By Chuck Nowlen
New and potentially explosive tensions between the United States and Cuba are threatening Madison’s cultural and humanitarian travel missions to Cuban sister city Camaguey.
Especially troublesome to the Madison-Camaguey Sister City Association is the Bush administration’s recent cancellation of U.S. “people to people” educational licenses for travel to Cuba, association members said Wednesday night.
The Madison group had a people-to-people license - as well as a humanitarian license - until the cancellation, which came in the wake of a spring crackdown on dissidents by Fidel Castro and the summary execution of three people who tried to hijack a Havana ferry to the United States.
The Madison group’s humanitarian license also expired as its most recent mission concluded in mid-April, prompting many members to worry about whether it will ever be renewed.
“Our very limited right to travel is at stake now,” association director Ricardo Gonzalez told about 30 members gathered at the downtown Madison Public Library. “It’s endangered or possibly subject to even more restrictions, even though what we do is advance many of the interests of the United States.”
The 80-member Madison-Camaguey association has sponsored more than 20 cultural and humanitarian trips to Cuba since the group was formed in 1994.
During one trip, a Madison contingent delivered a sorely needed EKG heart monitor to a hospital in Camaguey, Gonzalez noted. Until then, the city had only one EKG machine to serve its population of 300,000.
To date, the association has also raised almost $1 million in donations for projects in Camaguey.
Association board member Jon Heimrich said the group would apply for another humanitarian license by the end of June.
But many members worried that in light of the Bush administration’s hostility to the Castro government, even a humanitarian license might be rejected or significantly delayed.
“In the past, it’s been a simple six-week process, but now it’s estimated at three to four months, minimum,” member James Sykes said.
Added Heimrich: “One of the peculiar things in looking at the (new) regulations is that they are not bound by a time frame - it’s completely open-ended.”
Several group members also raised the possibility that fresh off an overwhelming military victory in Iraq, the Bush administration might be targeting Cuba for invasion.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Fidel Castro and Cuba’s leaders have to be worried whether Cuba is next,” Gonzalez said, citing a continuing U.S. economic embargo and Cuba’s presence on the United States’ list of terrorist countries.
“Since the days of Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. has been obsessed with occupying that island. ... For the first time, I think we can really see a situation where one thing will lead to another and we will see military intervention.”
Association member Robert Kimbrough added that he suspects the Bush administration of forcing Castro’s hand on the dissident crackdown and the ferry hijackers. He noted, for example, that one newly appointed U.S. diplomat openly met and encouraged Castro’s political enemies in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Paula Bonner, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, also expressed regret about the people-to-people license cancellation.
Bonner’s group sponsored 40-person alumni tours to Cuba in March 2002 and 2003 after acquiring such licenses, but will now be forced to stop organizing the tours.
“We’re just very, very sad about it,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “These were very much cultural and educational tours, and it’s just a shame to have to lose that opportunity for continued international understanding.”