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American aid group arrives in Cuba on relief trip

Sunday, July 11, 2004

HAVANA -- Members of an American humanitarian aid group arrived in Cuba Saturday in defiance of U.S. law and wearing T-shirts calling for "regime change" in the United States.

About 120 volunteers with Pastors for Peace flew in from Tampico, Mexico, where they had loaded a caravan of 12 vehicles filled with goods including medicine, computers and bicycles onto boats bound for Cuba -- all in violation of a long-running U.S. trade embargo.

"We know in our hearts and in our heads ... that the blockade is immoral, is illegal, is illogical and is unjust," said the Rev. Lucius Walker, a Baptist minister from New Jersey who founded Pastors for Peace.

The volunteers, who ranged in age from 10 to 91, came in from the United States and six other countries. They wore T-shirts reading "Regime Change in the US -- Not in Cuba."

The Americans among the bunch were defying new U.S. measures that severely limit travel to the island.

"I think it's absolutely imperative for our citizens to claim their rights," said Alfred Dale, 78, a retired pastor from Bellingham, Wash. "If we don't claim them, we lose them."

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which aims to squeeze the island's economy and push out Cuban President Fidel Castro, is now in its fourth decade.

Violating embargoA new round of U.S. measures that took effect June 30 aim to further pressure Cuba's economy by cutting the amount of cash coming in from the United States and limiting visits to the island by cultural and academic groups as well as Cuban-Americans.

The relief trip marked the 14th straight year that Pastors for Peace has sought to bring supplies to Cuba in spite of the embargo. The group violates the embargo by refusing to apply for documentation to export to Cuba and by using Mexico to bypass U.S. restrictions to the island.

This year's goods, totaling 126 tons, were collected in 127 U.S. cities and three Canadian ones. School buses and other vehicles loaded with the medical and office supplies crossed the border into Mexico from Hidalgo, Texas, on Wednesday.

Officials at the border handed out fliers warning that only three of the group's members were authorized to travel on to Cuba and the rest were subject to prosecution leading to jail time or fines if they went to the island.

"It has been a very long journey, a very tiring journey, but now that we are in Cuba, all our tiredness disappears," Walker said.

Other groups have also come in direct defiance of the new U.S. travel restrictions.

Seven members of the Virginia-based African Awareness Association arrived this week to show their solidarity with Cubans.

"Since the war against Cuba has been intensified, we wanted to make sure that as Africans in America we would not let Cuba down," Lee Robinson, the founder of the group, said as he waited at the airport to greet Pastors for Peace.

He said his organization is grateful to Cuba because the communist nation has consistently fought for the rights of Africans around the world and achieved much more success in eradicating racism than the United States.

Brigada Venceremos, a group of American activists, also arrived last week to the eastern city of Santiago to protest U.S. policy.


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