Organization to Defy U.S. Ban on Travel to Cuba

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

No, this trip is not for any purpose the U.S. government would consider legal.

"I'm going for vacation," Meyers said, removing a straw hat and complacently folding his hands across his stomach

Meyers, 77, is one of 180 people nationwide participating in the Freedom to Travel Campaign, an organized challenge to the federal government's prohibition on excursions to Cuba. He is leaving today to rendezvous with other members of the group in Cancun, Mexico, before boarding a Cubana Airlines flight to Havana on Sunday.

"Other groups over the years have thought about doing this, but we're the first to follow through," said Pam Montanaro, coordinator of San Francisco-based Freedom to Travel Campaign, a coalition of 50 "fed-up" organizations.

"Cubans are humans, we're humans, and they're 90 miles from our shore," Montanaro said. "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 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 United States--usually the Cuban government or the United Nations.

Other U.S. citizens wanting to go to Cuba must apply to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets for a license. Most often, they are granted to charitable groups 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.

Cuba also restricts visits. Cuban citizens who left before 1959 can come and go at will, but those who left after 1959 have to apply for visas. Cubans who left after 1980 have been prohibited from returning at all, although the Cuban government is considering advancing the cutoff date to 1988 to increase the American dollars coming to its shores.

The Cuban government is aware of the California-based organization's upcoming trip and supports it, but is not involved in any way, officials said.

"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 at the Cuban government's office in the Swiss Embassy in Washington.

"Why is Cuba treated differently? I don't know. But we're not going to renounce our independence and our self-respect," Ponce said. "We are able to discuss with anyone their worries about Cuba, but always on the basis of mutual respect."

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

" 'Course at my age, it's not much of a sacrifice," Meyers said.

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," she 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 would not say whether the travelers will be prosecuted upon their return.

The department's track record, however, shows that odds are against prosecution. In the 30 years the Cuba policy has been in place, only one person has been imprisoned for "trading with the enemy"--bass fishing fanatic Dan Snow of Kingston, Tex., who organized fishing expeditions to the island starting in 1977.

In 1990, after numerous trips, Snow was fined $5,000, jailed for 90 days and required to do 1,000 hours of community service.

While the participants in the Freedom to Travel Campaign have more political motives than Snow did, they say their trip is not intended as a demonstration of solidarity with the leftist Cuban government. Rather, the project's premise is that Americans should be free to travel anywhere, Montanaro said.

Members all pay their own way, about $800 for a week on the island, including air fare, hotel expenses and three meals daily. Once on the island they will be regular tourists, strolling the beaches and sight-seeing, although some will help build a playground.

The group includes six families, a couple going on their honeymoon and about 20 people younger than 21. None of the 180 travelers are Cuban, Montanaro said. Some are regular world travelers and the largest contingent, about 80 strong, is from California.

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

His took his third trip as a journalist for the San Pedro weekly Random Lengths.

"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."

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