Smith Hopes Cuba Visit Will Shake Up U.S. Policy By Mike Field First it was forbidden. Then it was all right. Now it's forbidden again. Sort of. Through the ups and downs of the United States' relations with Cuba, travel restrictions for American citizens have been put into effect, eased and tightened again as political realities have changed. A group of four academicians, led by Hopkins visiting professor of Latin American studies Wayne S. Smith, plans to visit the Caribbean nation in direct violation of the travel controls established by President Clinton earlier this year. The purpose of their visit, they say, is to commit a deliberate act of civil disobedience in defiance of restrictions they believe represent a dangerous infringement on academic freedoms. "This is a matter of our constitutional rights," Dr. Smith said during a recent interview shoehorned between appointments and meetings aimed at building a coalition of individuals willing to defy the ban. "On Aug. 20 the [U.S.] government rescinded the general license under which professional researchers had been able to travel to Cuba. It thus restricted academic freedom. We are traveling to Havana to challenge the government's action." While the Aug. 20 policy directive ordered by the president did not place an outright ban on travel to Cuba, it required that scholars first apply to the Treasury Department for a permit to visit there. Some researchers have had applications approved, but Dr. Smith considers the whole permit process a violation of his basic right to do research and to study wherever he chooses without governmental approval. He is backed by the Latin American Studies Association, a national organization of more than 3,000 Latin America scholars that will sponsor the travel challenge. Dr. Smith serves as chairman of the LASA Cuba Task Force. His background in Cuba includes several years spent as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter and Reagan years. In a recent letter to other task force members, Dr. Smith outlined the plans for the proposed action. Four task force representatives, including Dr. Smith, will fly to the Bahamas and then to Cuba on Nov. 30, where they will meet with the vice rector of the University of Havana. When they return to Miami Dec. 2, they plan to hold a press conference announcing their trip in violation of the travel controls and will state their refusal to pay administrative fines or accept lesser penalties. "At that time we intend to tell the government that if they want to enforce the ban they will have to take us to court," he said. "Another delegation of LASA members is ready to go down in January, and we will send a delegation down every month in open defiance of these laws as long as they remain on the books." The possible threat of jail terms for violators leaves Dr. Smith, a Marine combat veteran of the Korean War, unmoved. "If the government wants to fill its jails with college professors, it has only to try to enforce these illegal restrictions," he said. Non-academic groups promoting freedom of travel have already violated the ban. In response, customs officials seized the returning citizens' passports and once froze a group's assets to prevent their travel. To date though, the government has declined to prosecute violators. "There is an administrative fine of $50,000 and a prison term associated with violating the ban," Dr. Smith said. "But so far the government has not prosecuted because they know if they take it to court, they'll lose." The Supreme Court narrowly upheld similar travel bans imposed by the Reagan administration in 1982 ruling that the Cold War necessitated such action for national security purposes. With the Cold War officially at an end, Dr. Smith believes the government has no legitimate cause to prevent academicians from traveling to Cuba to conduct research or engage in other educational exchanges. As director of Hopkins' Cuba Exchange Program, Dr. Smith leads the oldest, largest and most active exchange program between Cuban and American scholars. Each year, approximately four professors, researchers and graduate students from Hopkins spend up to a month each in Cuba doing research and, in some cases, lecturing at various Cuban institutions. From five to six Cuban counterparts per year spend time at Hopkins for periods ranging from two weeks to two months. Smith fervently believes such free exchange of scholarship should continue unhampered; he is willing to go to jail to make his point. "When I headed the Cuba mission in the midst of the Cold War we had a number of legitimate policy objectives that the travel and trade ban was meant to enforce," he said. "At that time, Castro had troops in Africa, he was meddling in Central American revolutions and causing other trouble. We said then that once those issues had been addressed we would cooperate in improving relations. Well, he's no longer in Africa, he's not meddling in South Amer-ica and now, instead of cooperating, [the United States is] attempting to step up the pressure." He does not believe the policy will work. "What we're doing is giving Castro a scapegoat and causing his countrymen to rally round the flag. Even the Cuban Council of Catholic Bishops and other ecumenical organizations in Cuba all say the U.S. policy is wrong. We are totally isolated in this travel and trade ban and it simply isn't working. It is counterproductive." Despite his feelings, Dr. Smith insists LASA's planned unpermitted monthly trips to Cuba are not about U.S. foreign policy toward that country but a protest in favor of academic freedom. "What we are objecting to are the travel controls," he said. "It is supremely ironic that of all the nations in the world it is only the U.S.--which is supposed to believe in the efficacy of travel in supporting freedom--that supports this travel ban. We want to see Cuba open up to a more open society. It is in Cuba's interests to do so. But keeping American scholars out of the country won't help make that come about."
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