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Thursday, July 01, 2004

Breaking the Travel Ban - Destination: Cuba

Pulse of the Twin Cities - Locally Grown Alternative Newspaper

Breaking the Travel Ban - Destination: Cuba

by Lydia Howell

At a time when Americans worry about the terrorist networks that attacked New York, Bali and Madrid, the Bush Administration is stepping up aggressive measures against...Cuba.

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, for example, has four agents investigating financial support for Osama bin Laden. It has 20 agents enforcing the 45-year old embargo against the island nation that sends doctors and teachers throughout Latin America.

This spring, George W. Bush re-tightened the travel ban against Cuba, protecting us from the dangers of beautiful beaches, and maintained national security by preventing American artists from participating in last month’s theatre festival in Havana and canceling college students’ study tours of the island’s organic farms.

But, for the 15th year in a row, Pastors for Peace is defying the embargo and travel ban, taking 100 tons of humanitarian aid and hundreds of Americans to Cuba. In 25 vehicles, including school buses filled with school supplies, medicine, wheelchairs and computers, the caravan is stopping in 127 U.S. cities on their way to McAllen, Texas, where on July 7 they cross the U.S. border into Mexico on their 12-day trip to Cuba.

Since 1992, the Pastors for Peace have delivered more than 2,350 tons of assistance to the Cuban people, at times held at gunpoint by U.S. troops and resorting to hunger strikes.

“The caravan is a very important project and has brought tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba,” said Gary Prevost, a St. John’s University professor of Latin American history and politics who has traveled to Cuba many times. “It’s an example of the strong sentiment of the American people — distinct from their government — American people for the people of Cuba and against the embargo. That’s what the Pastors for Peace caravan has always symbolized.”

On June 24, more than 100 people gathered at the St. Albert the Great church in Minneapolis to donate supplies for poor Cubans, and to send off the three Minnesotans traveling with the caravan this year.

“Besides the political reasons to go — to stand up against the embargo — I’m very curious about a country that has to re-use everything, making do,” says Kay Colgrove, an American Sign Language interpreter with three grown children and one of three Minnesotans joining the annual Caravan to Cuba. “I’m excited to take the whole country in. There’s good and bad in everything, but the Cuban Revolution has done a lot of things. They have universal healthcare. Before Castro, there was a big difference between rich and poor. That’s changed.”

“I’d like to see their sustainability measures in Cuba. They’re in a position to be very conscious about how they do things,” says Colgrove’s partner, Timothy Jordan, a Green and an architect doing graduate work at the University of Minnesota. “They’ve got a lower use of electricity and better insulation. They’re creating non-toxic materials ... I don’t know much about Cuba — just what people who have been there have told me. But, everything I hear is that the Cuban people are amazing and I really want to see it for myself.”

For most Americans, Cuba is grainy black and white images: Fidel Castro giving speeches and the 1962 Missile Crisis that pitted President John Kennedy against the Soviet Union’s Kruschev in a nuclear standoff; crumbling Spanish colonial architecture and 1950s-era classic American cars (maintained and still running); a palm tree paradise where glamorous Americans gambled, while being served by submissive natives or seduced by exotic women. The soundtrack of this anachronistic picture is provided by the Cuban exiles who arrived in Florida in the 1960s, still continuing the Cold War that ended 15 years ago.

“For the last 45 years, it’s been illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, except from 1977 to 1981. But Reagan reinstated the ban and created the framework with narrow exceptions,” explained Prevost.

Cuban-Americans have been allowed to visit their families and 100,000 did so annually, but Bush now allows such family reunification only every three years. Previously allowed licenses for travel by academics and other professionals will now be largely denied. He also eliminated a new category of “people to people” exchanges, organized in the last five years primarily through universities and high schools that allowed 40,000 Americans to visit Cuba.

