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Travelers challenging Cuba ban return to U.S.

Cuba Travel Ban
Travelers from the U.S., belonging to the Venceremos Brigade, return from several weeks in Cuba after crossing the Peace Bridge from Canada into Buffalo, N.Y. on Aug. 3, 2009. Don Heupel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Groups of travelers who defied the federal government's ban on most travel to Cuba returned to the United States with some fanfare but no holdups Monday, passing without incident through checkpoints at the northern and southern borders.

Opponents of the ban have been making such protest trips for 40 years but said recent overtures from the Obama administration have lifted hopes that U.S. relations with Cuba will improve.

About 140 members of the Venceremos Brigade walked from Canada into the United States at Buffalo wearing orange T-shirts and chanting for an end to U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, about 130 members of the "U.S./Cuba Friendshipment Caravan" re-entered the United States at the Hidalgo International Bridge from Reynosa, Mexico.

"It went pretty smoothly," said Bonnie Massey, returning from her 11th Cuba trip, after being cleared by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Buffalo. The Bronx woman, traveling with her 7-month-old son, said she and others in the group were allowed to pass even after declining to answer written questions they thought might be incriminating, like how much money they had spent.

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Kevin Corsaro said no one in the group was detained.

At the southern border, Ellen Bernstein said her group, organized by New York City-based Pastors for Peace, also had a routine crossing after telling authorities they had been to Cuba.

"We are really determined to be ambassadors to the new administration for a new policy," Bernstein, associate director of Pastors for Peace, said by phone.

In the past, some travelers have received letters and fines after their return from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the U.S. Treasury Department office charged with enforcing economic and trade sanctions. Travelers said the fines have almost always been dropped when appealed.

Members of the Venceremos Brigade, an organization with members around the country, have been visiting Cuba since 1969 but have been more vocal about their travels in the last seven or eight years with the hope of swaying public opinion toward lifting the travel ban and Washington's 47-year-old trade embargo.

"Whether they fine us or not, we're going to continue to go," Diego Iniguez-Lopez of Leonia, N.J., said.

While praising the Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Cuba by easing restrictions on Americans with family there, the protesters said more action is needed.

A letter from the Venceremos Brigade to President Barack Obama called for the administration "to realize its own pledges for a more diplomatic and humane U.S. that respects the sovereignty of other nations."

A similar letter from the U.S./Cuba Friendshipment Caravan as it set out to deliver humanitarian aid to the island urged Obama to seek out new advisers on Cuba "and to set aside the stale and ineffective policies of past administrations."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said Washington wants to see economic and social reforms in Cuba before doing more to improve relations.