For US humanitarian groups Cuba 'might as well be Siberia'

Campaign News | Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Bush restrictions are shutting down nonprofit efforts in the island

Washington, 16 May: Cuba may be only 90 miles from Florida's shore, but for American nonprofit groups that want to work there, it might as well be Siberia.

The longstanding US embargo against the island, designed to bring down Fidel Castro's government, has created a maze of rules limiting who can enter the country, how long they can stay, and the goods they can bring in.

That is especially true in the past few years, as relations between the United States and Cuba have deteriorated and the Bush administration has squeezed travel and trade to a trickle. Virtually every nonprofit group that has ties to Cuba is feeling the pinch, finding it increasingly difficult to ship humanitarian aid, undertake environmental or preservation projects, cultivate ties with religious groups, or meet with professional peers.

"It's getting to be really a challenge to hang in there because it's getting harder and harder for our grantees to work the way they want to," says Andrea Panaritis, executive director of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, in New York, which gives all but a small percentage of its grants - $1.1-million in 2005 - to American groups that work in Cuba or promote normalized relations with the island.

President Bush says the measures are needed to help end a repressive government - and to ensure that Mr. Castro, now 79 years old, is succeeded by a democratic regime.

"Trade with the country enables a tyrant to stay in power," the president told a questioner after a speech in Irvine, Calif., in April.

Human-Rights Concerns

That approach is endorsed by many Cuban exiles in Miami and other Castro foes.

"A lot of these nice, well-meaning [nonprofit groups] have no clue of what goes on in the island and they don't care to know," says Olga Nodarse, co-founder of the Cuba Corps, a Miami charity that is recruiting volunteers to help Cubans build a democratic society once Mr. Castro dies or is succeeded by a democratic regime. "They say, 'We're humanitarian.' Well, you're not if you're helping the dictatorship stay in power."

But many charities, educational institutions, and religious groups complain that the sanctions interfere with their missions by hampering their ability to meet, help, and learn from Cubans. They argue that the embargo has failed to achieve its goal, hurts the Cuban people more than the government, and diminishes American influence on the island.

"The embargo is a big wall of prohibition," says Brian Goonan, who oversees aid to Cuba at Catholic Relief Services, which since 1993 has provided more than $26-million in food, medicines, and other humanitarian aid to Caritas Cubana, a Catholic social-services group in Havana. "It affects the poor in Cuba; it also affects Americans. You can't travel, you can't visit. It's all about what you can't do. In other countries, it's what we can do."

Some groups are worried that the restrictions will soon get even tighter. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a committee overseen by the US State Department, is planning to issue a new report later this month outlining ways to "provide specific US Government support for a democratic transition in Cuba."

The commission's first report, in 2004, ushered in new travel restrictions that, among other things, slashed the number of academic programs that could operate in Cuba by requiring them to last at least 10 weeks and to exclude students not registered for degrees at the sponsoring university.

The Treasury Department says it awarded 69 licenses to colleges or universities in 2005, down from 181 in 2003.

But only a handful of programs are still functioning, says Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, in Washington. Mr. Smith and several universities are preparing a lawsuit to challenge the new rules.

'People to People'

Since the travel ban against Cuba was introduced in 1961, two years after Mr. Castro took power, it has been alternately strengthened and relaxed, depending on the political climate.

The Bush administration has taken a hard-line approach.

Since 2002, it has ended licenses for "people to people" visits to Cuba, intensified efforts to catch and fine tourists to Cuba, and tightened rules for attending professional conferences there. The federal government has also stopped allowing people to visit Cuba even if their expenses are paid by a third party who is not subject to the US embargo, and barred Cuban-Americans from visiting family members in Cuba more than once every three years.

The Treasury Department says it has tightened up some travel because groups were abusing their licenses.

"We've seen groups that apply for a license to deliver donated goods to Cuba, but they end up centering much of their trip on tourist activities," Molly Millerwise, a department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message.

