Cuba Travel Ban Chafes U.S. Religious Groups
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick. For years now, the Bush administration has been tough in enforcing U.S. sanctions on Cuba. Here's a complication of that policy. Several religious groups complain they're having a more difficult time keeping up ties with sister churches on the communist island nation. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, reporting:
The Executive Director of the Alliance of Baptists, Reverend Stan Hastey has been a regular visitor to Cuba since the mid-1990s. His organization used to have a two year renewable travel license, until the Treasury Department began cracking down last year. Hastey said he had to give the Office of Foreign Assets Control a full list of the 300 or so people who traveled with his organization over the previous year and a half.
Mr. STAN HASTEY (Executive Director, Alliance of Baptists): One of those groups was cited for not having engaged, quote, "in program of full time religious activities while they were on the ground." They were cited for having visited a couple of museums and for having spent the night in Varadero, which is a beach resort.
KELEMEN: Hastey said he didn't get a chance to explain that they were staying at a Presbyterian guest house.
Mr. HASTEY: The purpose of the trip was not to be on the beach, but to visit a nearby church. There was no recreational time involved. So, it was a pretext to suspend our license.
KELEMEN: Hastey has gone to Cuba one time since then with the National Council of Churches, but that organization too has since lost its license, as has the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Now congregations apply individually and the numbers of licenses being issued is declining.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a California Democrat and vocal opponent of the embargo on Cuba, argued at a hearing last week that the U.S. shouldn't interfere with church-to-church relations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said by restricting travel the U.S. is trying to make it more difficult for the Cuban regime to skim resources.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State, United States): I don't think that there is anything that passes for religious freedom in Cuba and, so, the notion that somehow our churches going there are contributing to religious freedom in a place where religious freedom is so clearly denied, I think I would question the premise.
KELEMEN: Hastey disagrees, saying he's seen the Cuban government relax restrictions on religion over the years. He'd like to see the U.S. government reconsider its approach.
Mr. HASTEY: There is no way to maintain sister church relationships without the face-to-face contact. And that's what had been encouraged frankly prior to this crack down.
KELEMEN: The crack down has also sparked some trouble in U.S.-Mexican relations. Earlier this month a U.S.-owned hotel in Mexico responded to a warning from the U.S. Treasury Department by kicking out a Cuban delegation taking part in a conference. Now the hotel could face fines in Mexico. Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona told Secretary Rice that the U.S. government shouldn't be putting U.S. hotels in such predicaments.
Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): That means that any U.S. hotel chain, anywhere in the world, has to worry about fines now. If they house any Cuban, any Syrian, any Iranian, it's going to be applied across the board? Is that what you're telling me?
Secretary RICE: Well, I think we do have to look at whether it dysfunctions, but, you know, when you put a country under sanctions it's under sanctions.
KELEMEN: The Mexican hotel incident was clearly problematic though. State Department and Treasury officials met last week to review the way they're enforcing sanctions. As for the embargo itself, Secretary Rice stood firm, saying she believes the Cuban regime is in its last years of transition and shouldn't be able to, as she put it, replicate itself. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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