Opinion

The Bush administration has gone out of its way to make visiting Cuba almost impossible.

Last May, the Treasury Department announced that it was scrapping the people-to-people travel program put in place under the Clinton administration. Under the program, colleges, religious organizations, and certain travel agencies could obtain a two-year license to send people to the island to learn about Cuban society and culture.

A Feb. 9 Treasury Department announcement outlined other changes. Homeland Security officers have joined customs inspectors and border patrol officers to investigate all passengers leaving for Cuba from New York, Los Angeles, and Miami – 44,000 so far, 275 of whom were kept from boarding their flights. Almost 51,000 passengers have been screened on returning from Cuba, with 376 having had goods from their baggage seized, mostly Cuban cigars and alcohol. Since Oct. 10 the Treasury Department’s Office for Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has opened up 264 cases for possible prosecution for alleged travel violations.

The leader of a group returning from Cuba told a reporter that his clients are now afraid of legal repercussions, even though the trips he leads are clearly legal. A charter air company executive said: “Homeland Security is in charge of the anti-terrorism initiative, but in the case of Cuba, I feel that it is really an anti-tourism effort.” A physician recently returned from Cuba reported that 10 customs agents greeted his flight to search 60 passengers. They photographed Cuban artwork, and an agent told him that the “U.S. is trying to determine whether secret messages are encoded in the art.”

And according to its announcement, OFAC is not stopping there. It now provides on-site training on travel restrictions for 500 Homeland Security inspectors, some of whom will be posted to Bermuda, Nassau and Aruba and Canada. It reminded citizens that any contacts with 10 specified travel companies owned by the Cuban government are illegal and announced that assets of those companies in the U.S. will be seized. It has also stepped up actions against banks and companies accused of dealing with Cuban agencies, informing almost 60 of them that they face penalties.

The State Department has denied a visa to Rev. Raul Suarez, director of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Havana and preacher at the Center’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was supposed to have delivered a speech at the University of Rhode Island and attended Black History Month events in Boston and Mobile, Ala.

But contradictions regarding the travel restrictions are readily apparent. U.S. law permits U.S. citizens who are Cuban American to visit the island with ease, an estimated 140,000 to 180,000 making the trip every year. They send millions of dollars to family members and are rarely prosecuted for sending amounts that far exceed the ample legal limits.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike favor lifting the restrictions, as shown by legislation that both houses passed overwhelmingly last fall to cut out funding for the restrictions. (That change was attached as an amendment to an appropriations bill, but behind closed doors, in the middle of the night, a conference committee stripped out the amendment.)

U.S. agricultural interests have long been agitating to sell food to Cuba and theirs are among the loudest voices calling for getting rid of the trade and travel restrictions. Legislation three years ago gave them the OK to make cash-only food sales to Cuba. Cuba now has entered into purchase agreements with U.S. firms amounting to more than $700 million.

Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Butch Otter of Idaho are good examples of this farm-based opposition to the Bush administration’s Cuba policies. The two Republicans recently returned from a trade mission to Cuba, where they signed agreements that would allow Cuba to buy $10 million worth of Idaho agricultural products.

The Bush regime wants ultimately to do in the Cuban revolution, but right now it must placate its right-wing Florida rascals. The Bushites may figure that hammering on the travel ban costs little – some disappointment on the part of tourists in search of warm beaches and scorn from left-wing cranks. The point, however, is that the right to travel is a basic human right, and that the whole blockade, of which the travel ban is a big part, is cruel and illegal. To get rid of it, the first step, as in so many other matters, is in November to get rid of those agents of the extreme right who, from a base in Washington, would undo people’s gains everywhere.

W. T. Whitney Jr. is a pediatrician in rural Maine. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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