On April 6, the day of Pope John Paul II's funeral, The Miami Herald reported that the U.S. government had tightened a policy the late pope described as "monstrously immoral": the 42-year-old embargo against Cuba. In a new twist on a tired story, the feds were acting at least partly in the name of religion.
The government "has become aware that some [religious] organizations may be abusing their licenses by allowing individuals not affiliated with the organizations to travel under the authority of their licenses," Robert Werner, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), warned in a letter sent to church groups that organize Washington-sanctioned tours of the Communist-ruled island.
It is a violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act for Americans to spend money on Cuban soil without OFAC approval, which typically takes several months to secure and is only bestowed on Cuban Americans and religious, cultural, and educational groups. Such organizations have developed ad hoc travel agencies to meet the strong demand of the estimated 200,000 Americans who visit the island each year. A February Miami Herald investigation found that several of these religious licensees were from exotic sects like Santeria and commonly escort believers and nonbelievers alike. That's when the government stepped in.
According to OFAC's new ruling, travelers "must be involved in religious activities with [the] organization," and licensees can no longer advertise, even on their personal Web sites. Violators face up to 10 years in prison, $250,000 in fines, and $55,000 in civil penalties.
The Treasury Department has even started to pick favorites among religions. According to the Herald, there is now a 25-person limit on groups visiting under the license of fringe sects, but the restriction "doesn't apply to what the government calls 'established churches,' such as the Roman Catholic Church."
Late last year, the department sent a threatening letter to the family of 69-year-old lifelong Castro opponent Eloy Guitierrez-Menoyo. Why? Because the old man, now nearly blind, had decided to stay in Cuba illegally after a two-week vacation–"to establish a legal space for an independent opposition," he told Reuters. Four decades into an embargo that hasn't worked, Guitierrez-Menoyo's brave opposition may be more legal in Cuba than in the United States.