Embargo in Cyberspace

When a Cuba activist lists a sister-city event on his Web site, the feds move in.

Tom Warner did Castro when Castro wasn't cool. The 77-year-old Seattle activist and World War II vet says he was radicalized "to the ways of imperialism" while sailing to Africa and the Middle East as a merchant seaman after the war. He discovered unions on ship. His seafaring career was ended by the Magnuson Waterfront Security Act, which required Warner to take a loyalty oath and swear he had never been a member of groups that he had, in fact, joined. By the 1950s, with McCarthyism raging, Warner struggled to make a living and support his family. He took up Fidel Castro's cause when the former minor-league pitcher was still in the mountains, and Warner has been an advocate for the Cuban revolution ever since.

But after a half-century on the fringes of American politics, Warner now is in trouble—with the Bush administration—for a most modern reason. He posted something on the Internet.

In late October, Warner received a letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Treasury Department agency that enforces the Bush administration's aggressive embrace of America's long- running embargo against Cuba. The "Requirement to Furnish Information"—a precursor to a penalty notice—reads, in part:

OFAC has received information that the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association (USCSCA) organized a trip (described by USCSCA as a "conference") to Cuba from February 17-24, 2002. Based upon the enclosed Internet article, it appears you were involved with the promotion and/or possible organization of this conference. OFAC did not issue a specific license to you to organize, arrange, promote, or otherwise facilitate the attendance of persons at the conference in Cuba. . . .

OFAC'S LETTER GOES on to require Warner to provide:

"Full explanation of each area of involvement that you may have had with the organization, facilitation, and promotion of this conference;

"Contact information for all organizations that were involved in the organization of this conference, as well as a description of the type of involvement by such entities;

"If you traveled to Cuba for any purpose related to this conference, you must indicate your dates of travel to Cuba and list your activities and financial expenditures within Cuba;

"All records (memorandums, e-mails, expenditure reports, receipts, etc.) that are relevant to this conference;

"Any additional information that may demonstrate how you were involved with this conference. . . . "

The enclosed "Internet article," from Warner's SeattleCuba.org Web site, is equally unambiguous. It is nothing more than a calendar listing for the annual USCSCA conference, held in Havana last February and attended by 160 Americans and as many Cubans, including, among others, Democratic King County Council member Dwight Pelz, two County Council staffers, and Church Council of Greater Seattle head Alice Woldt.

Warner was required to reply fully within 20 business days or face up to a $20,000 fine.

Travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba is banned under the United States' 40-year- old embargo—fueled by the Cold War and, more recently, 27 Electoral College votes in Florida, where there is a high concentration of politically active Cuban Americans. But there are a host of exceptions: for conferences, for educational or political purposes, humanitarian aid, sporting events, and more. Citizens can apply for licenses to travel to Cuba under the various exemptions.

With and without the licenses, tens of thousands of Americans are thought to make the trip each year, mostly through Canada and Mexico. While Americans remain uniquely hindered from visiting the Caribbean island, Canadian businesses are flourishing there, and Cuba has become a favorite winter tourist destination of Canadians. There's a direct flight to Havana each week from Vancouver.

THE USCSCA CONFERENCE was licensed through OFAC, as was the attendance of the Americans. At least four people nationally are known to have gotten letters anyway, demanding information on their travels; they include Lisa Valanti, the Pittsburgh head of USCSCA, and both Pelz and Woldt.

Cuba activists say such travel letters are infrequent but routine, even for people holding valid licenses, and that when responded to, there is almost never any follow-up unless a person admits wrongdoing.

BUT WARNER'S CASE is different. He stands suspected—or accused, it's not clear which—of not simply traveling illegally, but of organizing illegal travel, a more serious charge.

However, Warner didn't go to Cuba, let alone the conference. Nor is he actively involved with USCSCA. His primary group, Seattle-Cuba Friendshipment, focuses on public education and material aid. Both Warner's group and the Seattle/ Cuba Sister City Association are projects of the Church Council.

All Warner did was repost information on his Web site regarding an event he supported—something that millions of American businesses, organizations, and individuals do regularly.

"It's McCarthyite stuff," proclaims Warner, who should know. "It's definitely a fishing expedition. I don't know whether they deliberately attacked the Internet to keep people from using it, or they didn't think that was a problem."

In her reply to OFAC, Lynne Wilson, Warner's attorney, noted the obvious—that Warner had no part in the conference other than to reprint an announcement of it on his Web site—but invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than pass on information as to who else Warner knows is involved in the sister-city movement with Cuba.

"I declined to tell them anything about anybody who went," Warner says. "I don't have any firsthand knowledge of who went anyway; anything I have in my head would be hearsay. I didn't even tell them I didn't know anything."

Woldt, too, invoked the Fifth Amendment. Pelz gave what he describes as "perfunctory" responses regarding his travel arrangements and expenses.

Both Warner and Wilson believe OFAC's attention was drawn by opponents of Pelz's attempt in October to win passage of a sister-city relationship between King County and Granma Province in Cuba. Pelz, Woldt, and the seven other Seattle-area conference attendees also traveled to Granma to negotiate details of the proposed agreement. Only Pelz, Woldt, and Warner received OFAC letters.

In recent years, sister-city agreements have become staples of local government. The city of Seattle has about 20, and two years ago Tacoma launched a pact with Cienfuegos, Cuba. Pelz's proposal, opposed by Eastside Republican council member Kathy Lambert and by local veterans groups, failed by one vote on Oct. 28 after passage initially looked likely.

The laws, regulations, and politics surrounding travel to Cuba are byzantine and poorly known by anyone not immersed in them. But even groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which generally steer clear of "foreign policy" issues, have weighed in on Warner's behalf because of the implications for free speech. The terrain is the slippery slope between doing something illegal—"organizing" banned travel—and writing about it—"promoting" it. Warner's case is further compounded because the USCSCA conferences are legal. Warner's supporters compare his case to, for example, using federal conspiracy laws against anti-globalization activists—people committing civil disobedience and anyone forwarding notice of an event where arrests take place.

"THEY SINGLED OUT the leaders," Pelz says flatly. But Pelz is more circumspect about the relationship with the council's sister-city proposal: "I'm not sure I can speculate on the government's timing, other than they continue their fetish about Americans traveling to Cuba."

"It does have a chilling effect," Warner concedes. "People who want to go to Cuba say 'Oh, I heard that somebody who went got into trouble, so I don't want to go.' It even has a chilling effect on people who want to go legally."

Or people who might discuss it.

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
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