“It’s also important that Bush is pursuing much more aggressive prosecution of people traveling to Cuba without a license. There were no prosecutions of individuals under Reagan, Bush I or Clinton — only prosecutions were of people organizing groups,” says Prevost. “That began to change under Clinton, but really stepped up under Bush. Hundreds have cases against them.” Prevost noted that, in recent years, the embargo and travel ban had come under increasing bipartisan reconsideration in Congress, with some realistic hopes of ending them. In September 2002, as part of an agricultural trade conference, then-governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, traveled to Cuba, bluntly telling the media he rejected Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s demand not to go.

Pastors for Peace, with Venceremos Brigade and the African Awareness Association, as humanitarian aid organizations, remain legal ways to go to Cuba. In Minneapolis, the Resource Center of the Americas in Minneapolis and the Minnesota Cuba Committee coordinated local efforts to donate items banned by various U.S. Government agencies. As was the case in Iraq, seemingly benign items like pencils, aspirin, wheelchairs and solar panels are outlawed. In its 500-page report recommending the new policies, the recently-created Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC) made clear that the goal of the embargo is to undermine the Cuban economy.

“Cuba doesn’t need medicine as much as they need the raw materials to make medicine. They make vaccines and give them away to poorer countries. It’s not fair to embargo Cuba,” says engineer Antonio Rosel, originally from Peru and another Minnesotan who embarked with the Caravan. “The U.S. doesn’t want that example against what they want to impose on everyone. As a Latin American, I see my people wracked with poverty, kids without enough to eat, people working land they don’t own. They see a lifestyle on TV they’ll never live. Then, I see Cuba: people own the dignity of owning their own country. It’s a model for sustainability, sovereignty and development.”

Immigrants of all nations often send money back to family in the home country, but Bush’s policies also include cutting the amount of money Cuban-Americans are allowed to send to family in Cuba and narrowing recipient relatives to immediate family only. Latino cultures are centered around extended family with aunts and uncles being as important as parents and cousins considered siblings. The U.S. does not ban remittances to China, a country with a long record of human rights abuses, but, also friendly to investments and relocated factories from American corporations.

State Department official, Jose Cardenas, who edited the CAFC report, said that “sting operations” and paid informants would be used to enforce compliance with the new restrictions on family remittances. A New York Times June 27 op-ed said Bush’s hardening Cuba policy “cynically victimizes Cuban families to win the election.” There are 600,000 Cubans in Florida, and 80 percent of them voted for Bush in the 2000 election.

But younger immigrants and those born in the United States lean towards opening relations with Cuba, ending the travel ban and embargo, making Bush’s hard line risky.

“However, a shrinking minority still determines U.S. policy towards Cuba: anti-Castro exiles in Miami that Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow recently called “an aging generation who fared well under Fulgencio Batista,” the brutal military dictator the U.S. government supported with military weapons and training from 1934 through 1958.

In those days, Cuba was known as “Little Las Vegas,” its wealth divided up between U.S. corporations, the Mafia and Batista’s elite. By the 1950s, infamous Miami mob-boss Meyer Lansky profited from casinos and prostitution, and made Havana an international drug port. By 1959, American corporations controlled much of Cuba’s resources: 90 percent of mines, 80 percent of utilities, 50 percent of railroads, 40 percent of sugar plantations, 25 percent of bank deposits.

The vast majority of Cubans had lived in abject poverty subjected to prison, torture, murder and military violence whenever they tried to organize for unions, basic services or democratic rights — the seeds of support for Castro’s 1959 revolution. When Batista fled, he took $40 million from the Cuban Treasury, following a pattern of U.S.-backed dictators — for example, the Phillipines’ infamous Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos with their Swiss bank accounts and her infamous collection of thousands of shoes.

Miami exiles nostalgic for a Batista-style regime have a well-documented history of death threats, assaults, assassinations and bombings in Cuba and the United States. Cuban-American Estela Bravo, in her new documentary “Free to Fly,” shows assaults by anti-Castro Cubans in Miami, trying to prevent their fellow Cubans from travel, as well as bombings of homes and businesses and men shot to death in Miami, New York City and New Jersey for wanting to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States.

