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Travelers Know No Boundary : Regulation: Despite federal policy barring Americans from going to Cuba, 180 members of the Freedom to Travel Campaign depart for island Oct. 10.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Retired pool-table salesman Dick Meyers of San Pedro wants to be clear: His upcoming trip to Cuba has nothing to do with research, journalism, a visit to relatives on the island or official U.S. business.

The trip, in a word, is not for a purpose that the U.S. government would consider legal.

“No, I’m going for vacation,” Meyers says, removing a straw hat and folding his hands across his stomach complacently.

Meyers, 77, is one of 180 people nationwide participating in the Freedom to Travel Campaign, a group that is challenging the U.S. government restrictions on travel to Cuba. Members of the San Francisco group, a coalition of 50 organizations, plan to rendezvous in Cancun, Mexico, this week and board a Cubana Airlines plane for Havana on Oct. 10.

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“Other groups over the years have thought about doing this, but we’re the first to follow through,” said Freedom to Travel Campaign coordinator Pam Montanaro. “We officially formed the committee from a sense of just being fed up. Cubans are humans, we’re humans, and they’re 90 miles from our shore. The absurdity of the policy begins to rankle.”

Technically, federal policy bars Americans from spending money--either in the United States or another country--to travel to Cuba. Exempt from the policy are: journalists on assignment, U.S. officials, Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island, full-time academics and professional researchers working on specific projects, and people whose travel is paid for by an entity outside the U.S.--usually the Cuban government or the United Nations.

Other U.S. citizens wanting to travel to Cuba must apply to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets for a license. Most often, licenses are granted to charitable organizations sending aid to the island.

Violators of the travel policy face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

The federal government banned travel to Cuba during the Kennedy Administration, when hostilities between the two nations reached a peak. After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba nationalized $1.8 billion of American assets, prompting the U.S. to freeze Cuban assets and impose the current travel restrictions to the island.

Cuba also restricts visits. Cuban citizens who left the island before 1959 can come and go at will, but those who left after 1959 have to apply for a visa. Cubans who left after 1980 have been prohibited from returning at all, but in recent weeks the Cuban government has considered moving up the cut-off year to 1988 in an effort to attract more American dollars to the island.

The Cuban government is aware of the Freedom to Travel Campaign’s upcoming trip, but is not involved in any way, according to a Cuban Interest Section office in the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

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Still, Cuba supports the goal of the mission.

“We think that the ban is the result of a double standard in the American policy toward Cuba . . . for not really good reasons,” said Jose Ponce, press secretary for the Cuban government office.

Freedom to Travel Campaign’s lawyers doubt the travelers will be punished after the trip, Montanaro said, but all have been warned of the federal penalties. Both Meyers and Montanaro say they are prepared to go to jail if necessary.

“(Of) course, at my age it’s not much of a sacrifice,” said Meyers.

Said Montanaro: “I don’t want to go to jail or pay an enormous fine, but there are times when you must stand up for what you believe in.

“I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., when there were over 200 laws on the books to keep African-Americans and Euro-Americans from relating to each other,” Montanaro said. “As a child, I was a witness to all the horrible things that can go on when governments set up barriers that keep people from knowing one another.”

U.S. Treasury officials say they are keeping abreast of the protest trip but declined to say whether the travelers will be prosecuted upon their return to the United States.

The Treasury Department’s track record, however, shows that odds are against the travelers’ being prosecuted. In the history of the government’s policy, only one person has been imprisoned for trading with the enemy: bass-fishing fanatic Dan Snow of Kingston, Tex.

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Despite being warned repeatedly that he faced prosecution, Snow could not stay away from Cuba’s 1,000 lakes, frequently leading fishing expeditions to the island starting in 1977.

Snow was finally convicted of trading with the enemy in 1990. He was fined $5,000, jailed for 90 days and was required to do 1,000 hours of community service, which he satisfies by delivering Meals on Wheels to senior citizens.

“I filled up my trash basket with their warnings,” he said. “I just didn’t care. See, you have to understand the mental thinking of a bass fisherman. Cuba is a paradise.”

Snow, who is still on probation, said he is aching to fish again in Cuban lakes but will not accompany the Freedom to Travel Campaign.

“I would love to go with this group, but it would be raining on their parade if I went,” he said. “They’re trying to do it with a bunch of innocent people and I’ve got an injunction against me. It’s ridiculous, but I’ve been convicted. I’m a bass-fishing felon.

“But there are 1,000 lakes in Cuba and I’ve been to nine of them. That leaves me 991 to go and I can’t wait to get back.”

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The Freedom to Travel Campaign trip to Cuba is not a demonstration of solidarity with the communist Cuban government, Montanaro said. Rather, the project’s premise is that Americans should be free to travel anywhere.

Members of the coalition will pay their own way, about $800 for a week on the island, including round-trip air fare, hotel expenses and three meals daily. Once on the island they will be free to be regular tourists, strolling the beaches and sightseeing.

Some of the travelers plan to do charitable work in Cuba, building a playground and delivering insulin to a Havana children’s hospital.

The campaign group includes six families, a couple going on their honeymoon and about 20 people younger than 21. None of the 180 travelers is Cuban, Montanaro said. Several have been to the island before. The largest contingent, about 80 people, is from California.

Meyers has been to Cuba three times: in 1986, 1987 and 1991. Each time he slipped through one of the loopholes provided by the law. Once he traveled with a charitable group. Another time he went with a group that was the guest of the Cuban government.

He took his third trip as a journalist for the San Pedro weekly Random Lengths, which vouched for Meyers, saying he would be working as a reporter.

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“Everybody had a letter from some newspaper back then, but it was a ruse to get around the law,” Meyers said. “But as it turned out, I actually did write a little story about my trip there.”

This time, Meyers and other campaign participants have sent letters to the government stating that they are using none of the legal loopholes.

“Think about it, we don’t have a ban against China,” Meyers said. “China is a communist country and we’re allowed to travel (there). It’s an irrational policy.”

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