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DOUGLAS STARR

Senseless crackdown on Cuba

WHILE AMERICA was watching the images of abused Iraqi prisoners, I saw the same images from my hotel room in another country slated for regime change: Cuba. I'd gone there to do research on that nation's biotech industry. During the week I spent there I learned more about my own country than I'd expected -- much of it disappointing. I'd always been an agnostic on Castro and Cuba, but it's hard to remain that way after seeing the collateral effects of our four-decade embargo. Whole sections of Havana seem to be decaying. Hospitals exist day to day on medicines, researchers improvise scientific equipment, and there are national shortages in just about everything. Even accounting for Cuban mismanagement, world health authorities have linked the embargo and its ripple effects to epidemics and food shortages.

The embargo does more than cut off American trade. It seeks to prevent all other commerce as well. Under the ever tightening restrictions, no ship that loads or unloads anything in a Cuban port can dock in America for six months. Food and medicine have been restricted. Foreign companies that do business with Cuba are discouraged or even prohibited from doing business in the United States. In other words, even though no other nations agree with our Cuba policy, we bludgeon them into acquiescing. Sound familiar?

Those measures are sinking to new levels of meanness under the Bush administration. Eager to curry the Miami extremist vote, the administration has eliminated all "people to people" cultural exchanges and university-related educational travel. Customs agents at airports in Canada, Mexico, and other third-country way stations have been alerted to nab any American tourists who might try to end-run the travel restrictions. The enforcement branch of the Treasury Department has beefed up its anti-Cuba surveillance, devoting 21 full-time employees to enforcing the Cuban embargo and travel ban. Only four track the finances of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Explaining the policy in a February speech, Treasury Secretary John Snow said, "We're cutting off American dollars headed for Fidel Castro, period."

But is it really about dollars? Or is it about stopping all contact between Cubans and Americans?

This spring the Treasury Department canceled permission for 75 American neurologists and bioethicists to travel to Havana just days before they were scheduled to depart for an international conference on coma and death. In February the State Department refused to allow Ibrahim Ferrer, the 76-year-old singer with the Buena Vista Social Club, to attend the Grammy Awards because his entry would be "detrimental to the interests" of our country.

Just a few weeks ago, our government fined Barbara and Wally Smith, a retired Vermont couple, $55,000 for violating the travel ban. Their crime: bicycling around Cuba and creating a book and website about the trip.   Continued...

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