Thursday, January 12, 2006

U.S. Cracks Down on Two Groups Over Cuba Trips

BY PABLO BACHELET
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Posted on Wed, Jan. 11, 2006

WASHINGTON - The Treasury Department is cracking down on members of Pastors for Peace and the Venceremos Brigade, U.S. groups that have long organized trips to Cuba in open defiance of U.S. regulations restricting travel to the island, the groups say.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control the Treasury branch that enforces U.S. sanctions against Cuba, has sent letters to about 200 travelers from both groups asking them to provide information on their latest trips. The letters are the first step in a process that could lead to fines of about $7,500 per traveler.

Pastors for Peace has been organizing caravans of vehicles carrying aid from the United States to Mexico and then on to Cuba since 1992, and members have received OFAC letters in the past, said spokeswoman Lucia Bruno. However, this is the first time OFAC has sent out so many letters, she added, suggesting more aggressive enforcement attempt.

"This time it's different in that virtually everyone in the last caravan received the letter. Before it was sort of here and there," she said.

The Bush administration has been tightening restrictions on travel to Cuba, and enforcing them more strongly, arguing that it wants to deny resources to the communist government and hasten its fall. In 2004 alone the administration collected $1.5 million in fines from 894 individuals caught traveling to Cuba without a license.

Only a few groups can legally travel to Cuba, including Cuban Americans, journalists, lawmakers, and some trade delegations.

Most of the letters to Pastors for Peace and Venceremos Brigade were sent out in August and September but have only now been made public by the groups, Bruno said.

In July of last year, 130 members of Pastors for Peace, which defines itself as a special ministry of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizations, crossed the Texas-Mexico border with 140 tons of aid for Cuba. U.S. Customs officials let most of the aid through but confiscated 43 boxes containing personal computers and other computer supplies.

About 70 members of the Venceremos Brigade, which openly says it acts in solidarity with the Cuban revolution, went to Cuba via Canada in August to protest the travel restrictions and were slapped with warning letters, Lucia said. Both groups refuse to apply for licenses to travel to Cuba and announce their trips as challenges to the U.S. regulations.

Molly Millerwise, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, said she would not speculate on whether this time OFAC would go ahead and slap the fines.

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