WASHINGTON — The founder of a New York-based group that supports the Cuban government threatened to pull the scholarships of U.S. medical students in Havana if they contacted the U.S. diplomatic mission on the island, according to a State Department cable.
Pastor Lucius Walker, then head of Pastors for Peace, allegedly made the threat the day before one of the students attended a 2007 meeting of the mission's warden system — U.S. citizens who volunteer to contact other Americans in case of an emergency, such as a hurricane or earthquake. U.S. embassies throughout the world organize similar arrangements.
The cable, one of hundreds of thousands obtained by WikiLeaks and shared with McClatchy, did not identify the student who made the allegation. Pastors for Peace spokeswoman Lucia Bruno said she did not believe Walker, who died last year, would have made such a threat.
But the dispatch, dated Nov. 30, 2007, showed no such doubts and said Walker's alleged comments "suggest that he would deny all contact between (the U.S. mission) ... and the American citizen students even for basic consular services."
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The cable underscores the bitterness of a half-century of division over U.S. relations with Cuba. Pastors for Peace advocates lifting the U.S. trade embargo against the island nation, and the cable hinted, without providing details, that Walker and U.S. diplomats in Cuba had clashed previously. The cable was entitled: "Pastors for Peace serve American medical students threats for Thanksgiving dinner."
An estimated 100 U.S. citizens, most from poor families, currently study at Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine, a showcase on the outskirts of Havana for Cuba's highly touted efforts to assist other countries by training their doctors.
Tuition, room and board are free for all of the estimated 10,000 students from nearly 30 countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa. The Pastors for Peace office in New York processes and approves the applications of U.S. citizens.
Cuban officials have long refused requests from the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, officially called the U.S. Interests Section (USINT), to make regular consular visits to the American students at the school.
When one State Department official managed a rare visit in 2009, U.S. students "told us that they were unaware that USINT had been kept from visiting them," according to a second WikiLeaks dispatch from Havana.
The 2007 cable said the Walker warning came on the day before the diplomatic mission was to hold its first organizational meeting of the warden system at the home of the mission's top diplomat, Michael Parmly.
The cable said the complaining student was in his fifth year of study at the school, and said Walker usually "complimented and encouraged the students" during his speech at the annual Thanksgiving dinner.
But this time, the cable said, Walker's speech "took a threatening tone," spending "over an hour warning students against having contact with USINT" and "threatened that Pastors for Peace would consider withdrawing scholarships to students who contacted USINT."
Walker died of natural causes last year at the age of 80. A Baptist minister, he founded the Pastors for Peace group in 1988 and organized 21 annual campaigns to deliver assistance for communist-ruled Cuba, in violation of the U.S. embargo.
The dispatch noted that Walker's reported threat came shortly after USINT officials tried "to increase contacts between the students and the Consular Section" and designated the medical school as a part of a nascent warden system.
But the student believed the threat had been triggered by a letter he had written to five Cuban spies in U.S. prisons after he was repeatedly urged to write letters demanding their release, according to the dispatch.
He urged the five to demand "not only their own freedom but also the freedom of all political prisoners in Cuba" and "within hours many of his classmates ... confronted him with remarks that he made in the supposedly sealed letter," according to the cable.
The student said he feared he and his wife — a citizen of another, unidentified country also studying at the school — would lose their scholarships. But the cable said he agreed to act as warden at the school and "to come to USINT to use the internet and receive newspapers but that he will limit his contact with USINT officials to protect the five years he and his wife have invested in their medical education."
"Given Walker's past relationship with USINT it is not surprising that they would like to limit their student's contacts with USINT," the dispatch added. It gave no details on Walker's previous contacts with the diplomatic mission, and a search through the WikiLeaks cables turned up no other significant mentions of Walker.
Another WikiLeaks cable, written by U.S. diplomats in Venezuela in February of 2006, did mention Pastors for Peace's participation in a "World Social Forum" held in Caracas the previous month by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The dispatch reported that the Forum featured a "Poverty in the United States" pavilion and a presentation titled "Locking Horns with the Empire: Challenging the U.S. Blockade Against Cuba," that were "hosted by the pro-Cuba group 'Pastors for Peace.'"
(Tamayo reports for El Nuevo Herald in Miami.)
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