Challenging the Cuba Ban

Visiting Americans talk with Fidel - and Cubans wishing they had guts to test their government

ON Saturday evening, President Fidel Castro and several key Cabinet members met for more than four hours with a group of 174 United States citizens defying the US trade embargo on Cuba that restricts travel to the Socialist isle.

Joking, speechifying, fielding questions, and patiently autographing T-shirts, photos, and US paper currency, Mr. Castro called their visit a ``courageous'' and ``historic'' act.

The group risks individual fines of up to $250,000 each and up to 10 years in US prison. US Treasury Department officials, who are charged with enforcing the embargo, say ``all violators will be prosecuted.''

Group members passed through US customs and immigration inspections at various US cities on Sunday and Monday. No one was arrested. Some of those arriving in Houston, Dallas, and Miami had passports, videotapes, T-shirts, postcards, and other gifts confiscated.

``It's a federal law, but there are no uniform procedures. Those arriving in California walked right in. But in Houston and Miami, people were harassed,'' said a group spokeswoman.

The government will probably hold their passports and review their cases before deciding whether to file charges.

Cuba is hardly a priority for the Clinton administration given the foreign policy demands in Haiti, Somalia, the Middle East, and Bosnia. But this group does present the administration with a dilemma, analysts say.

Born out of the cold war, the travel restrictions started in 1963 under the Trading with the Enemy Act and were tightened under the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act. US law doesn't stop citizens from traveling to Cuba per se, but only journalists, diplomats, Cuba researchers, and those with family in Cuba are permitted to spend a limited amount of money here without a special Treasury Department license.

A case challenging the constitutionality of the travel restrictions was heard by the US Supreme Court in 1984. It was defeated by a 5-4 margin. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and former president Jimmy Carter, the group leaders say it is time again to challenge what they call an outdated and unconstitutional policy.

In Cuba, the group consisting of lawyers, teachers, retirees, journalists, doctors, and teens were given the red carpet treatment. Their donations to hospitals, schools, and a park, and their chaperoned visits to an agricultural cooperative, museums, and committees for the defense of the revolution, as well as meetings with artists and top government officials have been broadcast every night on the television news program here.

``We appreciate the risk you are running,'' said one local official as key chains, travel posters, and a copy of a 1990 Castro speech were distributed.

But not all the admiration came from pro-Castro sources. ``I wish I had the guts to confront our government the way you are confronting yours,'' Toni, a pharmaceutical worker, said to group members.

Many of the participants have visited Cuba before. Many are or have been active in Central America solidarity movements. ``I've been arrested 150 times. This is what I do - confront our government when it morally misbehaves,'' says Bill O'Donnell, a Roman Catholic priest from Berkeley, Calif.

Tad Davies, president of a plastics company, says, ``I'm a libertarian, and nobody is going to tell me where I cannot go.'' He adds, ``I'm very surprised at the freedom here. Individuals have the freedom to contract for goods. There seem to be less restrictions on business here than in Los Angeles.''

At the close of the encounter with Castro, one of the group leaders promised to be back soon with more people. Castro responded, ``Send a million before Christmas please.''

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