A Busload of Conviction
Local friends of Cuba overcome government opposition to deliver help.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
A half dozen local activists were among a group of 126 volunteers detained at the Texas-Mexico border last week. The group, Pastors For Peace, had been on the road for two weeks, caravanning across the US and collecting about 90 tons of humanitarian aid for delivery to Cuba. This mission, undertaken without US Treasury Department licenses, marks Pastors For Peace’s 18th annual challenge to US trade and travel restrictions against Cuba.
On July 17, the activists were prevented from crossing a bridge that connects Pharr, Texas and the Mexican city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas. There, Customs and Border Protection officers searched the vehicles, which contained crutches, wheelchairs, commodes and medical supplies. Ultimately, officers detained 12 computers, some of which had been donated by the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.
In a press release posted on the group’s website shortly after the run-in with Customs, Rev. Luis Barrios, who sits on the Pastors for Peace board of directors, framed the event in Biblical terms.
“This is a battle of David and Goliath, and Goliath knows that he’s losing,” Barrios says. “What they are taking from us today is purely symbolic. They are trying to show us that they are in charge. But we know that we are the ones in charge, and that the people’s power will prevail.”
Border patrol officials explained the caravan’s detainment more plainly.
“Anybody who is exporting any type of merchandise into Mexico,” says Felix Garza, a CBP supervisory field liaison officer, “we have the jurisdiction to examine that merchandise before it departs the US. In this case, that is exactly what they did.”
Garza says Customs officials are in the process of determining whether to allow the 12 computers to leave the US.
“It is our understanding that the group of folks were traveling to Cuba, and there is a trade embargo between the US and Cuba,” he says. “Some types of computers are not allowed.”
The caravan’s run-in with the law didn’t deter its activists. Later in the day they crossed into Mexico, and on July 20, the activists arrived at the Jose Marti international airport in Havana. The medial supplies and aid – shipped from the Mexican port of Tampico – followed.
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Pastors for Peace, a ministry of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, was created in 1988 to deliver humanitarian aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. The group has run into resistance from the US in the past. Two years ago, US government officials seized computers and equipment from the 16th Pastors for Peace Caravan to Cuba. In early July, the Bush Administration detained medical aid – including hospital gowns, stethoscopes and breast pumps – for Cuba at the Maine-Canada border. Protestors continue to demonstrate in Canada and the US for the release of the supplies.
US Rep. Sam Farr, who has sponsored several bills to allow free trade and travel with Cuba, says he’s “in full agreement with Pastors for Peace.
“I think that what this group is doing is a perfect example of how Americans can influence policy,” he says. “They are out there getting their voices heard, traveling the country and petitioning their government. We need more people with such passion.
“The Cuba embargo is a failed policy. Rather than having an impact on Cuba’s government, we are hurting Cuban citizens, the very people who must support any reforms on the island.”