Institute on Religion and Democracy
Fidel Castros circle of open admirers has drawn increasingly slim. But a New York-based Baptist minister and his fellow "Pastors for Peace" continue to sustain their faith in the Cuban dictator. Despite his open affection for Cuban communism, the Rev. Lucius Walker has become a respected partner in the lobbying campaign for full U.S. relations with our hemispheres last major outpost of tyranny.
Early this year, Walker helped organize what he describes as the largest U.S. congressional delegation to visit Cuba. Representatives Maxine Waters (D-CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Earl Hilliard (D-AL), Julia Carson (D-IN), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA) all joined in the trip, apparently unconcerned about Walkers unabashed pro-Castro bias.
"I would be honored to have a person like Fidel as president of my own country," Walker enthused to me in a recent interview. "Hes a person of great integrity." Walker commended Cubas wisdom for not rushing to multi-party democracy, which would allow the U.S. to buy elections as he believes it has elsewhere in the Third World. "I think democracy is expressed in [Cubas] current system," he said. "Arguably its among the most democratic in the world."
A former executive with the National Council of Churches (NCC), Walker organized "Pastors for Peace" in 1988 from his hospital bed, while recovering from wounds inflicted by the Contras in Nicaragua. Its self-professed purpose was to support the "victims" of "low-intensity warfare" waged by the United States and its proxies against oppressed Third World peoples.
Walker had been fired as the NCCs Associate General Secretary for Church and Society in 1978 for chronically overspending his budget. He blamed his dismissal on the NCCs "drifting to the right." Thereafter Walker became executive director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizing (IFCO), a group founded in 1967 ostensibly to combat civil rights injustices.
In reality, IFCO promoted Black Panther-style radicalism under the aegis of "self-determination" for the inner city. Under Walkers leadership, it increasingly agitated on international justice issues, such as combating U.S. "colonialism" in Latin America and supporting Marxist liberation movements in Central America. Mainline church groups, such as the United Methodists, supported IFCO financially during the 1980s.
Walkers Pastors for Peace, which is an IFCO project, took a special interest in Cuba after the Cuban government invited him on a fact-finding tour. "We saw a country that had suffered under a dictatorship, a dictatorship that had been supported by the U.S.," he lamented. He was speaking of the Batista dictatorship, over 40 years ago now. Walker still blames all oppression in Cuba on the United States.
Since 1992, Pastors for Peace has been challenging U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba by organizing seven "Friendship Caravans" of material aid for Cuba and refusing to apply for a U.S. Treasury Department license. "To send simple aid to our Cuban brothers and sisters we shouldnt have to ask the permission of their enemy," Walker has explained.
For his efforts, Walker and his colleagues received medals from Castro personally in 1996. Upon receipt of his reward, the Baptist pastor from Brooklyn hailed Cubas communist system as exemplifying the social values preached by Jesus. Castro responded: "I do not have words to express the highest appreciation for what they have done." He called Walkers work "one of the most beautiful stories of solidarity ever written."
The reason Cuba is a "pariah," according to Walker, "is because it will not bow to U.S. corporate interests or U.S. government policy, but is committed to giving all that it can to its people." Cuba offers an "example to the rest of the Third World which the developed countries cannot abide because it places people ahead of corporate greed."
Walker has said that Castros communist revolution ushered in an era of equal rights, universal education, and health care. "Cuba has chosen to seize its own destiny, not to be a puppet of the United States. It has not bowed to the United States in the face of hardship from our economic blockade."
He has defended Cubas one-party system, saying it permits two or more (Communist Party-approved) candidates to run for some offices. And Cubas limitations on free speech he blames on pressures Castro feels from his enemy, the United States: "Cuba is a country under siege." Walker has said the trade embargo is part of Americas "racist immorality," since Cuba is a majority black nation. "The U.S. uses human rights only to oppress."
In 1994 Pastors for Peace organized an historic meeting between 100 U.S. church leaders and Fidel Castro in New York. "We did not want the revolution to be anti-church or anti-clergy," Castro patiently explained to an appreciative audience. "We fought within the Party to establish that even those with religious beliefs should be able to join the Party and participate in government."
