By Restricting Travel to Cuba, US Denies the Rights of Its Citizens

Errant policy falls under the guise of promoting democracy in Cuba

THE scene was right out of the 1980s TV show, ``Miami Vice.'' A surly Treasury Department agent, wearing a black T-shirt with a badge tucked over the collar, boarded our plane, barked out our names, and demanded we ``step forward'' off the charter flight that had landed at Miami International Airport.

Our detention and intimidation on the tarmac was no ordinary law-enforcement mission. According to the official from Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), we had violated the ``1917 Trading with the Enemy Act'' by traveling to Cuba to do academic research.

Three professors - Wayne Smith, John Nichols, and Philip Brenner - were allegedly guilty of not having an OFAC license, now required of any researcher who wants to travel legally to the island. (If convicted, each could face five years in prison and a fine of $100,000.) Peter Kornbluh was detained, questioned, and harassed even though he had obtained a license - because he was traveling with the others. ``This license is a privilege, not a right,'' the OFAC agent warned him.

Under the guise of pushing Fidel Castro toward democracy, the US government is trampling on the rights of its own citizens. It is undercutting the principles of the Constitution and the strength of its Cuba policy.

The right to travel in general, and for academic scholarship in particular, is a hallmark of democracy. It is fundamental to the free trade of ideas and information. Unrestricted travel is an individual liberty, protected by the Constitution, upheld by Congress, and embodied in international and national law.

In 1984, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the executive branch could curtail travel only for overriding national security concerns. With the end of the cold war, Cuba can't be considered a national security threat. It's no longer a base of operations for a rival superpower, and it no longer supports insurgencies or leftist governments abroad.

THE US government concedes as much and now justifies its punitive policy as advancing ``a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.'' President Clinton announced on Aug. 20 that he would tighten the long-standing trade embargo against Cuba by terminating almost all travel and cash remittances to the island.

The new restrictions mean that Cuban Americans, who had been able to visit families on the island under a general license established by President Reagan, are now barred from travel except for urgent humanitarian purposes. Academics must apply to the OFAC for a license every time they want to travel to Cuba and must justify the significance of their scholarly endeavors to the Treasury Department.

To deny travel is to control ideas. There already have been cases of delay and discrimination. Even if OFAC were to grant all of the applications it receives, requiring a license is a restraint on academic freedom. Who is to say if today's ``privilege'' will be taken away tomorrow?

The US travel policy is not only unconstitutional, it also is counterproductive to the president's stated goal of fostering democracy in Cuba. If there is a lesson from the fall of the Soviet Union, it is that cultural influence through people-to-people contact is instrumental in hastening the denouement of communism. The Cuban scholars, dissidents, and church and government officials we met in Havana consider free travel a means of promoting peaceful, positive change.

``The foreign policy objectives at stake in the context of an embargo must be balanced against the right to travel, a fundamental aspect of individual liberty,'' testified Morton Halperin, then the American Civil Liberty Union's chief advocate of the free flow of information, before Congress in 1990. Ironically, Mr. Halperin is now the National Security Council official in charge of Cuba policy. It is time for the administration to recall his advice and end this senseless anomaly. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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