David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Pastors Organize a Bottom-Up Challenge to Foreign Policy
by David Bacon

SAN YSIDRO, CA (4/14/96) - In the world's busiest border crossing, between San Diego and Tijuana, hundreds of border patrol and customs agents have been intensely preoccupied by a small steel-and-canvas tent. Helicopters bristling with electronic gear clatter overhead, keeping watch on it as though it held the advance guard of an invading army.

The threat presented by the tent's five inhabitants is not a military, but a moral one. Inside the tiny structure the Rev. Lucius Walker and four companions have been challenging U.S. foreign policy from the bottom up. On February 21 they started a Fast for Life, as 400 personal computers they sought to bring with them to Cuba sit locked inside a U.S. Customs warehouse. At the beginning of this month, they moved their fast to a tent on a church lawn facing the U.S. Capitol Bulding in Washington, to bring it face-to-face with the president and Congress.

"We are for a face-to-face, a people-to-people foreign policy," Walker explains. "We take our mandate from Matthew 25:35 - give water to the thirsty, and food to the hungry. Those who do this are carrying out God's work. They are obeying the highest mandate, higher than sanctions against a people who never did us harm."

Walker's arguments have a moral fervor which recalls the movement which opposed the war in Vietnam. Supporting their tactics of civil disobedience and the hunger strike, the fasters quote Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who declared that "power concedes nothing without a struggle."

In Cleveland, Walker's words have found a ready response from Sally Morillas, one of the city's veteran activists, and over 30 others. Every day, Morillas escorts three people through the doors of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral at East 22nd and Euclid. There they spend the day going without food, reading the Bible and writing to President Clinton and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, demanding that they release the computers.

Pastors for Peace, the organization Walker leads, is challenging the right of politicians in Washington to carry out the economic blockade of Cuba. They say the people in neither country want it, and that it harms the ordinary Cuban people whose interests the U.S. government claims to defend.

Over the past three years, the organization has sent shipments of schoolbooks, Bibles, medical supplies, pencils and other articles of daily life to people on the island. These items are distributed through churches and non-governmental organizations. The first shipment, three years ago, was stopped at the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas. But after ministers and other supporters fasted for 23 days, U.S. Customs eventually let it pass. Pastors for Peace never filled out applications for an exemption to sanction regulations, saying that do so would give legitimacy to an action they regard as immoral.

In January Pastors for Peace assembled a group of computers to donate to the Cuban medical system, INFOMED. They were older PCs, still usable for sharing medical information from clinic to clinic on the island.

But 1996 is an election year, and the border is the most politically sensitive area in the country. When trucks carrying the computers arrived at the Otay Mesa checkpoint, they were met with 1500 border guards, police, sheriffs and national guardsmen. Although NAFTA struck down any impediment to the movement of goods made for profit from crossing the border, free trade isn't free for computers donated to Cuban clinics.

The trucks were blocked. As caravanistas tried to carry the computers across, they were tackled, and the machines pulled from their arms. Some were beaten.

When they tried again at San Ysidro a few weeks later, they met a similar response. Pastors and supporters sat down at the border crossing, put up their tent, began passing up meals, and waited for the government to let their computers go.

They are still waiting.

When Sally Morillas heard that the fast had begun, she approached Trinity's Dean William Persell. Persell was sympathetic, having led a group of 15 churchmembers to Cuba last summer, where they were guests of the dean of Havana's Episcopal Cathedral, Juan Ramon de la Paz. De La Paz himself is due to arrive in Cleveland on April 22, where he will spend a week explaining the dire situation confronting Cubans in the wake of the blockade.

Persell gave the Cleveland cathedral's support to the Fast for Life, and since then, over 30 people have participated in the day-long protest, some more than once, including Central American activist Dr. George Brown, John Matthews of the Interreligious Task Force on Central America, and Judy Botwin, president of Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice.

"We're doing this to show support for those who have put their own lives on the line, in defense of the Cuban people's right to medical care," Morillas, who heads Cleveland's Committee to End the U.S. Blockade of Cuba, explains. "This is our own act of conscience, our own plea for justice and fair play for working people, both here and in Cuba."

At 82 years old, Morillas has been organizing protests like these longer than Treasury Secretary Rubin has been alive. Already the Treasury Department is being swamped by phone calls asking to speak to him about the Fast for Life. Department receptionists routinely disconnect and divert any call which sounds like it's about Cuba.

That doesn't deter Morillas. "We're going to keep on until our government decides that the blockade is a violation of Cubans' human rights. It's our way of keeping this issue before the people."

Meanwhile, in cities like Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco and Denver, other religious activists and supporters have joined the fast, some for just a day, others for the duration. Demonstrations supporting them spread to 40 cities throughout the Americas and Europe.

Pastors for Peace believe they represent the sentiments of most American people, pointing to these actions to support their claim. The blockade, they say, has very little public support.

As they make this bold assertion, Congress has just passed, and the president signed, a bill which seeks to tighten the blockade into a noose that would choke off commerce with Cuba from virtually any country in the world.

The Helms-Burton Bill was considered so extreme just weeks ago that it was a political non-starter. Then the Cuban airforce shot down two small planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue. This organization mounted more than 1700 flights over the island, buzzing downtown Havana, dropping leaflets urging people to leave Cuba. Brothers' founder, Jose Basulto, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion years ago, started the flights to watch over those who tried to cross the Florida straits on rafts in response to their appeals.

Republicans, who benefit from the votes of conservative Cuban exiles in Florida like Basulto, revived the moribund bill. Although Florida voted Republican in 1992's presidential contest, Clinton signed it, hoping to increase his appeal with voters who up until now have hated him.

"A third of those who listened to the Brothers' siren call wound up at the bottom of the ocean," Walker says bitterly. "The embargo they support has created the economic misery which led people to try to come to the U.S. Who has the responsibility for those who perished, if not those who applied the noose?"

The conscience of America may be frayed at the edges, he says, but the pastors are winning the country's hearts and minds. "It's because of our success that the government has come after us."

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