The film delineates well-known assassination attempts on Castro, invasions of Cuba and the U.S. government-supported “Miami Mafia.” The 40-year campaign against Cuba, largely censored from the U.S. media, includes bio-warfare, bombings and even the shooting down of a commercial airliner going to Cuba, resulting in the deaths of 73 people. Organizations of these pro-Batista Cubans this year got $58 million from the Department of Homeland Security.

“But in 1998, the U.S. government arrested five Cuban men, all college-educated and recent immigrants to the United States. Two of them were married, with wives and children in Cuba. They were sentenced to between 15 years and life in prison for infiltrating Cuban-exile groups engaged in terrorist activities and gathering information to prevent further terrorism.

In the hope of persuading the U.S. government to stop these acts of terrorism, the Cuban government invited FBI agents to Havana and showed them the evidence gathered by the five men – evidence that included imminent terrorist acts by pro-Batista groups on U.S. soil.

But in an Orwellian twist, the FBI used the evidence gathered by the Cuban Five to prevent terrorism and charged them with “conspiracy to commit terrorism,” withholding 80 percent of the documents for “national security.” The “Miami Mafia” remains free and funded by taxpayers. (For more information on this case see http://www.freethefive.org)

Almost 3,000 Cubans have been killed by anti-Castro terrorism. Recently, a Miami cable station broadcast an interview with Cuban-Americans dressed in combat fatigues, openly discussing their plans for further terrorist acts against Cuba — violating laws against broadcasting “terrorist threats.” No arrests were made.

Other people have been arrested, however, for more benign activities. On June 11, the U.S. Attorney General indicted Peter Goldsmith and Michelle Geslin of the Key West Sailing Club for organizing a 15-boat race to Cuba coordinated with the [Ernest] Hemmingway International Yacht Club in Havana last year. The American novelist had a lifelong love for Cuba, inspiring his novel “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Goldsmith and Geslin had organized four previous races since 1997. Fees the couple collected from participants in the race went for their expenses organizing the race. They had received a U.S. Commerce “sojourner license” from what they thought was an approved Key West, Florida group.

“We thought we were in compliance with [Treasury Department] warnings,” said Goldsmith, who paid $50,000 bond to be released from jail. “Turns out we didn’t read the fine print.”

The two sailors face up to 15 years in prison and as much as $350,000 in fines if convicted of violating the Trading With The Enemy Act, a bill written by U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). Federal agents seized the winning rum and trophy.

The National Lawyers’ Guild (NLG) is now representing hundreds of people facing charges for violating the travel ban. Milwaukee NLG lawyer Art Heitzer told Pacifica Radio that the Bush Administration is “looking for people to put on criminal trial to prove how tough they are.” The St. Petersburg [Florida] Times reported that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department had been considering three different cases for referral to establish the tighter restrictions.

“National security laws like the Trading With The Enemy Act are in place to protect the people of the United States while hindering endeavors of communist or oppressive regimes,” Treasury Department spokesperson Molly Millerwise told the Miami Herald.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its biggest trading partner, bringing back tourism to the island nation. If one can get licensed to travel, Bush’s new restrictions also cut what one can spend in Cuba to $50 a day. Having signed on to all the international treaties dealing with pollution (some of which the U.S. has failed to sign), Cuba still boasts pristine beaches, rolling hills and mountains. Vibrant culture and arts are a national priority and affordable to all, creating international festivals for music, poetry, theatre, film and dance. The Afro-Cuban jazz musicians immortalized in the documentary “The Buena Vista Social Club” (broadcast on PBS) won a Grammy for the film’s soundtrack CD. But they couldn’t come to the awards ceremony because the U.S. government refused to issue the elderly musicians visas. The American travel ban blocks exchanges from both directions.

“We’re supposedly the country of freedom! But, we can’t travel to Cuba?” Jordan asked incredulously. “The reason seems to be there’s something they don’t want us to see in Cuba. With whatever money we spend and the humanitarian aid we’re taking to Cuba, I think the Cuban people will be able to do so much with it.”

