Bus Represents Protest Vehicle on Cuban Policy Hunger Strikers Are Taking the Heat to Take Stand against Trade Embargo

Article excerpt

FROM THE SIDELINES, it appears to be only a simple yellow school bus, baking in the sun a short distance from the Mexican border.

For the past two weeks, however, the bus has been disputed ground in a battle of wills between the U.S. government and a group of religious hunger strikers over the legal and moral issues surrounding the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

The protesters from Pastors for Peace are in their third week of voluntary detention aboard the bus parked in a busy U.S. Customs Service lot near the Rio Grande. Both sides continue to wage a war for public opinion with faxes and news releases.

The lines of battle were drawn July 29, when the bus, driven by the Rev. Lucius Walker, founder of Pastors for Peace, was detained by U.S. Customs officials as it attempted to cross into Mexico with the rest of the group's 94-vehicle caravan carrying 100 tons of goods bound for Cuba.

The bus was impounded, officials said, because caravan organizers had refused to obtain an export license for the bus.

Walker, a Baptist minister from Brooklyn, acknowledges that the main point of the caravan was to challenge the Cuban embargo by refusing to obey the law.

"As people of faith, we don't believe the church needs a license to do charity work," he said. "Our integrity wouldn't let us do what they asked us to do."

With 14 protesters refusing to leave the bus, customs agents towed the bus to a nearby export inspection lot, let out the air in the tires and removed the battery.

Walker and the 13 others aboard immediately began a hunger strike to protest the 33-year trade embargo on Cuba.

On Thursday, 20 days later, unrelenting heat and illness have dropped the strikers' number to nine. Walker said the protesters' position is non-negotiable: The bus goes on to Cuba without a permit. Or they stay.

For the folks at customs, the issue is equally clear, according to Pam Previte, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs office in Houston. The law says non-humanitarian aid bound for Cuba can't leave without an export permit.

"The people on the bus are not under arrest. They are free to go with no charges filed. And they can take their bus back to the United States.

"The government did a great deal to reach out to this group," Previte said. "Customs offered to meet with them beforehand, pre-inspect the goods they wanted to send and help with the paperwork. We tried to help them, and they didn't bother to respond."

While the bus stayed in Laredo, the caravan drove on to the Mexican port of Tampico to meet the ship bound for Cuba.

A handful stayed behind to keep vigil with the hunger strikers, according to Rush Rehm, acting spokesman for the protesters.

"After we got back from Cuba a week later, the initial interest in the story had died down," Rehm said. "But the need to let people know what was going on was still great. So we decided to beef up the media campaign."

With the help of Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, a Minneapolis-based center for grassroots activism, the protesters opened an office in downtown Laredo. …