"Sometimes the church has issued strong pastoral letters against the revolution," Castro was also careful to include. "We do our best to be tolerant." He effusively thanked Pastors for Peace. "Like the early Christians, they have been willing to stand up for their beliefs, even against those who would crucify them." Castro told the assembled church leaders representing 20 Protestant, Roman Catholic and ecumenical groups: "We love you very specially and always welcome you to our country."
Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a leading participant in the meeting, afterwards admitted that Castros regime has detained "some pastors" and closed churches. But she expressed her appreciation that Cuba "has made a priority of caring for the poor." Working for closer ties between Castros regime and U.S. church leaders, such as Campbell, is a major goal for Walker. But breaking U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba with illegal caravans of "humanitarian aid" is an even stronger objective.
Pastors for Peaces most hair-raising caravan adventure was in 1996, when the U.S. Customs Service decided not to ignore Walkers open violation of U.S. trade policy towards Cuba. A 30-vehicle caravan carrying 200 activists and 300 computers was blocked at the Mexican border south of San Diego by U.S. Customs officers. To back them up, around 100 San Diego police officers and California Highway Patrolmen in riot gear lined up at the border, in case the caravaneers should attempt to cross the border on foot.
True to expectation, Pastors for Peace activists dismounted from their vehicles and began running their computers towards the border, trying to ram through Customs officials and police officers. Ten members of the caravan were arrested, and seven others were detained after resisting attempts to seize the computers. The melee injured one protester and four Customs inspectors, three of whom required hospital treatment. According to Pastors for Peace, their activists had been trained in "non-violent techniques." Walker later said he had never seen law enforcement behave so brutally.
Not loath to miss an opportunity for publicity, Walker and three colleagues began a hunger strike on February 21, 1996 near the Mexican border crossing. In April, they moved their fast to Washington, DC, where they camped out in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, strategically across the street from the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court.
"Im 65," Walker melodramatically pronounced, "I simply dont want to live any longer in a country that continues to hurt people the way my country does." He professed to be living on a diet of water, lemon juice and maple syrup.
"Our government has pursued a policy of death toward Cuba for half of my life time," said Walker, "Working with [U.S. policy] is to be in complicity with killing our neighbors 90 miles south of Florida. Id rather lose my life than lose my soul." He contrasted himself with "right-wing groups" that are sending computers to "dissident" groups in Cuba.
Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) joined Walker in a press conference, where he announced the support of 60 congressmen for the release of the computers. Walkers Salvation Baptist Church is located in Rangels district. The congressman commended Pastors for Peace as "dedicated Americans" who were trying to "ease the suffering of the Cuban people."
Neither he nor Walker acknowledged that the food, clothing and medicine for humanitarian purposes could be shipped legally to Cuba if licensed under the Trading with Enemies Act. Nor did they explain why the computers could not have been shipped quietly through Mexico or Canada without the fanfare of caravans and civil disobedience.
Also attending the press conference were Rep. Esteban Torres (D-California), Rep. William Coyne (D-Pennsylvania), Rep. Sam Farr (D-California) and several mainline religious officials, including Joan Brown Campbell. The ecumenical leader called U.S. policy towards Cuba "inhuman bondage." Thom White Wolf Fassett of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society called the United States an "outlaw nation" because of its sanctions against Cuba.
During his hunger strike, Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights monitor, sent Walker a list of 1,000 political prisoners, including Christian clergy, who were detained
in Cuban prisons. Walker did not respond.
Instead, Walker contrasted "Cubas example of good will to its own people" with the "outpouring of hatred, abuse and violence by our own government against us." He claimed the "U.S. is committed not to democracy but to the destruction of democracy." And he blasted "right-wing Cubans" who left their homeland to live in Cubas enemy. Unlike exiled Cubans, Walker said he would remain in his native land, despite the "hegemony and abuse of power" by the U.S. government.
Walkers hunger strike was enormously successful. Congressman Rangel and mainline church groups repeatedly lobbied the Treasury Department to release the confiscated computers. In late May, the Treasury Department finally acquiesced, turning the computers over to the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, in whose building the hunger strikers were encamped.
