As matter of principle, Hopkins professor flouts U.S. policy on travel to Cuba

January 05, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Wayne S. Smith is a zestful lawbreaker, if a frustrated one.

He does it with the same spirit with which he recounts the recent confrontation involving himself, his fellow scofflaws and an agent of the Treasury Department -- with a kind of hand-rubbing relish.

The Treasury Department is charged with enforcing the regulations the Johns Hopkins professor and other academics are breaking. These require nearly all Americans to obtain licenses for trips to Cuba; the licenses suspend the ban against spending dollars there.

Dr. Smith is not the typical traveler to the island. He is a past director of Cuban affairs for the State Department and former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

He and several colleagues returned Dec. 2 from their most recent trip. They had traveled without licenses. At Miami International Airport they were met by a Treasury agent. Bitter words were exchanged. According to Dr. Smith, this is how it went:

Agent: "You may end up in jail for your trouble."

Dr. Smith: "If you want to throw us in jail, take us to court. That's what we want."

Agent: "We might do it."

Dr. Smith: "Well, do it!"

Agent, walking away: "We might be in contact."

No luck that time.

Dr. Smith is a big bear of a man who doesn't speak softly. He is bald; a steel-gray beard engulfs the lower part of his face. At Hopkins, he teaches Latin American studies. For 40 of his 62 years, Cuba has been the focus of his life.

He was the State Department's leading expert on Cuba until his resignation from the Foreign Service, in 1982, because of heartfelt disagreement with the Reagan administration's policy toward the island.

As a lawbreaker, he is earnest and he is determined. He will try again to overturn the U.S. embargo against Cuba -- a policy that has changed little from administration to administration, Republican to Democratic -- and the travel prohibitions that are a part of it.

The embargo is seen by many people as inhumane and hypocritical, if only because of its inconsistency with broader U.S. foreign policy and dealings with other totalitarian and Communist states. It is that inconsistency -- the willingness to trade with Vietnam, to make deals with North Korea, to refrain from applying sanctions to China for human rights violations, and yet to shun Cuba -- that has motivated people to flout the rules on travel.

As he tries to get into court, the Freedom of Travel Campaign -- a West Coast organization that organizes trips to Cuba for ordinary Americans -- is suing the Treasury Department in an effort to get the travel regulations overturned.

The Freedom of Travel Campaign and another group, a Minneapolis-based organization called Pastors for Peace, have led the defiance of the travel restrictions. Pastors for Peace, said its director, Tom Hanson, has sent more than 900 Americans to Cuba. They carry everything from Bibles to medicines. The sale of the latter to Cuba is prohibited by the embargo. Mr. Hanson regards the ban as inhumane.

The regulations the scholars and others so flagrantly disobey were issued by the Reagan administration as an executive order in 1982. Journalists, academics and people with relatives in Cuba were exempted. But in August, during the crisis raised by the flood of Cuban boat people, President Clinton canceled the exemptions for relatives and academics.

The last court challenge occurred in 1984. Basing its ruling on national security considerations, the Supreme Court upheld the regulations. With the Cold War over, Dr. Smith believes that the government would lose a new challenge. That's why, he suggests, the government does not charge him.

In the 13 years the executive orders have been on the books, only a few of the many people violating them have been hauled into court. Only one has been convicted of unauthorized travel: Dan Snow, a Texan who ran bass fishing trips to Cuba. In 1990 he was found guilty of "trading with the enemy," sentenced to three months in jail and fined $5,300.

Ms. Margaret Ratner, the lawyer Dr. Smith has chosen in case he succeeds in being arrested, believes the government is "embarrassed" by the executive orders. Another reason for its lack of interest was the government's failure to respond immediately when the instances of defiance began to increase.

"The [widespread] public flouting of the law began around 1992, and the government failed to prosecute," said Ms. Ratner. "Once you don't en- force the law it becomes difficult to enforce it later, because then it looks like a kind of selective prosecution."

So far, Dr. Smith and his fellow academics have received only vaguely menacing hints of action against them. Asked whether Dr. Smith would be prosecuted, a Treasury Department official said: "We will follow our routine procedures in reviewing this matter and discuss it in the normal process." He declined to allow his name to be used.

Dr. Smith is raising the ante by organizing a larger delegation of professors of Latin American studies for a trip in January.

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