Peter Slevin | The Washington Post
Washington—The athletes and doctors were due to meet in Miami on Nov. 13 and depart for Havana the next day. Those who needed wheelchairs would bring them. Others would arrive with teaching materials and donated artificial limbs in anticipation of working with disabled Cubans.
Three years in a row, World Team Sports, a small nonprofit group, had received permission to travel to Cuba. But the day before the scheduled rendezvous, the Bush administration ruled that, this time, the trip would violate U.S. policy.
“I am absolutely furious,” said Josh Sharpe, 29, a wheelchair competitor from Florida. “I was looking forward to helping the disabled athletes who don’t have the opportunities we have. It was a feel-good trip, it was a do- good trip, but with policies that don’t make sense, nobody wins.”
What angered Sharpe was the Bush administration’s newly toughened effort to reduce the number of U.S. citizens who visit Cuba. Such travel, limited by law since the 1960s to isolate and undermine the Communist government, had become easier after a Clinton administration policy shift in 1999.
In recent months, licenses for travel to Cuba have been reduced, and prosecution of accused lawbreakers has intensified, with the Treasury Department recruiting administrative law judges for the first time to hear long dormant civil cases.
The effort appears to be in conflict with a majority in Congress that oppose the travel ban, saying it is unfair to U.S. citizens and counterproductive to U.S. foreign policy. This fall, the House and Senate voted to halt enforcement of the ban—a provision that was dropped in conference committee last month amid White House pressure.
Critics of President Bush’s approach include a growing number of Republicans, including Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho, who said in an Oct. 23 speech that the administration was “running from a fight” by not allowing American travelers to engage Cubans firsthand—the kind of contact, he said, that helped produce historic changes in the Soviet Union and China.
He also criticized the proportion of resources being spent on the travel ban and the economic embargo. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces sanctions against countries, terrorist networks and drug traffickers around the world, assigned 21 of its 120 employees—and $3.3 million of its $21.2 million budget—to Cuba in fiscal 2003.
Critics look at Bush’s Cuba policy and see Florida politics. Cuban- Americans strongly support the embargo, and 80 percent of those casting votes in 2000 voted for Bush, who won Florida and thus the presidency by 537 votes.
“It’s about Florida, it’s quite plain,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a founding member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group. Intensifying an embargo that has failed for nearly 40 years to topple Fidel Castro’s government, he said, is akin to promising to “beat my head against the wall even harder.”
The administration contends that money spent by tens of thousands of Americans in Cuba enriches Castro’s government and cuts out Cubans who are barred from tourist activities. In a Nov. 10 letter to members of Congress, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said loosening the travel restrictions would “provide the brutal Castro regime the financial wherewithal to continue to oppress the Cuban people.”
More than 1,400 U.S. citizens have been notified in the past three years that they could be fined for their trips to Cuba, said OFAC spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw.
For years, if accused violators refused to settle a case and requested a hearing, their cases all but died for lack of judges. But OFAC recently recruited three administrative judges and started civil action in 90 dormant cases.
The denial of a renewed license to World Team Sports startled the North Carolina group. The organization had gone three times to Havana, part of its outreach to disabled populations as far afield as Vietnam, China and Russia.
“We’re not promoting any political agenda,” said Steve Whisnant, the project’s executive director. “We use sports as a means of bringing people with and without disabilities together.”