Defying Washington’s Embargo

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Phyllis Ponvert

IN THE FACE of strong government opposition and little U.S. media attention, a grassroots effort scored a victory on September 13, 1996. On that day U.S. and Canadian members of Pastors for Peace delivered 400 medical computers to Cuba, without applying for the license required by the U.S. trade embargo.

On October 11, all the island’s health facilities were connected to the Internet on a fulltime basis. Through this island-wide electronic information network, Cuba’s 66,000 physicians, medical students and researchers now have access to medical information inside Cuba and worldwide.

Delivering the computers took eight months of work, including a 94-day fast by five members of the Pastors for Peace group. Since 1992 Pastors for Peace have taken six caravans of humanitarian aid to Cuba without applying for a license.

Under the 1992 Toricelli and 1996 Helms-Burton laws, nor even food and medicine can go to Cuba without a license from the U.S. government, and U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba without permission can receive 10 years in jail and a fine of $250,000. At present, all other organizations that end aid to Cuba voluntarily submit to the licensing process.

Project INFOMED-CUBA began three years ago when Cuba decided to update its medical information system. Support from the United Nations and Pan American Health Organization bought 14 main servers, the backbone of the system. To connect all hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities with the already established main servers, Cuba was seeking 800 end-user terminals in the form of used IBM-compatible computers.

In 1995 two Californians, Dr. Juan Reardon and engineer David Wald, met with the Ministry of Public Health in Cuba and were asked for computers. Wald and Reardon formed INFOMED-USA, located the used computers and turned to Pastors for Peace for their expertise in delivering aid to Central America and Cuba.

Pastors agreed to deliver the computers as the centerpiece of their sixth aid caravan. As in their other shipments to Cuba, the group refused to apply for a license. Asked why, group founder and Baptist Minister Lucius Walker explained:

“We have not and never will apply for a license under the terms of the U.S. embargo, since the (withholding) of medical supplies as weapons against 11 million innocent Cubans is morally repugnant. Participation in the licensing process would be a de facto recognition of U.S. policy, and as Christians and people of conscience we are unable to do this.”

In January 1996, Pastors for Peace were prevented from crossing the border into Mexico at San Diego with the 400 computers. They were met by 1000 agents from the U.S. Customs Service, San Diego police, U.S. Treasury, San Diego Fire Department and the FBI. The computers were confiscated by the Treasury Department.

After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the government, five members of the group — Rev. Lucius Walker of New York, Seya Sangari of San Jose, Jim Clifford of Louisville, Brian Rohatyn of Vancouver, British Columbia and Lisa Valanti of Pittsburgh – -began a Fast for Life at the border site to force the computers’ release.

After 23 days the Fast for Life moved to Washington, D.C. to better confront the government. The only nourishment throughout the fast was a mixture of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and salt.

Unrelenting pressure from the international press, thousands of U.S. and foreign citizens and grassroots groups, 70 members of Congress and nine U.S. religious organizations paid off. The 94-day Fast for Life ended May 24 when the government released the computers to the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church (UMC).

The UMC honored the Pastors’ request not to apply for a license, but did provide the government with paperwork proving the computers were going to Cuban hospitals and clinics. As in past caravans, the government issued a license.

Speaking at a welcoming reception on the group’s first night in Cuba, Lucius Walker announced that the next caravan, in the spring of 1997, will be dedicated to the needs of Cuban children.

(INFOMED-USA needs thousands of computer terminals and is continuing to collect computer equipment, Windows-capable 386 and better. Their Web Site is For further information on the next caravan contact Pastors for Peace, 331-17 Ave SE, Minneapolis MN 55414. Tel. 612-378-0062, fax 612-378-0134, Peacenet: P4P.)

ATC 67, March-April 1997