While charities can still get licenses to work in Cuba, many have been forced to curtail their activities:

The St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association, in Florida, set up six years ago to promote ties between the oldest cities in the United States and Cuba, had to transform itself into a humanitarian-aid organization in 2003 to continue operating in Cuba. During its early years, the group sponsored cultural and professional exchanges with Cuban and American doctors, photographers, historians, and others traveling between St. Augustine and Baracoa, on Cuba's eastern tip. After the restrictions made such exchanges impossible, the association reorganized and now sends delegations to Baracoa three times a year to bring supplies to local groups that help handicapped, blind, and older people - and ships donated goods such as wheelchairs and bicycles to those organizations.

It's Just the Kids, in Washington, was notified by the Treasury Department in early April that its license to build playgrounds in Cuba had been amended: It is now permitted to bring only three volunteers per playground site instead of 25 and must complete its projects within four days, instead of two weeks. What's more, the group's license would expire that month, instead of in April 2007. The changes forced the charity to cancel a trip planned for June that had attracted 67 volunteers. Bill Hauf, the group's founder, calls the restrictions "ridiculous" and says he is mobilizing supporters to protest them. "This project is so good, it can't be allowed to fade away," says Mr. Hauf, who is running as a Republican in a June primary for a Congressional seat in the San Diego area of California. "No matter what [U.S.] officials do, I will not give up sending letters."

Operation USA, in Los Angeles, has been shipping medical supplies to Cuba for 10 years. But when the Treasury Department renewed its license in January, it added a new restriction: The charity could no longer send teams of doctors to Cuba to train their Cuban counterparts. "It wasn't a big part of what we did, but it was important to us because it was a way to develop partnerships between Cuban and American hospitals," says Richard Walden, the chief executive.

The Cuba AIDS Project, in Mount Freedom, N.J., since 2004 has had to limit who can be sent to Cuba to bring medical supplies for HIV/AIDS patients, restricting the trips to trained health professionals. That has cut participation by about half, drastically reducing the revenue the group earns from registration fees, says Costa Mavraganis, a board member who coordinates the trips. Raising money elsewhere is not easy, he adds. "The minute they hear Cuba, they run," he says. "They don't want anything to do with Cuba because of restrictions from the embargo."

Madre, an international women's human-rights group in New York, was turned down last year when it tried to renew its license to send delegations to Cuba to do research on issues affecting women and children, says Vivian Stromberg, the group's executive director. She says Madre is exploring ways to challenge the decision. "Just the fact that you need to apply for a license to go to Cuba and you don't need to apply for a license to go to Paris is a violation of our rights," she says. "This [the refusal] is a further violation of our rights."

The Cuba-America Jewish Mission, in Berkeley, Calif., can no longer send youth groups to Cuba as part of its program to strengthen ties between American and Cuban Jews. June Safran, executive director, says that the young people who traveled to Cuba before the Treasury Department changed the rules in 2004 learned valuable lessons. "The children were more serious about their education and more tolerant of people because in Cuba they learned that what you owned did not indicate what your class was, what your position was in society, what you could achieve," she says.

Oxfam America, in Boston, now works exclusively on agricultural projects in Cuba, says Susan Bird, who oversees the charity's Caribbean programs. The charity can no longer get licenses for projects to help Cubans recover from hurricanes, something it did in the past. "We're seeing the space grow smaller of what we are able to support," she says.

One of the most controversial recent rule changes involves religious travel.

In the fall of 2004, the Treasury Department decided that national religious organizations, which previously could obtain travel licenses with no restrictions on the type or number of travelers, could now send only one delegation to Cuba per quarter, with no more than 25 participants, and had to submit all travelers' names in advance.

The limits were needed because some religious groups were soliciting beyond their members for travelers, "yielding less control of the travel groups and their activities in Cuba," said Ms. Millerwise of the Treasury Department. The restrictions do not apply to individual congregations, "where leaders of the groups are more likely to know the individuals personally," she added.

A dozen national Christian organizations recently joined forces to challenge the curbs, saying the government was inappropriately intruding into religious matters.

"Relationship and fellowship are at the heart of our understanding of church life and mission," Church World Service, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and nine other groups said in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary John Snow in March. "To hinder this activity is to strike at the heart of our religious identity and freedom."

The religious leaders have won support from more than 100 U.S. representatives and 17 senators, who signed letters in March warning Mr. Snow that politics should not hinder "faith-based connections between individuals."

