Hunger for Justice

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, April 11, 1996

Once again, it is high noon between the Treasury Department and Pastors for Peace, an organization that wants to help the Cuban people. Four hungry people, who have not eaten for 50 days as of Wednesday, are sitting in a damp tent on Capitol Hill, hoping to pressure the government into letting them take 325 used computers into Cuba.

The fasters say the computers are programmed for hospital use, for the exchange of medical information. Treasury says Pastors for Peace should apply for a license, although it gives no assurance they would get one. They say the computers are "entirely fungible" -- meaning they can be used for other things, and could somehow benefit the Castro regime. Their timing is bad, with the shoot-down of four planes by Cuban forces and the passage of the Helms-Burton bill, which perpetuates the trade embargo on Cuba.

Lisa Valenti, a 47-year-old faster from Pittsburgh, says, "I don't want to die for some stupid computers . . . but I grew up not wanting to be a Nazi." She said it is wrong for the United States to "try to starve the Cubans into submission." She has lost 23 pounds, and is freezing in Washington's wintry spring.

Valenti, a registered Republican who voted for Clinton in 1992, participated in the previous showdown between the Pastors and Treasury. That was in 1993, when the church people were trying to take medical supplies over the border at Laredo, Tex. Customs balked at moving a yellow school bus, which it thought might be converted to some military use by Castro. The church people sat in the bus and fasted for 23 days in temperatures as high as 110 degrees before the authorities, who were taking a beating in the world press, freed the yellow bus.

Sitting in a wheelchair next to her is Jim Clifford, 37, graduate of the Air Force Academy and former Air Force captain. Now a psychologist in Minnesota, he joined Pastors for Peace because of a lifelong interest in Central American affairs inherited from his Hispanic mother. He is "willing to risk serious health problems, even death, if that should be what it takes to resolve the issue." He knows that Bobby Sands, the young Belfast hunger striker, lasted 66 days.

Brian Rohatyn, 27, a Canadian citizen and part-time apprentice printer who learned "Cuban reality" from Cubans who came to Saskatchewan. He went with the computers to San Diego, where they were seized. When the fast moved to Washington two weeks ago, he came with it, because "anything worth living for is worth dying for."

The leader of the fasters, the Rev. Lucius Walker, 65, is the pastor of Salvation Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Richard Newcomb, director of Treasury's office of Foreign Assets Control, calls him "low-key and soft-spoken." He is a veteran of civil rights and anti-war marches and thinks that all progress has been made in this country "by citizen struggle rather than by officials doing the right thing."

Pastor Walker, who has five children, doesn't like to talk about the ultimate eventuality: "Like my friends in AA, I take it a day at a time."

He points out that the government mobilized its forces as for war when the Pastors tried to walk the computers over the border near San Diego.

The fasters walk across the Capitol Plaza to Congress to lobby their cause.

They have one staunch ally, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), an assertive advocate of wiping out the whole problem by normalizing relations with Cuba. He bewails the fact that just as progress was being made, the Castro government shot down four Cuban-American pilots who ran regular overflights of Cuba. Rangel wishes we had stopped the flights. He wishes the president had vetoed the Helms-Burton bill, as he originally promised.

What's happening with Pastors for Peace is all about the Florida vote, Rangel says. Clinton has to take Florida, and the Cuban Americans take the hard line. "The pastors embarrassed the U.S. government and now they are being punished," he says.

Washington has many things on its mind and has shown no sympathy for the Cubans who must find it harder to live with Castro than we do. Besides, after 30 years of a paranoid policy, it is hard, especially in an election year to change course. We managed to take a new look at Vietnam, another Communist nation, where the nation shed much blood. Trade was the lure. Our late lamented Commerce Secretary Ron Brown would have seen grand possibilities. But Florida, the electoral prize, overrides other considerations.

So the fasters have to hope that the moral authority of their fast will unnerve the necessary people in a city where conviction is rare. After all, even Ronald Reagan, sublimely oblivious as he was, was disconcerted when Mitch Snyder fasted against him and grew perilously weak. He sent a negotiator. It's a good example for Bill Clinton.