Professors risk arrest in Cuba trip


Johns Hopkins University professor Wayne S. Smith flew to Cuba yesterday with four colleagues, risking arrest when they return to the United States tomorrow.

Which may be why he took along a lawyer, Margaret Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The trip is described by the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank specializing in Latin America and one of its sponsors, as "an act of civil disobedience" against impediments to free travel to Cuba imposed last August by the Clinton administration.

"We believe the policy toward Cuba is misbegotten," said Robert E. White, president of the center and former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador. "That it makes no sense and confirms Castro in power rather than easing the transition to democracy. We have taken on what we believe is a worthwhile challenge."

Next month, no matter the outcome of this trip, another group of xTC American scholars will fly to Cuba under the same "illegal" circumstances, then another the month after, and on until the law is changed.

Cynthia McClintock, the new head of the 3,000-member Latin American Scholars Association, said, "As president of the association, I'm confident a large majority of our members would support this civil disobedience. We have had 35 years of embargo, and this is enough."

Mrs. Ratner's organization, which would defend the academics if they were charged, litigates civil and human rights cases in the United States and internationally.

Asked about the likelihood of legal action, a State Department official who declined to allow his name to be used, said: "They're liable to be prosecuted."

There have been no prosecutions in recent years of people defying government bans on travel to Cuba, though it wasn't always that way.

In 1962 the State Department prosecuted black journalist William Worthy for defying the travel ban. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison, a conviction overturned on appeal.

For his part, Mr. Smith doesn't seem intimidated by the prospect of arrest. In an interview with the school's official weekly newspaper, the Johns Hopkins University Gazette, he said: "If the government wants to fill its jails with college professors, it has only to try to enforce these illegal restrictions."

The others on yesterday's flight were Philip Brenner of American University; John Nichols of Penn State University and Jean Handy of the University of North Carolina. All are specialists on Latin America.

The specific targets of Mr. Smith's delegation's "civil disobedience" are regulations that make it illegal for Americans to carry hard currency into Cuba, which in turn impedes travel there.

These regulations were first put into effect by the Reagan administration in 1982, when Mr. Smith, as the State Department's leading Cuba expert, headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Mr. Smith broke with the administration the same year and left government service. As a visiting professor of Latin American studies at Hopkins he has become an outspoken critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba under every administration since his departure.

The 1982 currency regulations were intended to discourage travel to Cuba by setting up onerous requirements to obtain permission to go. Applicants had to apply to the Treasury Department for specific licenses to carry the necessary cash, some of which were granted, some not.

But the regulations did have a provision that made it easy for some U.S. citizens. It was called a "general license," and applied only to journalists, academics and Cubans with relatives on the island.

On Aug. 20, in the midst of the crisis generated by a flood of Cuban boat people, the Clinton administration rescinded the general license for the latter two groups. It was kept for journalists because, a Treasury Department official said, they account for the smallest amount of traffic between the two countries.

The administration argued that the new rules were intended to deny the Cuban government the dollars spent on the island by academics and family members.

Mr. Smith described the new directives as a blow to academic freedom.

Travel controls on U.S. citizens were first applied during the Cold War, when the State Department devised a list of countries -- mostly Communist -- that Americans were not permitted to visit. These restrictions were overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court.

The regulations under challenge by the scholars who went to Cuba yesterday were dictated in 1982 by the Reagan administration as a way to get around that 1967 ban.

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