By Bruce Edwards | Rutland Herald
Four Vermonters are suing the U.S. government claiming its restrictions on traveling to Cuba to visit family violate their civil rights.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington seeks to declare the travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans unconstitutional under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
The four plaintiffs are:
Armando Vilaseca was born in Cuba and came to the United States with his parents in 1963. He lives in Westford.
Yurisleidis Leyva Mora is a Cuban citizen and a legal permanent resident of the United States, living in Montpelier since April 2006.
Jared Kingsbury Carter, also of Montpelier, is married to Leyva Mora.
Maricel Lucero Keniston was born in Santiago de Cuba and emigrated to the U.S. in 1968. She lives in Perkinsville.
The lawsuit was first reported Wednesday in Seven Days newspaper.
Since 1961, the U.S. government has imposed trade and travel restrictions on Cuba in hopes of overthrowing Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Those restrictions bar most Americans from traveling to Cuba without written approval from the U.S. Treasury Department. The 16-page lawsuit recounts the history of U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba.
Until 2004, Cuban-Americans with family in Cuba were allowed to visit Cuba once a year without U.S. government approval. But in 2004, the Bush administration imposed tougher restrictions on travel, restricting visits by Cuban-Americans to once every three years. The new restrictions, signed by President Bush in an executive order, also narrowed the definition of family members to immediate family, excluding aunts, uncles and cousins.
The new rules, the lawsuit states, make no exception for the death, illness, birth or marriage of family members in Cuba, “making it per se impossible to visit their family members until the three years has lapsed.”
Violators of the travel ban face up to a fine of $1 million and 10 years in prison.
The plaintiffs have family members in Cuba, including Carter and Mora, who applied for a Treasury Department license in December to visit “immediate family members in Cuba in order to celebrate and consecrate their marriage.” The family members included Leyva Mora’s aging and infirm grandparents.
“We want to be able to celebrate our marriage with them before they’re too sick to attend or God forbid pass away,” Carter said in a phone interview Wednesday.
But their travel license application was rejected by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which monitors currency exchanges.
The Treasury Department denied the license to both Leyva Mora and Carter because she “had immigrated to the United States less than three years prior to their application for the specific family-visit license.”
“No other country gets this sort of treatment,” said Carter, a second-year student at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. “Prisoners in jail who committed mass murder have more access to their family members than we do.”
In what he regards as a move to please Cuban-American voters in south Florida, Carter noted that Bush tightened travel restrictions less than five months prior to the November 2004 presidential election.
Vilaseca and Keniston are no longer eligible to apply for a travel license because their remaining family members in Cuba are not within the U.S. government’s revised definition of family members.
It was Vilaseca who accompanied Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie on a trade mission in 2003, which laid the foundation for the eventual sale of Vermont cows and powdered milk to Cuba. The Westford resident, who served as Dubie’s translator, said he can no longer visit his second cousins, step-aunts or his godson.
While Vilaseca is in favor of lifting the travel ban for all Americans, he said the focus of the lawsuit is limited to Cuban-Americans.
“Our piece is really strictly, very narrow focus on the regulations change in 2004 that didn’t allow people like me to travel back to Cuba once a year without any restrictions,” said Vilaseca, school superintendent of the Franklin West Supervisory Union.
The lawsuit argues that restricting travel to Cuba violates plaintiffs’ rights to due process under the Fifth Amendment, causing an “unconstitutional burden” on family privacy and relations without “rationally furthering any government interest.”
The lawsuit also argues that the travel restrictions violate equal protection rights by wrongfully discriminating against the plaintiffs “based on their Cuban national origin.” As an example, the lawsuit cites travel licenses issued in special cases to individuals who have non-Cuban family members visiting Cuba legally.
Vermont U.S. Attorney Thomas Anderson declined comment Wednesday saying he had not read the lawsuit.
Dennis Hays, the State Department’s former coordinator for Cuban affairs during the Clinton administration, said in a phone interview from Virginia that United States foreign policy priorities must come first before other considerations.
“The first goal in any foreign policy is to not do harm to people who are struggling to earn their freedom,” said Hays, a supporter of the trade embargo and travel restrictions. “Sadly, the resources the Cuban regime earns through tourism are used to repress their own people.”
Reminded that the United States does not apply that same standard to other countries, Hays, a former U.S. ambassador to Suriname, agreed the policy is not even-handed.
“We should have one policy and that if human rights are important to us, they need to be important to us in every corner of the world,” he said.
Despite the embargo, there is some U.S. trade with Cuba, restricted to food and agricultural products. Last year, U.S. exports totaled $437 million, up from $340 million in 2006, according to the U.S-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The United States is the largest supplier of agricultural products to the country of 11.4 million.
For Vilaseca, much of U.S foreign policy toward his native country over the years has been driven by politics in southern Florida and other places where there is a large Cuban-American community.
“It may benefit a small group of people both on the island and in the U.S., but it’s not benefiting the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not in our best interest.”
Named as defendants are Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Adam Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The plaintiffs are represented by Sandy Baird of Burlington and Mark Schneider of Plattsburgh, N.Y.