Cuba Politics

Inside a US to Cuba travel ban court hearing

Posted June 28, 2005 by publisher in Cuba Politics.

By Paul Bonner | Durham Herald Sun - North Carolina

Outwardly, a federal hearing Wednesday against David Heslop over his 2000 trip to Cuba was uneventful.

The administrative law judge didn’t set an amount for a fine that the Durham man and his lawyer sought to reduce from its maximum of $7,500; a judgment is expected in about two weeks.

In fact, Heslop said by phone as he returned to Durham from Washington, the proceedings seemed like a lot of bother over his simple desire to travel abroad.

“It was an absolute waste,” he said.

Not that it wasn’t interesting, he said, as government lawyers sought to portray him as defiant of the U.S. ban on tourist travel to Cuba. They cited news stories in which Heslop had volunteered the information that he’d been to Cuba twice before the one after which he was nabbed.

In opposition, Heslop’s lawyer, Shayana Kadidal of the Washington-based Center for Constitutional Rights, sought to highlight inconsistencies in how the government penalizes people for Cuba-travel violations. Heslop did not testify.

The ban is part of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, in place since the 1960s to punish strongman Fidel Castro and his communist regime. It forbids Americans from spending money there, including travel expenses, except for a few special purposes, including working government officials and journalists on assignment. Some other visitors can obtain a license to go there legally, including students studying abroad and humanitarian or religious groups.

Heslop went there as a tourist, however, and not out of any affinity for Castro or communism, he said last week.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has represented hundreds of people charged with violating the ban. Its Cuba Travel Project criticizes the ban as an infringement of freedom to travel, which the center says is a basic constitutional liberty.

Kadidal argued in Wednesday’s hearing that Heslop’s fine could be limited to the amount he spent there, estimated at $500. A dollar-for-dollar reckoning is applied to businesses in trade violations, Heslop said. Some travelers, such as Cuban-Americans visiting family there more frequently than allowed, receive only a warning, he said.

“They don’t really have a formula for how they go about arriving at a fine,” he said.

On Tuesday, Heslop visited Rep. David Price and staff members of North Carolina’s two senators in Washington.

The senators’ aides were attentive but noncommittal about ending the travel ban, he said.

“I had naively hoped that Sen. Burr or Dole would stick their heads in the door, but they didn’t,” he said.

Price, on the other hand, has co-sponsored legislation in the House that would lift the travel restrictions.

The government lawyers were courteous, making the government’s hard-line stance seem all the more incongruous, Heslop said.

“I’m still sort of absorbing it all,” he said.

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