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Violator of Cuba travel ban seeks to force court action

A Southland woman is among 270 citizens who openly made the illegal journey in the last two weeks. 'My experience of traveling to Cuba has been life-changing,' she says.

August 06, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Erika Crenshaw returned to Los Angeles this week from a 10-day trip to Cuba with a message for authorities charged with enforcing a ban on travel to the communist-ruled island: Come and get me.

One of 270 U.S. citizens who openly made the illegal journey over the last two weeks, the 30-year-old financial advisor would like the government to fine or charge her, forcing a courtroom showdown on whether the ban is constitutional.

Most U.S. citizens have been barred from visits to Cuba since 1962, when President Kennedy imposed a blockade on the island after Fidel Castro nationalized U.S. companies and aligned with the Soviet Union.

Groups such as the Venceremos Brigade, with which Crenshaw travels, have been defying the ban almost as long as it has been in force. This year, they ramped up the challenge with record numbers and blazing orange T-shirts to pressure the Obama administration to make good on pledges to improve ties with Cuba.

"I have a duty, a responsibility, to disobey unjust laws," said Crenshaw, who returned Tuesday from her fifth Cuba visit. "I would welcome a fine. . . . It would give us a chance to go to court and have our voices heard."

The White House has already eased travel restrictions for Cuban Americans imposed by President George W. Bush in 2004. Those sanctions limited Cuban American family travel to once every three years and restricted remittances to immediate relatives.

Despite attesting on their customs forms to having visited Cuba without the required Treasury Department license, the travelers were waved in without incident when they returned Monday and Tuesday to the U.S. -- 140 via Canada into Buffalo, N.Y., and 130 from Pastors for Peace who arrived from Mexico at McAllen, Texas.

Treasury spokeswoman Marti Adams said the agency doesn't comment on individual violations but pointed out enforcement guidelines that allow fines of up to $250,000 for the most egregious infractions.

During the Bush administration, the Treasury Department deployed dozens of agents to stake out airports frequented by illegal travelers and fined them or confiscated goods purchased in Cuba. The Obama administration has focused its attention on more important security issues, said Tony West, assistant attorney general for civil affairs.

"As a general matter, should laws be obeyed? Yes. Should laws be enforced? Yes. But we're a government of limited resources and we have to make priorities," West said.

The travel ban protests are bolstered by repeal proposals making their way through Congress and by a lawsuit last month brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights challenging the government's right to impede U.S. citizens' freedom of movement.

Obama told the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April that he wanted "a new beginning with Cuba."

But veterans of Venceremos -- Spanish for "We Shall Overcome" -- say progress has been too slow.

"We're trying to break the travel ban because we believe that is the necessary first strategic step toward ending the blockade, which is a human rights disaster and a terrible policy of this country," said Tshaka Barrows, a West Oakland juvenile justice program director.

Crenshaw says it's good that taxpayer money isn't being wasted now stalking tourists but laments the continuing diplomatic strains with Cuba.

"My experience of traveling to Cuba has been life-changing," she said, recalling her first trip with a college friend. "I went from not knowing anything about the place, seeing it as a faraway thing, to being committed to fight against the blockade until it is lifted."

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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