THIRTEEN hunger strikers baking in a yellow school bus on the US-Mexico border are focusing fresh attention on the three-year-old US-imposed trade embargo of Cuba.
The bus is the only one of 94 vehicles that the United States Customs Service seized July 29 when a caravan crossed the border with aid for Cuba from 130 US and Canadian cities. Customs officials said the bus could be used for military ends.
"The seizure of this bus represents the use of irrational and immoral force to prevent the shipment of humanitarian aid, which is a right guaranteed under international law," former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark said last week in support of those refusing to leave the bus in Laredo, Texas.
In its second such shipment, Pastors for Peace, a Minneapolis-based ecumenical group, sent about 100 tons of goods to the Mexican port of Tampico, where it was loaded onto a Cuban ship. The aid reached Havana on Aug 6. Some computers, electric typewriters, and medicine were confiscated at the border, according to US Customs officials, but the caravan's organizers managed to get most of the aid through by carrying it across on foot. Two other school buses, including one openly bound for Cuba, were inexpli cably allowed across. Mexican civic groups also sent 60 tons of privately donated food and clothing.
Mexico supports such aid shipments to Cuba, but US law forbids any kind of trade or aid with Cuba without prior approval from the Treasury Department.
"We refuse to ask for a license because they're arbitrarily issued, and to seek a license would validate the terms of an unjust embargo," says Ellen Bernstein, a spokeswoman for Pastors for Peace.
Church and civic groups in about 50 US cities have started hunger strikes in solidarity with those on the school bus. At least six US Congress members have voiced public support for the strikers, and are reportedly lobbying the administration to let the bus go. In Mexico City, Va por Cuba, the Mexican organization shipping aid to Cuba, held a noisy demonstration outside the US Embassy Aug. 6.
Attorneys for Pastors for Peace sent a letter to the Treasury Department saying that if the bus were allowed into Cuba, the group would guarantee the vehicle would be used for humanitarian purposes by the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Cuba. US Treasury spokesman Bob Levine doubts such a deal would be accepted. "They haven't applied for an export license. But I don't think a license would be granted. Motor vehicles are not included among the exemptions for humanitarian aid."
Cuba suffers from shortages of food, spare parts, and consumer goods. Havana has begun allowing Cubans access to foreign currency and more foreign investment, which analysts see as an indication that the hard-line socialist ideology is yielding.