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Caravan, U.S. Customs at odds en route to Cuba.

HARLINGEN, Texas - A hunger strike aboard a school bus parked in the export lot of an international bridge in Laredo, Texas, is the latest strategy of one peace group seeking to end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Thirteen members of the Minneapolis-based Pastors for Peace began their hunger strike July 29, after the bus they said was destined for a church in Cuba was seized by the U.S. Customs officials at the Mexican border.

The bus was part of a 95-vehicle caravan carrying medicine, computers, typewriters, powdered milk and bibles for that economically ravaged country. The United States has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba since 1963.

Caravan leaders say that, while the bus carrying 14 of its supporters was seized, most of the other goods were successfully hand-carried or driven into Mexico. This included another bus intended for export to Cuba and numerous materials still under export restrictions.

Since the seizure, 13 of the original bus passengers, ages 22 to 86, have chosen to remain aboard the bus in sweltering 100-degree-plus weather, bathing in a makeshift shower and using a portable toilet supplied by customs officials the day after the standoff began. The bus is parked inside a fenced expanse of black-top used mainly by truckers processing export cargo.

Although the group is free to leave with or without the bus, customs officials have refused to allow the bus to be taken into Mexico if it is destined for Cuba.

"Our government has said for years that Cuba is a godless nation," Baptist minister Rev. Lucius Walker, founder of the Pastors for Peace and leader of the 13 "caravanistas," said in a press release published by their supporters. "But here we are in the customs lot and ... which government is standing opposed to people's access to worship? Which government is it that keeps people from getting to church?"

Customs officials, who were drawn into a publicized confrontation with the same Pastors for Peace group over the embargo issue last November, complain that stirring controversy is the group's main objective.

"Pastors for Peace has clearly stated their agenda: Politics first, humanitarian efforts second," said customs spokeswoman Pamela Previte. "We respect their right to an agenda. However, we are charged with enforcing the embargo as it stands today."

According to customs officials, some humanitarian supplies such as food and bibles can be exported to Cuba, but other goods require an export declaration, inspection and authorization.

As in the past, Pastors for Peace organizers say they refused on principle to seek government authorization for their shipment. They denied, however, that the bus standoff and the hunger strike were planned.

Before the caravan's arrival, customs officials said they took steps to prevent controversy. "We have done everything possible to make this process as uneventful as possible," Laredo district director Audrey Adams said. "We've requested a meeting with them, but they are not willing to come in and peacefully discuss the requirements and logistics."

Out of the group's reported original cargo of some 100 tons, customs officials say they confiscated four computers, 29 boxes of prescription medications, five electric typewriters and the school bus.

Ellen Bernstein, a spokesperson for the strikers, said one other bus bound for Cuba, some 90 computers and several hundred thousand dollars in medications did cross the border. Much of the cargo was carried across on foot by group members, she added.

The 13 strikers include Walker, a Baptist minister who also heads the New York City-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization; a Catholic priest from Dallas; and a Baptist minister from Norfolk. One man who originally was part of the group left the bus early on because of health problems.

While in good spirits and subsisting on fruit juices and Gatorade, the group is in a weakened physical state, Bernstein said on the seventh day of the hunger strike.

Meanwhile, the standoff has drawn the attention of Rev. Jesse Jackson, members of Congress, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and others as the group works to organize a telephone campaign to appeal to the White House.

"We want to call attention to the illegality and immorality of this embargo," explains Bernstein. "We see this strategy as a way to test the limits. We think the little yellow school bus is a pretty good image."
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Title Annotation:Pastors for Peace bus caravan
Author:Hastings, Karen
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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