Breaking a Bad Law Over Cuba
When the retired US couple Fred and Kathy Harper* left for Cuba on a two-week cycling tour they knew they were breaking a law increasingly enforced by the Bush administration, but they still thought they were doing the right thing.
“It’s not a pretty story,” the Harpers told me. “We were part of a bicycle tour out of Toronto. Upon returning from our wonderful visit to Cuba, we went through US customs from Canada and that’s where the nightmare began. We were treated as if we were Bin Laden’s lieutenants or hardened criminals.”
“We were taken into a private room and interrogated mercilessly by these huge, nazi-like soldiers in knee-high brown leather boots. They went through our stuff with a magnifying glass and seized the few gifts we had bought. We learned later that the Costa Rican airline we were traveling on from Cuba to Canada gave the passenger list to US officials.
“They finally released us after we signed a mountain of official documents. But that wasn’t the end. They have continued to badger us, threatening imprisonment and heavy fines. It’s a sad story, but we loved Cuba so much that it was worth what happened to us,” concluded the Harpers.
Why shouldn’t US citizens have the same rights as the British, French, Germans, Italians, Canadians, Australians, etc. to go biking or hiking or visit the cities and beaches in any country they are welcomed in?
Europeans and Canadians flocked in record numbers to Cuba in 2005 to enjoy the sun, beaches, its cultural Mecca and relative safety. But for law abiding US citizens, the journey can represent a serious dilemma as they find themselves thrown into a cold war everybody else thought was over.
Nonetheless, the L.A. Times recently estimated that “some 40,000 US citizens visited the off-limits island of Cuba last year."
To choose between breaking a law imposed as part of the 45-year US blockade on Cuba and cowing to the threats from the Bush administration is a hard decision for a people who pride themselves on individual freedoms.
Fran Bradley a Bucks County, Pennsylvania school teacher recently went to Cuba with 100 other volunteers from Pastors for Peace, an Interreligious community foundation that organized an effort to take bicycles, medical supplies and computer equipment to Cubans. Each year the group openly challenges the US travel ban in order to call attention to its unjust nature.
“At least we’re not alone,” Bradley told the Bucks County Courier Times. “Countries all over the world think what the US is trying to do is illegal,” he added. Bradley was referring to the annual United Nations vote that overwhelmingly condemns the US blockade of Cuba, which includes the travel restrictions on US citizens. In 2005, the vote was a record 182-4.
According to the Courier Times of Levittown, Penn., a week after he returned, Bradley “received a letter form the Treasury Department requesting information on the other members of the Pastors for Peace caravan, where they stayed and how much they spent in Cuba. He refused to answer their questions expressing his disagreement with the government.”
Bradley told the newspaper that he's still waiting to see if the Treasury Department will prosecute him. He could face 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
“I hope he doesn’t go to jail,” George School junior Owen Henry, 17, told the Courier. “But if he does [the Treasury Department’s] going to have a lot of angry high school students up in arms,” he added.
The travel ban is also imposed by Washington on Cubans invited to sporting, cultural, academic and scientific events in the United States. The Cubans are routinely denied entry visas even to attend international meetings on subjects such as medical research.
The examples abound. At the 2004 Grammy Awards ceremony the late “son” and bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer, then 77, was denied a visa to receive his award. Ferrer told the press in Havana: "I am not a terrorist. I couldn't be one. I am a musician."
Now, the Olympic and World Cup champion Cuban baseball team has been prohibited by the US government from playing in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) organized by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. As a result, the International Baseball Federation is threatening to withdraw its sanctioning of the competition, putting the WBC on the verge of collapsing less than 7 weeks before it is scheduled to begin.
*I changed the name of the Harpers to avoid them further problems for having exercised their right to travel and tell their story, another freedom jeopardized by the Patriot Act.