News Analysis

Earlier this month, filmmaker Michael Moore announced that he had received a letter from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) accusing him of illegal travel to Cuba, and threatening prosecution.

Moore has accused the government of using the threat to attempt to censor his work.

Moore went to Cuba while filming his new documentary, “Sicko.” The Cuba segment is only a minor part of the film, which aims to expose the way millions in the U.S. are deprived of life-saving health care by a system geared toward profits first.

Moore took with him a group of 9/11 rescue workers whose health had been damaged by exposure to toxic substances from the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. The idea was for them to travel to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of people accused of terrorism are being held and, some say, given better health care than many people in the U.S.

Not permitted to enter Guantanamo, they went on to Havana, where Cuban medical personnel gave them high quality attention.

Moore said his requests for a U.S. license to visit Cuba had gotten no response. This is the experience of many people who try to visit Cuba. Since the Bush administration came to power, it has cracked down hard on such travel.

By pouncing on the high-profile Moore, the government may be helping to bring about the end of its own policies.

The pretext for fining travelers to Cuba is that spending money on the island violates the Trading with the Enemy Act. Thousands of people have been subjected to fines of $7,000 and up.

Liberal, progressive and left groups have been working for years to end this policy and the 46-year-old trade blockade of Cuba.

Some conservative Republicans in Congress have also been working for a change in U.S. Cuba policy. Many come from agricultural regions and rely on farm interests for electoral support. The appetites of these farm areas for trade with Cuba have been whetted by the limited trade now permitted, and they want more, especially the opportunities that would open up if Cuba were allowed to buy on credit like other countries.

This combination of interests has led to passage of bipartisan amendments to end the blockade and travel restrictions in both houses of Congress. However, the previous right-wing Republican leadershp would “disappear” these measures when the legislation got to the House-Senate conference committee.

Now the situation is different. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are not tied to the ultra-right and Cuban exile interests that have kept the restrictions going year after year, and are much less likely to strip out Cuba language from legislation.

So the prospect for ending the restrictions on trading with, and traveling to, Cuba are better than in many years.

Cuba solidarity activists are focusing on ending the travel ban first. Two bills, HR 654 and S 271, essentially abolish all restrictions on travel to Cuba. HR 654, sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), has 107 co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans. S 271, introduced by Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) has 20 co-sponsors, including 3 Republicans.

Neither bill is moving fast right now, partly because Congress has been preoccupied with the Iraq war. People who want to see a change in our Cuba policy urge pressure on senators and representatives to sign onto the bill.