"This is the making of a new ecumenical coalition to address the moral issues around our policy on Cuba," boasted Congressman Rangel, who commended the United Methodist, American Baptist, and Episcopal Churches, the National Council of Churches, and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York for their help. "Rev. Walker and his stalwart supporters risked their lives to make a moral point about the right of Americans to help people in need wherever they may live."
"We are thankful to God," announced a grateful Walker. "Together, we have made an effort to appeal to the soul and integrity of our nation." The computers were finally shipped to Cuba in September 1996 for use in several hospitals. In solidarity with Pastors for Peace, United Methodist officials insisted they never asked for a license. But the Treasury Department still granted one to the church so as to close the issue. Walker still saw it as a victory.
During one meeting with Castro, Walker recalled to me that the Cuban dictator called the Bible a "living book," which Walker called "real good theology." Apparently not loath to boast, Walker opined that "in some ways it [the Bible] is still being written through the work of people like Pastors for Peace. What weve done through the caravans has been nothing less than writing a new page in the Bible."
In perhaps another bid to add to divine revelation, Walker more recently has involved Pastors for Peace in Chiapas, Mexico. "The contempt that these nazi ranch owners expressed towards the indigenous people reminded me of stories my father would tell me about the way plantation owners treated blacks when he was a young man," he has explained of the economic situation there. Walkers group has hailed the revolutionary Zapatista groups for promoting "land, education, economic justice and health for the indigenous population."
Last year, Walker strenuously denied reports from the Mexican government that Pastors for Peace was helping the Zapatistas establish a "Radio in Resistance" that would lead towards a Zapatista-run "free zone." He insists that his role in Chiapas is largely humanitarian. But his solidarity is directed exclusively toward the one group that has taken up arms to advance its agenda. Walker has much less to say about the many other democratic groups in Mexico that pursue peaceful change.
But Cuba seems to be the issue closest to Walkers heart. And his interest is by no means limited to the effect of U.S. sanctions on Cuba. He explained his motive to a 1995 "March on Washington to End the U.S. Economic Blockade of Cuba:"
Walker concluded his rousing oration by promising: "Today we end the blockade against Cuba. Tomorrow we end the blockade of the ghettos, of the poor, of the political prisoners in our own country. Our vision is a broad, large vision. We are the people who will build the new United States!"
This revolutionary rhetoric would be alien to a new coalition organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to remove all trade sanctions against Cuba. Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba includes big business leaders like David Rockefeller and Wayne Andreas, former administration officials, and former congressmen of both parties who argue that open trade with Cuba will ultimately undermine Castro.
But included in their coalition are the very mainline church leaders who have worked closely with Walkers Pastors for Peace, such as Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches and Thom White Wolf Fassett of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. These left-wing church leaders are hardly motivated by opposition to Castro or, for that matter, enthusiasm for the principle of free trade.
Mainline church leaders placed a half-page ad in The New York Times last year to plead for full U.S. relations with Cuba. Signators included not only Campbell, Fassett and Walker but a host of bishops, pastors, priests and nuns from mainline Protestant and Catholic organizations. The ad made no mention of human rights in Cuba.
According to Walker in my interview with him, "There is no denial of rights based on religion. Churches are free to operate." He acknowledges that some house churches have been shut down by the Cuban government because of "counter-revolutionary activity," as expressed through ties to "ultra-right wing religious elements in the U.S" or "teaching against the government."
The celebratory approach of some U.S. church leaders towards Castro ignited a poignant letter from a Cuban political prisoner several years ago. While then serving a 4-year sentence for disseminating "enemy propaganda," Joel Duenas Martinez wrote in direct response to the "ministry" of Rev. Walker.
"How can a man who calls himself a believer support the Mecca of atheism?" Duenas asked. "In this country [Cuba] religious people have been isolated, humiliated, turned into second-class citizens, expelled from universities, hunted down, and even imprisoned." Duenas invited Walker to his prison cell. "Will you persist in defending Fidel Castro after going through our hell?"
Walker and his church friends seem unwilling to answer.