Cuban Travel Ban Questioned in Hearing
By Karen DeYoung
Two years ago, Marilyn Meister, a retired Wisconsin schoolteacher who loves to travel, signed up for a Canadian-organized bicycle trip around Cuba. The trip was a great success, until she encountered a U.S. Customs agent on the way home.
Upon learning she had been to Cuba, Meister said, the agent flew "into a rage . . . [and] made me feel like the most horrible of criminals." A year later, the U.S. Treasury Department charged Meister with violating U.S. law against travel to the island and demanded a civil penalty of $7,500.
Meister's was one of several stories told yesterday to the Senate Appropriations Treasury subcommittee, which is examining what Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) called an "ill-advised" policy that has done little or nothing to undermine the 43-year-old communist regime of Fidel Castro.
"When a policy has been in place 40 years and is not working, it seems to me it is time to evaluate that policy," Dorgan said.
Meister, 75, was joined by a Washington state transit supervisor who was fined after making a one-day trip to Cuba to spread the ashes of his late father, a Pentecostal minister in pre-revolutionary Cuba, on the grounds of his former church, and by a man who earned his fine by traveling to Cuba for an international tournament of the chess-like game Go.
Pressure has been growing for some time in Congress to eliminate, or at least loosen, a range of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers have voted repeatedly to lift aspects of the 39-year-old economic embargo, as agricultural interests anxious to export to Cuba have joined with long-term ideological opponents of the bans. But bills including the provisions have never made it to the president's desk.
Renewed legislative efforts last year ran into opposition from President Bush, who has the strong support of the anti-Castro majority in the Cuban American community. They seemed further dashed when congressional attention shifted after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Dorgan said yesterday he was committed to bringing the travel ban to a vote this year. Richard Newcomb, the head of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces the ban, acknowledged yesterday that up to 200,000 Americans visited Cuba last year, most under special exception licenses for Cuban Americans and others, but as many as 60,000 in violation of the law. Most illegal U.S. visitors to Cuba are tourists who reach there from third countries.
Most of those who get caught are travelers who, like Meister, are unaware it is illegal and readily acknowledge their visit to U.S. authorities. Civil rights groups say enforcement of the ban, which they contend has increased from 188 cases brought in 2000 to 766 last year, is selective.
The ban, which technically is not a prohibition against travel but prohibits Americans from conducting any financial transactions -- spending money -- in Cuba, was first imposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. As a criminal matter, U.S. attorneys rarely brought cases, but in its 1992 overall toughening of Cuba sanctions, Congress imposed civil penalties of up to $50,000 for violations.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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