Winds of change buffet U.S. Cuba policies

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced recently that film director Oliver Stone and four associates would pay a $6,322 fine for traveling to Cuba.

Stone’s film crew had been in Cuba in 2002 and 2003 to make the film “Comandante.” Cuba’s Granma newspaper speculates that Stone is being punished for remarks earlier this year in Spain. At a film festival there, Stone called Fidel Castro “one of the most knowledgeable men. He’s a survivor and a Quixote. I admire his revolution, his faith in himself and his honesty.”

The Bush administration may have penalized Stone because of his celebrity status, hoping to generate publicity helpful to its anti-Cuba policy. But now there is competing publicity.

In a remarkable celebrity challenge to the travel ban, writer, historian and critic Gore Vidal visited Cuba Dec. 10-14. Asked if he feared OFAC sanctions, Vidal said he “would be grateful if the U.S. government so obliged me.”

He told a journalist, “If we were to restore the [U.S.] Constitution, we would be able to have a country with aspirations and results like those of Cuba. Don’t believe that I am not jealous as a North American about what I have seen in Cuba. I am a great patriot and I am envious.”

Even Congress is giving hints of change, especially with new congressional leadership beginning in January. In the past, amendments to defund OFAC enforcement of travel restrictions have been attached to other bills, only to have them removed by Republican leaders.

Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and William Delahunt (D-Mass.), members of the House International Relations Committee and leaders of Congress’ Cuba Working Group, took a 10-member congressional delegation to Cuba Dec. 15-17 to encourage a process of easing restrictions on trade and travel. It was the largest congressional delegation to go to Cuba since 1959.

Delahunt said the delegation aimed to “determine whether there is the political will — on the part of the Cubans — to initiate a real dialogue.” The group met with the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, the foreign minister, minister of basic industry, president of the Central Bank, agricultural import officials and European diplomats.

Acting Cuban President Raul Castro has twice signaled his government’s desire to negotiate with the Bush administration, the last time on Dec. 2. Swiss Ambassador to Cuba Bertrand Louis traveled to Washington in November to meet with State Department officials and Cuban American leaders in order to reiterate Cuba’s desire to open talks.

Thomas Shannon, head of Western Hemisphere affairs for the State Department, brushed aside possibilities of dialogue. He told reporters Dec. 13, “When we engage, it has to be part of a process of democratic change.”

On their return to Washington, members of the congressional delegation issued a statement declaring, “We unanimously believe that the United States should respond positively to the proposal made by Raul Castro in his speech of Dec. 2.”

Advocates for change are preparing to lobby Congress, particularly on travel restrictions. Cuban Americans are demanding easy visits with family members in Cuba, and solidarity activists are determined that similar openings be extended to all citizens.

The Venceremos Brigade and Pastors for Peace are recruiting Cuba travelers to defy the travel ban this summer.

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