By JACK COLEMAN | Cape Cod Times STAFF WRITER
Her only visit to Cuba in December 1999 was, as Nantucket resident Jennifer Wolfe Kennelly described it, “a fabulous trip.”
Accompanied by a friend from California, Wolfe Kennelly spent 10 days on the Caribbean island, whose inhabitants she found to be “beautiful, nice people” with an exuberance for music and dancing.
But two months after returning home, the 42-year-old nurse received a letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department.
The federal government had “reasonable cause to believe,” the letter stated, that Wolfe Kennelly violated restrictions against U.S. citizens visiting Cuba and engaged in “travel-related transactions, including obtaining a visa, and paying for lodging, food, souvenirs and entertainment.”
The possible penalty? A $100,000 fine.
For several years a group of congressmen have tried to lift the travel restrictions and earlier this year passed such a measure. But under pressure from President Bush, the measure was killed.
The travel ban is the result of Cold War tensions that have hardly eased in the new millennium.
The Treasury Department letter came as a shock to Wolfe Kennelly, although she said she wondered before leaving for Cuba whether she and her friend could make the trip.
“I remember asking, are we allowed to go there?” Wolfe Kennelly said in a telephone interview from Chicago, where she is working at a hospital before returning to Nantucket next summer.
Her travel companion, whom she declined to identify, told her it would not be a problem.
Wolfe Kennelly said the two women arranged their travel through the Web site Travelocity and flew to Havana by way of Dallas and Cancun.
“We were never advised by Travelocity that we had to get permission from the U.S. government to travel to Cuba,” Wolfe Kennelly said.
But the obligation to learn this falls to the traveler, Treasury spokesman Tony Fratta said.
“There is an obligation to know the laws of the land,” Fratta said. “Ignorance is no excuse.”
Wolfe Kennelly called the office of U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., and was told to contact the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.
Wolfe Kennelly is one of 300 people accused of violating Cuba travel restrictions being represented by the center, said Matthew Scott, coordinator of the center’s Cuba Travel Project.
“Many people in this country go by the basic assumption that the government can’t tell you where you can go,” Scott said.
Congress decided in 1996 to allow those accused of violating the restrictions their day in court, Scott said, but judges for the hearings were not appointed until this fall.
“I think it’s ridiculous that they would pursue people so long after their travel,” Scott said.
Regulations pertaining to the hearings did not take effect until September, said Treasury spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw. Three administrative judges were then appointed, she said, and action is being taken in 120 cases.
As of Dec. 19, 39 cases were settled, 15 will be heard by judges and the remainder are at other stages, Bradshaw said. She was uncertain about the status of Wolfe Kennelly’s case.
The United States imposed a partial embargo against Cuba in October 1960, less than two years after guerrillas led by Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime.
Initial U.S. acceptance of Castro cooled as he aligned with the Soviet Union, which eventually provided him with an estimated $5 billion in annual aid.
The partial trade embargo became a full embargo after the April 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, an attempt by Cuban exiles to oust Castro.
In July 1963 - nine months after the United States, Soviet Union and Cuba nearly went to war over Russian missiles sent to Cuba - travel restrictions were imposed to curtail Cuban economic growth by depriving it of U.S. currency.
The Treasury Department does not track the number of Americans who visit Cuba, according to Fratta, since many do so from Canada, Mexico and other countries without trade embargoes.
Delahunt, while not familiar with the specifics of Wolfe Kennelly’s case, said many people like her “find themselves almost incredulous” after learning of the restrictions.
“One of the basic freedoms we enjoy as Americans is the freedom to travel,” said Delahunt, a member of a bipartisan Cuban Working Group in Congress who has visited Cuba and met with Castro.
“Unfortunately the fact is that we are restricted in traveling to Cuba, but not to North Korea or Iran, the remaining parts of the ‘Axis of Evil,’” Delahunt said, referring to President Bush’s description of those countries.
Trying to ease restrictions
In September, for the fourth year in a row, the U.S. House voted to end enforcement of the travel restrictions. A month later, for the first time ever, the Senate approved the same measure, said Delahunt, also a member of the House International Relations Committee.
Then the legislation, which faced a threatened presidential veto, was attached to finance bills for the Treasury and Transportation departments.
The expanded legislation went to a conference committee, where the Cuba language was eliminated, Delahunt said.
The government learned of Wolfe Kennelly’s trip from information she provided when she passed through U.S. Customs on her return trip.
With help from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Wolfe Kennelly’s possible fine has been reduced to $1,500.
“But I am not going to pay them one dollar because I think they are wrong constitutionally,” Wolfe Kennelly said. “I did not engage in any foreign espionage. I just think it is wrong that they are targeting me.”
She said she believes it is unconstitutional that Cuban-Americans, politicians, athletes and journalists are allowed to visit Cuba while other U.S. citizens are not.
Travelers within these groups receive a “general” permit from the Office of Foreign Assets Control; trips made for humanitarian and religious purposes receive “specific” permits.
Those allowed to visit Cuba can spend a limited amount of U.S. currency.
Wolfe Kennelly said she brought about $1,000 on the two-week trip. “My friend told me that I would need to bring cash for the trip to Cuba and only cash,” she said.
She spent money on lodging, meals and transportation, as well as $20 for art prints.
Wolfe Kennelly said she has complained “from day one” about having her day in court. But it looks like that day is not so distant anymore.