Travel Decline

As one gauge of how the new curbs have cut into travel, Marazul Charters, a travel agency that arranges humanitarian, religious, educational, and family visits to Cuba, has seen business plummet by more than 80 percent since 2003. Bob Guild, the program director in the agency's Weehawken, N.J., office, says the company flew 38,000 travelers to Cuba that year, compared with about 7,000 in 2005. It has closed four offices and laid off 40 people in the last year and a half, he says.

While some groups lament the embargo's curbs on relations between people, others worry about its impact on the ecology. Environmentalists fear that they are losing a window of opportunity in Cuba - the ability to study Caribbean plant and animal species in a relatively unspoiled environment, a situation that could change as Cuba attracts more development and tourism.

"It's never been more difficult for organizations to work in Cuba than it is right now," says Stephen Cornelius, a program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in Chicago, which awarded more than $1-million in 2005 for projects to help preserve biodiversity in Cuba. "The flip of that is it's never been more important for environmental organizations to maintain their interest in Cuba."

Michael Krinsky, a lawyer in New York who advises groups on the Cuban travel restrictions, says the Treasury Department is increasingly reluctant to license environmental groups to conduct joint research projects in Cuba if they provide any training to their Cuban counterparts.

But a handful of American groups are doing what they can in Cuba, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, in New York, which received a $325,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation last year. The group is working on a project to protect threatened species that populate three of Cuba's most important wetlands, including the American crocodile and highly endangered Cuban crocodile.

Most nonprofit groups that operate in Cuba quietly tailor their activities to fit the ever-shifting sanctions. But some have decided to flout them.

Benjamin Treuhaft, the head of a small nonprofit group in New York, Send a Piana to Havana, has rounded up about a dozen friends and colleagues to take an illegal "Wild Mother's Day" trip to Cuba this month. Mr. Treuhaft - whose group has been shipping donated pianos and piano parts, and sending piano tuners, to Cuba, since 1995 - has announced publicly that he plans to visit Cuba for a holiday and to pursue a joint venture with the Cuban government to produce piano strings. Both activities violate the terms of his travel license.

The Treasury Department has caught wind of his plans and already warned him by letter that violators of the embargo face up to 10 years in prison and $1-million in fines.

But Mr. Treuhaft, who has tangled with US authorities before over his activities in Cuba, is unfazed. He calls the trip an act of civil disobedience and hopes to draw news-media attention to highlight his opposition to the embargo and make people aware of "what they do to us American citizens, not allowing us to visit this beautiful country that's so close."

Pastors for Peace, in New York, a left-leaning Christian humanitarian group, is an old hand at civil disobedience. The group is now organizing its 17th "Friendshipment Caravan to Cuba," which will bring supplies to hospitals, schools, and social projects in Cuba this summer - without requesting travel licenses.

"We don't see Cuba as our enemy, we see Cuba as our neighbor," says Lucia Bruno, the group's communications director. But the Treasury Department is starting to turn up the heat. It has sent letters to more than 200 people who have participated in the caravans over the last three years, asking them to provide information about their trips and threatening hefty fines, the group says. Pastors for Peace has lined up lawyers to help travelers challenge the restrictions, Ms. Bruno adds.

Cubans are concerned that more restrictions are on the way.

Dagoberto Rodriguez Barrera, who serves as Cuba's top representative in Washington, is wondering whether the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba will propose new curbs later this month. "It's very difficult, believe me, because they have done almost everything," he says. "Right now the travel is almost zero. What else?"

He adds, "The administration wants to deny American people the right to know what is going on in Cuba," he says. "Why? Because if the American people know Cuba and Cubans, they will do something to change the situation."

Meanwhile, Ms. Nodarse, of the Cuba Corps, who left Cuba as a child and now works to highlight human-rights abuses in Cuba, is looking forward to the post-Castro era. She says her group is signing up volunteers to provide humanitarian aid, training in democratic decision-making, and technical help once that day arrives.

That, she says, will help many exiles fulfill their common dream: "At weddings, baptisms, conventions, encounters in the subway in New York, from every Cuban exile you have heard that phrase - 'Some day I want to be able to help.'"

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