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Cuba travel restrictions

by Tom Crumpacker
Miami Beach, Florida

The Cuban government has estimated that last year more than 100,000 Americans visited Cuba without licenses. Because of pending legislation, many Congressmen have also been going there (with licenses) to get a first hand view of the situation and sometimes talk to Castro. In a June 22 article in "Lifestyle",  Jay Bloomberg reports that the reason Congress recently exempted itself from the $100 license limit on personal items which can be brought back is that Cohiba cigars can bring a lot of money in the US, more than $1000 a box if signed by Fidel. Meanwhile on July 13 President Bush announced he is cracking down on unlicensed Cuba travel and his Treasury Department has started fining alleged violators under the law enacted by Congress last December which codified the previous administrative restrictions.

Why does our government want to prevent us from seeing and learning about what is happening in Cuba? It says its purpose is to deny hard currency to Cubans so that they will change the way they have organized their society. If so, it's the first time in history we've been forced to sacrifice one of our fundamental freedoms to implement a foreign policy objective. From the beginning, American courts have recognized and protected our constitutional right to travel to countries at peace with us. Our Supreme Court has repeatedly held that this is a part of the liberty we can't be deprived of without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment. Moreover, because travel often involves educating, learning and exchange of ideas, our First Amendment rights of speech and association are also implicated. As former Justice William O. Douglas once observed,  "the right of movement is fundamental because ... it often makes other rights meaningful."

In spite of this, in 1981 the Reagan Administration promulgated regulations regarding Cuba travel which required a license issued by the State Department (permitting only certain limited types of travel, excluding business and tourist) and penalties for violation of concurrent Treasury Department currency restrictions forbidding the unlicensed spending of money. In a 5-4 decision in 1984, Regan v. Wald, our Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these restrictions on the ground asserted by the State Department that Cuba had the economic, political and military backing of the Soviet Union, therefore the rights of citizens were overcome by national security needs.

In the 1990's when the Soviet Union no longer existed and our Defense Department had certified that Cuba posed no security risk, the restrictions were not being enforced (it being unlikely any judge would uphold them), nevertheless they remained on the books because the State Department was using them to try to frighten Americans out of traveling to Cuba and the Clinton Administration lacked the political will to terminate them. Each year the number of unlicensed visitors increased. Last December, at the instance of the Cuban American National Foundation, the restrictions were codified as part of a deal whereby Congress purportedly authorized the sale of some US agricultural products to Cuba.

Whether codified or not they are clearly unconstitutional because the Cold War is over. It's the patriotic duty of US citizens to challenge illegal laws, and many of us are continuing to go to Cuba despite the threats. US Cuba policy is now increasingly the subject of public debate. Last May, 82 Congresspersons and 16 Senators introduced the proposed "Bridges to Cuban People Act" which hopefully, if ever allowed to come up for a vote,  will put an end the blockade and travel restrictions. Emotions are high, and in Miami it's almost impossible to see or hear or read anything unbiased about Cuba.

For these and other reasons it's now more important than ever for Americans to go there and see for themselves what it's like. Despite everything, Cubans are incredibly friendly to Americans. Almost all Cuban religious leaders and
human rights activists oppose the US restrictions. As they put it, the more Americans on the streets of Cuban cities, the better the cause of a more open society. In the 1980s our government encouraged us to travel to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and it's been eleven years since another relic of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, came down voluntarily in response to President Reagan's famous demand: "Mr. Gorbechov, tear down this wall!" It's now high time to tear down Mr. Reagan's wall. If our government can prevent us from going to Cuba, it can prevent us from going to any or all other countries.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 12, 2001.

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