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
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
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
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.