Passport to Paradox

The Cuban embargo is supposed to be getting tougher on travelers, but it's just getting weirder

"There is no specific policy that a scientist can use to find out if an application will be denied or accepted," says Elisa Munoz, who coordinates Cuba issues for the AAAS's Science and Human Rights Program. "It seems arbitrary who gets the licenses."

Munoz would get no argument from Clifford DuRand, a professor of philosophy at Morgan State University in Baltimore. DuRand is a coordinator for the annual Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, which has been held in Havana for the past ten years. The conference is organized by a group sure to raise the hackles of any conservative --- the Radical Philosophy Association. In the conference's early years, DuRand says, he and other U.S. scholars would simply go to Cuba on a general license for academics. But in 1994, when Treasury tightened the rules, they had to apply for specific permission for each academic to attend. "Still, we never really had any trouble getting a license," he recalls.

Until this year, that is. In June, two months before the sixteen-day conference was scheduled to open, DuRand submitted the license applications for 62 academics from across the country (OFAC asks for a 30-day notice for license requests). He presented their applications under the category of "professional research or similar activities," as he always had. (Under this category, a professional with an "established interest" in a subject may attend professional meetings in Cuba where research on that topic is shared.) On a Friday, five days before the participants were scheduled to leave, OFAC denied all the license requests.

The agency said it decided this year to review the requests under a designation different from the one DuRand had selected. Since the conference involved Cuban scholars, it must be an international meeting, reasoned the Treasury official reviewing the applications. And as such, it did not fulfill the requirement of a meeting organized by an international institution or association that regularly sponsors conferences in other countries.

The group decided to fight back. Members deluged congressional offices with phone calls, and five days later -- the day of the scheduled flight to Havana -- OFAC relented and granted licenses to 58 of the academics. Those who had canceled their reservations were forced to pay more for last-minute flights. In Havana the academics and their Cuban colleagues released a joint statement condemning the embargo.

Other academics accuse the OFAC of employing scare tactics. John Gilderbloom is an associate professor of urban policy and economics at the University of Louisville. He helps organize research trips and conferences on urban planning, architecture, and sustainable development in Cuba. He is also an outspoken critic of the embargo. "I am a lecturer on capitalism, but they say if I give my lectures in Cuba, I am providing technical assistance," he says.

On February 23, Gilderbloom says, he received a letter from the agency, threatening him with possible prosecution if he didn't explain his alleged participation in organizing an international conference on the revitalization of inner cities, to be held in Havana in April. Such letters looking for information or warning of possible wrongdoing usually include a paragraph stating the maximum penalty for such a violation: ten years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines for individuals.

In Gilderbloom's case, OFAC officials thought he may have run afoul of a recent rule change: U.S. academics cannot themselves organize international conferences held in Cuba (the provision they had used to deny DuRand his license). He denied helping to organize the conference, and the matter ended there, he says.

Still, Gilderbloom and other scholars chafe at having to apply for licenses to perform their research. And they point to incidents like that in 1993, when a scientist was asked, as part of her license application, to submit a copy of each of the 70 publications she had listed on her curriculum vitae. "It is ironic that bureaucrats are reviewing my work to decide whether I can go to Cuba," Gilderbloom says.

Lawyers who deal with OFAC say that despite Treasury's bluster, many of their clients pay only minimal fines; some pay no fines at all. Photographer David Garten -- who had a thirteenth trip planned to Cuba when he received his letter -- decided to settle rather than wait for an administrative hearing. He had felt sure he could travel to Cuba as a journalist, and indeed, at the time of his research he could. "The way I understood what the restrictions were, if you were engaged in news gathering while in Cuba, you were exempted," he says. After his first trip, he published photos in the L.A. Reader and, throughout the years, sold his work from Cuba to a variety of publications.

In late 1994 the Treasury Department toughened the rules by requiring journalists to be fully accredited, and working for a news organization, not merely involved in news gathering. While crossing the Canadian border coming back from his twelfth trip, he admitted to a U.S. Customs agent that he had been to Cuba; this admission started the process that led to the $117,500 fine. Garten enlisted the help of his congressman and the Virginia-based Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Such support can be crucial in getting Treasury to blink, say lawyers.)

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