U.S. travelers challenge Cuba restrictions

/ Source: The Associated Press

Groups of American activists returned Monday without incident to U.S. soil after deliberately defying new rules increasing travel restrictions to Cuba.

About 90 members of the Venceremos Brigade re-entered the country on foot in groups of 15, carrying banners and pulling suitcases behind them.

“Very smooth,” was how Los Angeles social worker Georgina Peralka, 27, described her passage through a customs checkpoint after walking across the Peace Bridge from Canada into Buffalo.

While U.S. citizens have been making such trips for the past 35 years, the latest travelers were the first to directly challenge new rules that further tightened restrictions.

Meanwhile, in Texas, about 100 volunteers with Pastors for Peace crossed the U.S.-Mexican border over the Hidalgo International Bridge without any incident or arrests.

The group had brought busloads of medical and other equipment to Cuba, traveling through Mexico to avoid U.S. travel restrictions.

Aid was shipped from the Mexican port of Tampico, and volunteers followed by plane. Border agents had warned the group that only three were authorized to travel on to Cuba. The rest were subject to prosecution.

Breaking the U.S. travel rules can lead to fines of up to $7,500. The U.S. government typically notifies violators by letter after their trip.

Officials with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said both groups re-entered the country without incident.

“I feel very strongly that our policy toward Cuba is terrible, very unfair,” said Billey Fink, 80, of Buffalo. “We ought to make friends and not be at each others’ throats.”

The new rules, which took effect June 30, cut the amount of money Cuban emigres can send home and curtailed visits to Cuba by cultural and academic groups as well as Cuban-Americans.

The Bush administration hopes the measures will close loopholes in the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba and weaken the rule of President Fidel Castro.

Venceremos organizer Ann Sparanese said travelers with the group signed paperwork at the U.S.-Canadian border acknowledging travel to Cuba, but did not provide details, such as how much money they spent, she said. The group, whose name means ’We will be victorious,’ brought busloads of medical and other equipment to Cuba, traveling through Mexico to avoid U.S. travel restrictions.