Naked City

Long arm of the Bush administration touches Cuba caravan

Most of an 11-vehicle, 150-member caravan hauling tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba, including donations from Austin-based Bikes Across Borders, has made it to the island nation. Seven caravanistas have stayed behind in the Texas-Mexico border city of Hidalgo, however, in an attempt to reclaim 43 boxes of computer equipment seized from two yellow school buses at the front of the caravan last Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers acting on orders from the Commerce Department. The confiscated toner, cables, calculators, modems, keyboards, printers, and dozen computers are designated for "special needs" Cuban children, as are the rest of this year's caravan donations, said Ellen Bernstein, associate director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. IFCO is the parent organization of Pastors for Peace, the New York-based humanitarian group behind the annual trip.

Those who stayed behind in the Lower Rio Grande Valley's Hidalgo, across the river from Reynosa, are trying "to build an international campaign to free the computer equipment," according to a posting on the Friendshipment Caravan's blog (www.caravan16.blogspot.com). This is the mostly volunteer Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba's 14th year and not the first time the U.S. government has seized aid from it. In 1996, 400 computers were taken from the caravan, but were released after a 93-day fast by caravan members, Bernstein said. After that, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which was responsible for enforcing U.S. sanctions against Cuba, "understood that we were acting on the basis of moral principles," said Bernstein, referring to the fact that caravanists view the U.S. embargo against Cuba as an immoral policy. As IFCO Executive Director Lucius Walker Jr. put it in a press release, "The blockade endangers the lives of millions of Cubans and inflicts suffering on innocent children as well as adults."

The Bush administration, however, has since transferred Cuban embargo enforcement responsibilities to the Commerce Department, which declined to comment on the situation unfolding about 1,800 long miles from D.C. IFCO's attorney has been told that the Commerce Department is acting on instructions from as far up the chain of command as the State Department and the White House, Bernstein said. Bush's administration tightened U.S. restrictions against Cuba last year, despite urging from the United Nations and countries across the globe to end the Cuban blockade and travel ban.

In hopes of lobbying the McAllen-Hidalgo area's representative in Congress for help reclaiming the computers, the caravanistas remaining in the Valley spoke with Rep. Rubén Hinojosa's chief of staff Monday only to discover that thanks to redistricting, Lloyd Doggett was the man they most needed to talk to. Tuesday, they visited the office of Doggett, who they found out is currently in Washington. "But we understand that he's already made phone calls to the Commerce Department on our behalf," Bernstein said. "We're expecting helpful responses from both of them. … We intend to keep applying pressure."

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