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US Senate Considers Lifting Travel Ban to Cuba - 2002-02-12

Some U.S. lawmakers plan to make another attempt to lift travel restrictions on Americans to Cuba. But the Bush administration remains opposed to the move.

The House last year passed legislation that would have effectively ended the 40-year ban on travel to the communist-ruled Cuba. But the measure was never offered in the Senate.

Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota plans to reintroduce a bill that would end the travel ban. Senator Dorgan chairs an appropriations subcommittee that heard from several Americans who were fined by the U.S. Customs agency because they made unauthorized travel to Cuba.

Marilyn Meister testified Monday she has been fined $7,500 for going on a bicycle trip to Cuba. The 75-year-old retired teacher from Wisconsin said she was harassed and yelled at by Customs agents immediately upon her return to the United States. "I was quite chagrined," she said, "to be treated in such an abrasive way by a representative of my own government after a week of seeking to be a laudable representative of my country while in Cuba."

Cevin Allen of Washington state said he was fined $700 for visiting Cuba for only one day to bury the ashes of his parents by a church they built as missionaries.

The Bush administration has increased enforcement of the travel ban, which has been eased to allow some food and medicine sales to Cuba.

Officials say more than 150,000 Americans visited Cuba last year, but only two-thirds were authorized under provisions for cultural exchanges and limited commercial activities.

Richard Newcomb, Director of the Foreign Assets Control division of the Treasury Department defended the travel ban. He said, "Part of the foreign policy goals of the President vis-ŕ-vis Cuba is to minimize the flow of hard currency to the government of Cuba."

Mr. Newcomb and other U.S. officials say the embargo will be lifted only after there is a transition to democracy. Until then, they argue, tourist dollars are propping up the Communist government.

It is an argument echoed by members of the politically influential Cuban exile community.

Dennis Hayes is Vice President of the Cuban American National Foundation. He said, "The tourist industry itself is built to funnel money into the Castro regime this is done through a variety of ways, including the illegal confiscation of wages. This is done through a process whereby unionization is not just illegal, but can result in firings, beatings and imprisonment.

But Senator Dorgan, noting that Americans are allowed to travel to Communist-led North Korea and China, argues it may be time to reassess U.S. policy toward Cuba because it has done little to bring about change.

Senator Dorgan said, "There comes a time when American policy has to be reviewed if you have a policy in place for 40 years and you are not accomplishing your objectives, then it seems to me you might be evaluating whether that policy is working. Fidel Castro has been in office during the terms of 10 U.S. Presidents. That might persuade someone to start thinking 'you know, this is not working.'"

Critics of the embargo say the best way to bring about democratic change in Cuba is through trade and travel.

One such critic is former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini who said, "If a half a million or a million Americans travel there over a 12-month period of time and spend a $100 or $200 million, Cuba would be substantially changed and the government could not withstand the amount of information that would be brought in and made accessible to Cubans. You cannot police that, even in a Communist society in my judgment."

Mr. DeConcini has made eight trips to Cuba over the years.