Lorna Green spent a month in Cuba to make her film “Bloodletting: life, death and healthcare.” Comparing the healthcare systems in Cuba and the United States, the Bay Area filmmaker captures stark contrasts. Although lacking some equipment and drugs due to the embargo, Cubans have universal access to healthcare, while Americans worry about the healthcare crisis. Cuban doctors are neighborhood-based, knowing their patients.

All new mothers and infants are visited by nurses in their homes. The embargo blocks psychotropic drugs, but Green’s filming of a community-based mental health center is a glimpse of humanity elusive in the United States where access to mental health services is even more limited by income than medical care. One in six people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has an untreated mental illness, and American parents with a mentally ill child too often must give up custody, making their child a ward of the State, to gain access to expensive residential treatment programs. Green is African-American and reveals the racial disparities in health care access through the brutal experiences faced by her brother when he loses his job, becoming homeless, and her mother’s constant struggles with an HMO. By contrast, Green said 60 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people are of African descent and everyone has equal access to services.

Colin Powell heads the new Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It’s managed by his Assistant Secretary Roger Noriega, who made clear CAFC’s purpose when he told the press conference, “The United States will not accept a succession scenario” — that is, opposing Raul Castro as leader after his brother dies.

CAFC uses the term “regime change” and has detailed plans for a “post-Castro Cuba” that puts Cuba’s resources in the hands of American corporations and “privatizes” all public services. Phillip Peters of the Lexington Institute described the CAFC’s plans future for Cuba as a return to the past century.

When Cuba freed itself from Spanish colonial rule, America invaded and occupied the country from 1899-1907. The Marines would only leave after Cuba included an amendment to their Constitution limiting Cubans right to make economic policy and giving the United States the right to militarily intervene in Cuba at will. The U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay was also demanded before granting “granting sovereignty” to Cuba and cannot be closed without “mutual agreement” — a history that would interest Iraqis, in a country where the U.S. government plans to create 14 permanent U.S. military bases.

Recognizing Bush’s use of the term “regime change” and CAFC as “warning shots” preparing for potential U.S. invasion, on May 14th a million Cubans rallied in Havana, vowing to resist.

“I think it’s a real possibility that Cuba is the next target with the election coming up,” said Colgrove. “The U.S. talks about democracy when it’s really about capitalism and having U.S. corporations in Cuba. I don’t think the U.S. government is concerned about human rights.”

Spanish petroleum companies are spending $195,000 a day for exploration off Cuba’s northwest coast. Currently, Venezuela sells oil to Cuba and is the third supplier for the U.S. Many considered the 2002 U.S.-backed coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a response to that country’s oil revenues being spent for education and healthcare. Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, Jean Bertram Aristide, was overthrown in February with U.S. help. While having its own oil resources would improve Cuba’s economy, it also heightens concerns about an American invasion.

CAFC spends $18 million on a specially-outfitted plane to fly over Cuba and “un-jam” broadcasts of the American propaganda broadcasts of Radio Marti, violating international law.

“It’s a C130 with computers, infra-red sensors, and powerful guns,” explains Rosel. “Cubans are afraid if the U.S. flies over to attack they won’t know what the intention is It’s a provocation and if Cuba does fire on this plane, it’s a perfect excuse for the U.S. to attack. Imagine China flying close to the U.S. border and our reaction! THAT’s what Cuba would do.”

Others say that a reversal in U.S. policy could ease this country’s escalating trade deficit. Prevost says that 300 members of Congress and 70 Senators have expressed interest in lifting the embargo and travel ban, giving U.S. farmers and businesses a new market. But according to Bravo, a bipartisan amendment to remove the ban was removed under pressure from the Bush administration.

In “Free to Fly,” Republican Congressman Larry Craig (R-Idaho) calls anti-Castro policies “an anomaly of the Cold War” and points out that San Diego grandmother Joan Slote was prosecuted for a trip bicycling in Cuba. “It’s time to bring down this invisible curtain. This is a waste of time and money! Why are we wasting time chasing grandmothers on bicycles when we should be chasing terrorists that might put a bomb in a public place?”

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