washington press corps, four members of Pastors for Peace have
been fasting since Feb. 21 in protest of the U.S. seizure of 325
old IBM personal computers destined for Cuba. The computers
were seized under Washington's strict embargo against the
communist island nation.
Pastors for Peace, a religious group that sends humanitarian aid
to needy Cubans, maintains that the PCs were to be used as end
terminals in the United Nations-sponsored Infomed computer
network that links Cuban clinics and hospitals.
But on Jan. 31, 18 Pastors for Peace volunteers were met at the
U.S.-Mexican border near San Diego by an "inter-agency task
force" of about 400 federal agents. The officers confiscated
the computers and detained all 18 volunteers.
The PCs, most of which are more than 10 years old, were
confiscated because the Treasury Department ruled that they were
not allowed under the U.S. embargo. There was also suspicion
that the computers might be used by the Cuban government for
non-medical purposes. The fasting Pastors for Peace members
"These computers are so outdated that grade-school kids wouldn't
even use them," said Jim Clifford, 37, a 10-year Air Force
veteran and now one of the four fasters. "They are programmed
to be compatible with the U.N. [Infomed] network."
Rev. Lucius Walker, 65, the pastor of Salvation Baptist Church
in Brooklyn, NY, and leader of the fasters, displayed an invoice
from the Treasury Department valuing the seized equipment at
from $1 to $150 apiece. "It is hard to think that the entire
United States national security can be threatened by a single
dollar," Rev. Walker said.
But the PCs for Cuba seem to have run afoul of electoral
politics as well as the strict U.S. embargo. President Clinton,
with his eye on Florida's electoral votes, has shown no
inclination to ease up on Fidel Castro's government.
One U.S. official brushed aside the possibility that the
administration would compromise with the fasters. "If they want
to keep fasting, there is nothing we can do about it," the
Meanwhile, a Treasury Department spokesman told The Consortium
that the "computers don't qualify as humanitarian aid" that is
permitted under the Cuban trade embargo. Under the embargo,
U.S. citizens are allowed to send up to $200 worth of aid to
Cuban individuals. But only certain specific items, such as
food, vitamins and radios, qualify as humanitarian aid.
"This is a land of laws, and we are here to execute the laws,"
said the spokesman who asked not to be identified by name.
On May 2, U.S. Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., Esteban Torres,
D-Calif., Sam Farr, D-Calif., and William Coyne, D-Pa., stood
with the fasters on the Capitol lawn to appeal to Clinton to
resolve the computer impasse.
"Our government should not be in the business of denying
humanitarian support to sick people, especially when religious
people, responding to the highest moral authority, are willing
to put their lives on the line as the Pastors have," said Rangel.
When asked how far she would be willing to go with the hunger
strike, Lisa Valenti, a 47-year-old paramedic and former union
organizer from Pittsburgh, responded, "The government's policy
doesn't make any sense. It is a policy of death. Cubans are
starving and dying and going without needed medical care because
of what our government is doing. I don't want to die for some
stupid computers, but I will. This is a case of average people
taking on Caesar."
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