The Consortium

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 dispute that.

"These computers are so outdated that grade-school kids wouldn't even use them," said Jim Clifford, 37, a 10-year Air Force veteran and now one of the four fasters.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 official said.

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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