WASHINGTON — IN a blatant act of civil disobedience, a group of about 175 citizens is traveling to Cuba on Sunday in defiance of the US ban on trade with the socialist-run Caribbean island.
``The United States is the only Western democracy that treats travel as a crime. It makes no sense that we can travel almost anywhere in the world, but our own government prevents us from visiting Cuba,'' says Medea Benjamin, executive director of the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, a non-profit, educational travel organization setting up the trip.
The blockade runners - including doctors, business people, and an Alabama mother of six - risk 10 years imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000. Their aim is to expose what they call an ``archaic'' and ``unconstitutional'' US policy limiting travel to Cuba. ``Since the demise of the Soviet Union, our government can no longer say that Cuba threatens our national security.''
Technically, traveling to Cuba is not prohibited. But as soon as US citizens start spending money on food, hotels, or anything else that could aid the Cuban economy, they may be in violation of US law. There are exceptions. Journalists, Cuba research specialists, Cuban-Americans with immediate family on the island, and diplomats can travel freely, but cannot spend more than $100 per day, including hotels and food. Specific licenses may be granted to travelers by the Treasury Department for certain projects, such as delivery of humanitarian aid.
When the Freedom to Travel group lands in Havana on Sunday, they will begin a week-long visit that will include delivering medical supplies to a children's hospital, seminars on the Cuban economy and culture, and visits to schools, museums and an agricultural cooperative.
``If they don't apply for a license, they will be in violation of US law and be subject to penalties,'' warns US Treasury Department spokesman Bob Levine.
Maybe so. But the enforcement record on illegal Cuba travel appears spotty. Increasingly, small numbers of US citizens have been quietly slipping into Cuba by buying travel packages that take them through Canada, Mexico, or another Caribbean island. The US government has threatened some citizens, but only one has been successfully prosecuted in recent years. And Pastors for Peace, a Minneapolis-based group has made at least two publicized trips to deliver aid to Cuba during the past year without seeking a license from the Treasury Department.
In July, the US seized one of three school buses in a long caravan of vehicles carrying medical and other supplies as it tried to cross the US-Mexico border on the way to Cuba. But a three-week hunger strike by a handful of people who refused to leave the bus caused the Treasury Department to buckle. It allowed the bus and its contents to go to Cuba after giving Pastors for Peace a humanitarian aid license the group had not requested.
``My guess is the Clinton administration will bend over backwards to define this trip as legal,'' says Gillian Gunn, a Cuba specialist at Georgetown University.
A State Department official admits, ``There are gray areas in the law. We will be examining their activities very carefully.''
Congressman Howard Berman, (D) of California, has been pushing a bill which would relax restrictions on travel to Cuba. The ``Free Trade in Ideas'' Act proposes that US citizens be allowed to freely travel to Cuba for education and cultural purposes and allow trade in areas such as books, music, and videos. ``It permits activities which create a free flow of ideas between people, not governments,'' explains a Berman aide.
Berman attempted to attach the bill to the State Department Administration Act earlier this year. But Berman backed off when Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent him a letter in June saying that the State Department ``endorses the underlying objectives'' of the bill, but wanted a chance to first conduct an interagency review of regulations to ``ensure they properly reflect the goal of dissemination of ideas.''
One Cuba analyst notes that if the Clinton administration is quietly trying to relax the travel restrictions, a loud public protest of the current policy could undermine rather than advance efforts to reform it.