Embargo stifles group’s offerings

A Catholic charity’s donations to Cuba were stopped at the Mexican border.
Friday, August 12, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:16 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ten computers donated to a humanitarian group by the Columbia Catholic School and bound for Cuba have been held up at the Texas-Mexico border, pending a decision by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency.

Pastors for Peace, which traveled to about 100 U.S. communities gathering aid for Cuba, pulled the computers from its caravan July 21 after customs agents confiscated 43 boxes of electronic equipment as it attempted to cross the U.S. border at Hildalgo, Texas. The school’s computers were added to the caravan during a stop in Columbia on July 13.

Cuba is under a U.S. trade embargo, and some export items must be licensed through the federal government. Rick Pauza, spokesman for U.S. Customs in Laredo, Texas, said the computers and other equipment stopped at the border are on a commerce control list and require an export license. Computers are considered “dual-use” items with commercial and military applications, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Lucius Walker, director of Pastors for Peace, acknowledged that the group did not have the proper license for the computers and other equipment. But, he said, Pastors for Peace has repeatedly informed the government that “we firmly don’t believe we have to have the government’s permission to help our neighbors.”

Walker said the Pastors for Peace has delivered aid to Cuba for 16 years. In 1996, 400 computers that the organization sent to Cuban hospitals were seized. Caravan supporters remained at the border for a month, then took their protest to Washington D.C. Two months later, all the computers were released to go to Cuba, Walker said.

Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Treasury, said Pastors for Peace may also be in violation of a government-mandated travel ban to Cuba. Americans must apply for a license to visit Cuba. Pastors for Peace representatives traveling to Cuba did not have licenses, Pauza said. “That could put them in violation of U.S. law,” Millerwise said, and could result in criminal or civil fines.

Agnes Nickerson, Columbia Catholic School’s assistant principal, said the school donated the computers for use in Cuban schools. She said school administrators were under the impression that the computers had been cleared with U.S. Customs. Otherwise, she said, the school would have donated them to another organization.

Jeff Stack, director of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, and five other Pastors for Peace supporters met Wednesday in Columbia with Scott Baker, communications director for Ninth District U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Baker said the congressman’s office is trying to determine whether they have any clout in the matter. He said Hulshof wants to see a greater exchange of humanitarian goods with Cuba but “is not interested in propping up” the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro by loosening other embargo restrictions.

“The primary and best function of this office is the flow of information,” Baker said. “But as far as determining the final resolution of the matter, we’re still not sure yet what can be done.”

Stack said the group hoped to obtain Hulshof’s help in getting the computers into Cuba but acknowledged that the conversation ­— and the caravan itself — are “more symbol than substance.”

“What Pastors for Peace is doing provides some help, but we need to end the embargo,” Stack said.

The Rev. Larry Brown, an MU geography professor who once traveled to Nicaragua with Pastors for Peace, said Cuba poses no real threat to the United States. The confiscation of the computers, he said, was a way for the government to say, “We can do this. We can stop this.”

“We’re still operating out of Cold War understandings, but now we’re using the language of Homeland Security to do the same thing to Cuba,” he said.

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