Senator: Lift Cuba Travel Ban

A U.S. Senator chastised the Treasury Department Friday for cracking down on Americans who have been illegally traveling to communist Cuba.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said in a press conference today that the travel ban is unfairly restricting the freedom of Americans while doing little to hurt dictator Fidel Castro. He said he supports an amendment and appropriations bill that would lift the U.S. ban on Americans traveling to Cuba.

"There is growing support in Congress to lift the travel ban on Cuba and I am confident that we will end this unfair and unenforceable restriction on the freedom of Americans to travel," Dorgan said in a letter written to Paul O'Neill, U.S. Treasury Secretary, on Friday.

A Treasury Department spokesman said late Friday that it had not received the letter but  "the Treasury Department looks forward to discussing this matter with any elected official who has questions or concerns about our Cuba enforcement policy."

Dorgan charged that the Treasury Department has jacked up its enforcement of the ban in the last two years, to the point where hapless retirees and Americans with family in Cuba have been fined tens of thousands of dollars for traveling there.

Dorgan said that an average of 147 fines a month of have been levied against Americans who have illegally traveled to Cuba between May and July of this year. This compares to an average of 15 fines per month throughout 2000. The hike came after a codification of the travel ban into law by Congress last year.

"I think it is heavy handed and unseemly," said Dorgan.  The senator called the ban a "cold war relic" that hasn't eroded Castro's power in four decades.

If that doesn't work, Dorgan says he will support an amendment, similar to one already passed in the House, that would suspend funds to the Treasury for enforcement of the ban.

But legislation lifting the embargo has failed to pass both chambers in the last decade, a result of lawmakers' disdain for the Castro regime as well as pressure from politically influential Cuban exiles.

"Most if not all of the (tourist) money goes to the military and security forces – all we are doing is providing support for the regime," says Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Calzon argues that the U.S. had no problem attempting to affect change when it used sanctions to combat South African apartheid in the 1980s. Furthermore, the government has continued sanctions against Iraq and other nations ruled by dictators.

And he says Cubans, whether they have the money or not, are banned by the government from staying in the posh hotels inhabited by tourists. Furthermore, resort owners pay Castro upwards of $10,000 a year to operate on the island, while Castro pays employees $15 to $20 a month.

"I believe allowing U.S. tourism to Cuba will result in the maintaining of segregated facilities and workers will have no say about their conditions," he said. "Until Cubans are treated with the same rights and have the same opportunities as foreigners in Cuba, then we shouldn't allow Americans to travel freely there."

But others suggest allowing Americans to travel to Cuba might hasten the island's transformation to democracy and indicidual rights.

"Today, with the Soviet bloc gone and Cuban military capabilities vastly reduced," says Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., and former state department official in the first Bush and Reagan administrations, "it is possible to use a different mix of policy measures to serve important American interests such as promoting human rights, assisting the Cuban people, and building contacts with the generation that will govern Cuba in the new century."

Bush administration sources said Friday that the White House supports maintaining the regulations against the Castro regime now in place, including the travel ban.