Traveler, legislators: End Cuba ban

WASHINGTON -- Joan Slote is the "poster grandmother" for an end to the Cuba travel embargo.

Three years ago, Slote, an avid cyclist from California (and, yes, a grandmother), took a bike tour of Cuba. According to her supporters, Slote might have been better off if she had decided to vacation in North Korea, Iran or other countries that the Bush administration calls "the Axis of Evil." Travel to those countries is not prohibited, even though the U.S. government suspects them of supporting terrorism, her supporters said.

Slote, who bought the bike tour from a Canadian operator, made the mistake of not boning up on the U.S. trade embargo, which prohibits U.S. citizens from spending U.S. currency in Cuba without a license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Consequently, Slote was slapped with a $7,000 fine plus $10 for every dollar she spent while in Cuba.

Slote appealed to her state representatives, who she said attempted to help her, but had little luck. With interest and penalties, the fines now total $9,871.75.

Slote said she has been warned that if she doesn't pay the fines, the government will begin garnishing her social security checks.

Slote told her story at a recent Freedom to Travel to Cuba Forum on Capitol Hill.

House and Senate lawmakers, lawyers, educators and others at the forum said Slote's ordeal shows that the U.S. embargo against Cuba victimizes Americans and Cuban islanders more than the communist Cuban government it was designed to punish.

Participants voiced support for the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2003 (S. 950), which would permit unrestricted travel to Cuba.

Hindering "Americans' right to travel is not the way to punish Fidel Castro, and it is not the way to free the Cuban people," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a backer of the bill.

Dorgan also said that a priority for the Office of Foreign Asset Control should be tracking down terrorist financiers rather than harassing Americans who travel to Cuba.

Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said enforcers of the embargo have essentially been cast as the U.S government's "travel police," adding, "One would expect this from the former Soviet Union."

While momentum appears to be building in Congress to end the embargo, the issue remains controversial -- and political.

Supporters of the ban contend that opening travel to Cuba would pour more money into its economy, bolstering the Castro regime and prolonging its alleged human rights abuses.

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