Archive for Friday, February 27, 2004

Opponents of travel ban cite ‘repressive’ agenda

Legal experts hoping for test case to challenge law

February 27, 2004


Call it the war on tourism.

Critics of the Bush administration's crackdown on travel to Cuba say the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control is devoting one-sixth of its resources to enforcing the Cuba travel and trade bans -- at the same time the agency has been faulted for failing to freeze the assets of terrorist financiers.

"Meanwhile, Bush is saying they should be making it a big priority to prosecute tourists," said Art Heitzer of the National Lawyers Guild Cuba committee, which opposes the ban. "Some of us find that ironic."

Juan Zarate, the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for the executive office of terrorist financing and financial crimes, said the agency could handle both jobs.

"The reality is that OFAC does a very good job administering all the sanctions programs," Zarate said. "We can walk and chew gum at the same time."

Even if that is true, OFAC's stepped-up enforcement of the trade and travel bans has alarmed opponents of the law that bars most Americans from visiting Cuba. They're looking for a good test case to take to court so they can prove their assertion that the travel ban is unconstitutional.

"There will be a legal challenge," Heitzer said. "People are assembling and working on the preliminaries for court action. Good cases are part of it, research is part of it."

But the Bush administration -- backed by fiercely anti-communist Cuban-American exiles -- says it will resist any attempt to end or neuter the restrictions.

"The president has repeatedly called for political and economic reforms in Cuba," said Jim Morrell, a White House spokesman. "Without any such reforms, trade with Cuba will only finance the Castro regime and will not benefit the Cuban people."

The crackdown

Opponents and supporters agree the travel ban was enforced inconsistently since President Kennedy imposed it in 1963.

"There was a body of what I would call harassment -- some people would call it enforcement -- essentially a shotgun approach: 'We'll get a few people who went to Cuba, we'll make them feel bad, we'll shake them down for money,'" Heitzer said.

All that changed last year.

After a spring in which the Castro regime jailed 75 dissidents -- and after a threat by Cuban-American lawmakers in Florida to withdraw their political support unless the administration got tough -- President Bush in October announced stepped-up enforcement of the travel and trade bans.

"Basically, it was stiffer enforcement of everything that was on the books now," Zarate said.

According to the Treasury Department, the following steps have been taken to toughen the ban:

l Hired three administrative law judges to conduct hearings. There's no more avoiding penalties by challenging the fine. No hearings have yet been scheduled.

l Accelerated "pre-penalty" notices to accused violators, sending out 348 such notices between Oct. 10 and Nov. 30.

l Formed a "major case squad" to go after banks and companies accused of doing business in Cuba. The squad has contacted more than 60 organizations and settled 20 of those cases.

There are now nearly 2,000 Cuba trade and travel violation cases in the docket, officials said.

'Repressive machinery'

Supporters of the travel ban say it erodes the financial underpinnings of Cuba's communist government.

"The purpose is to deny the Fidel Castro regime the resources and dollars he needs to keep his repressive machinery in place," said Mariela Ferretti, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

Opponents say the ban violates the rights of Americans.

"Many individuals, including this organization, believe the law is unconstitutional and unconscionable," said Matthew Scott of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Heitzer agreed. He said the ban violated some "basic rights we have: freedom to travel, freedom of association, freedom to gather information."

Cuban-Americans counter: What about the freedom of Cubans?

"This is a bankrupt, immoral and corrupt regime in Cuba," Ferretti said. "That should weigh heavily in the minds of freedom-loving persons."

Failed policy?

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said there was one other problem with the bans: They haven't worked.

"It's awful, awful policy," said Flake, who last year sponsored a failed measure that would effectively have ended the travel ban. "It doesn't help us achieve our desired end in Cuba. I think it's simply prolonging the regime there."

Anna Carbonell works on Cuba issues for U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who is one of the leading proponents of the bans. She said the measures were weakening the Castro regime.

"We see they're seriously strapped for cash," she said. "The economic situation in Cuba is a debacle."

Carbonell said the bans were no longer aimed solely at Castro, but at the leadership that will follow him. The policies, she said, give Americans leverage to pressure the next regime to conduct free elections and adopt free-market reforms.

"It reaches a point where we have to say, 'Castro is a reality,'" Carbonell said. "But we have an opportunity to make a difference in post-Castro Cuba."

Flake said that might take a long time, even though Castro is 77.

Castro's "speeches are four hours long instead of five," Flake said. "He could last another 20 years."

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