By Peter Slevin | Washington Post Staff Writer
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 in an effort 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.
“The money spent on tracking down American citizens and enforcing this failed policy,” Craig said, “would be better spent on tracking down potential terrorists in this country.”
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.”
Nevertheless, the administration has raised the limit on money Cuban Americans can send to relatives on the island by 150 percent. “The hypocrisy in this is obvious,” said Robert Muse, a D.C. lawyer who handles Cuba trade issues.
The administration this year also eliminated most provisions that allowed culture-minded tourists and students to visit Cuba, saying too much pleasure travel was masquerading as cultural exchange.
Since Oct. 10, the government has increased scrutiny of passengers on the roughly 30 charter flights that depart the United States each day for Cuba, said OFAC’s Juan Zarate. Fifty-five passengers have been told they could not travel because they did not have proper documents or Treasury approval.
Zarate also said the Department of Homeland Security has begun training officers to look for U.S. citizens traveling illegally to Cuba through third countries, including Canada and Mexico.
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. One is Joni Scott, a Christian academy teacher who went to Cuba in 1999 to distribute Spanish-language Bibles and was recently told she could be fined as much as $10,000. Bradshaw said “a much higher number” of cases are under investigation.
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.
One of these involves Jennifer Wolfe Kennelly, a registered nurse from Nantucket, Mass. She traveled to Cuba for pleasure in 1999 and, soon afterward, received an OFAC letter warning her that she may have broken the law. She requested a hearing, asserting that she had not known the rules.
Wolfe Kennelly said she considers it unconstitutional that only Cuban Americans are permitted to travel to the island without explicit permission.
“I’ve never, ever, ever been involved in the court system, except for a divorce, but this is something I believe in,” she said. “I’m prepared to stand up for myself.”
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.”
Sharpe, a Persian Gulf War veteran paralyzed in a 1994 car crash, had been looking forward to distributing special equipment to disabled Cubans and conducting a clinic on hand cycling.
“We as Americans lose and Cubans lose. There are people who need our help,” said Sharpe, who lives in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. “I’m going to go to Cuba one day. I don’t care if you put that in there.”