By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES, August 4 — While visiting Cuba is still illegal and subject to fines for US citizens, Washington’s travel ban appears to be losing some of its teeth.
Some 270 members of two organizations, Pastors for Peace and the Venceremos Brigade, defied US Treasury prohibitions and returned Monday from their trip to Cuba to deliver humanitarian aid, do volunteer work and challenge the travel prohibition.
The Pastors for Peace Friendship Caravan members crossed the border at the International Bridge that separates Hidalgo, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico. Almost simultaneously the Venceremos Brigade crossed over to New York State from Canada.
Bonnie Massey told AP that it was her 11th trip to Cuba and that things “went pretty smoothly”. Traveling with her 7-month old son she said the brigade members were allowed to cross into the US from Canada even after refusing to answer questions “they thought might be incriminating.”
Down on the southern US border, Ellen Bernstein said that her group also “had a routine crossing.” The associate director of Pastors for Peace told AP: “We are really determined to be ambassadors to the new administration for a new policy.”
Ordinary US citizens are barred from traveling to Cuba without a special Treasury Department license. While violating that requirement year after year, both Venceremos and Pastors for Peace have been lobbying Washington to end the travel ban and the nearly half-century blockade that has caused severe damage to the Cuban economy.
Before leaving Havana, the US groups held a meeting in front of the US Interests Section to make their demands known. Besides ending the travel ban and blockade, was a call for the US to free the Cuban Five, imprisoned for over a decade in US prisons for infiltrating exile-run terrorist groups based in Miami and informing their government on their plans.
As during previous US administrations, legislation, including HR874, has been proposed in Congress to do away with the travel ban —as well as chip away at the blockade, the issue that most concerns Cuba.
The Caribbean island is the only country off-bounds for US citizens and companies are not allowed to do business with their Cuban counterparts, except certain farm product sales under terms disadvantageous for Cuba.
President Obama spoke in his campaign and at the Americas Summit last April in Trinidad and Tobago about forging a new relationship with Cuba, and Cuba’s President Raul Castro has called for unconditioned talks where both countries interests would be discussed.
Nonetheless, while some analysts believe that unpublicized talks are taking place behind the scenes, up front, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama himself have said improved relations are on hold until Cuba meets certain US conditions on economic and social reforms and human rights, a demand Havana has always considered unacceptable.