Authors: Beatriz Garcia, Andrea Fernández Aponte, Mavis Anderson
In 2009, President Obama came into office promising to rekindle the United States’ relationship with its estranged neighbor, Cuba. He talked about increasing family and people-to-people contact with Cubans as well as lifting U.S. economic sanctions on the country in order to provide the Cuban people with greater access to resources and to allow them greater power in determining their country’s future without the full force of the embargo pressing down on them. Since then, tremendous progress has been made.
On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced a bold new course of action for the United States’ relationship with Cuba, including the re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana after 54 years, and the removal of Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list on May 29, 2015.
Since then, the Obama Administration has loosened travel and remittance restrictions and promoted greater contact between the Cuban and American people through various executive actions. The administration has expanded the sales of certain goods and services from the United States to Cuba, lifted the limit on Cuban goods American citizens are allowed to bring back for personal use, and initiated assistance for the Cuban people to communicate more freely. Moreover, it has allowed for the importation and distribution of FDA-approved Cuban pharmaceuticals, authorized new joint medical research, and approved multiple science and religious studies grants and scholarships for Cuban students.
Although all these policy changes have rightly been celebrated as strong, positive steps towards the complete normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, the embargo still exists in U.S. law (the Congress must act to change this), and there are still notable discrepancies between what the administration says and what some of its government agencies are actually doing. Old and new cases against organizations and individuals engaged with Cuba continue grinding forward, seemingly at odds with the administration’s laudable “new course on Cuba”.
OFAC vs. Albert A. Fox, Jr., President, Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation
While promoting engagement with and increased travel to and from Cuba, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is seeking to fine the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation and its founder and president, Albert J. Fox, Jr., $100,000 for allegedly violating the U.S. embargo on two separate trips to Cuba over five years ago. According to OFAC, Fox provided undefined “travel services” and participated in meetings with Cuban officials that were unauthorized by the U.S. government.
The first trip in question was in 2010. Fox travelled to Cuba with members of the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), who met with Cuban officials over potential cooperation and precautions in the case of any accidental oil spillage from Cuba’s offshore drilling, which could adversely affect the coast of Florida. This trip led to a 2014 accord signed by the United States, Cuba and other Caribbean nations to help protect our shores against a devastating environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
For the second trip, in 2011, the Alliance and Fox encouraged civic leaders from Tampa, Florida, to travel on the first direct flight from Tampa to Cuba in some 50 years. This trip—in which participated the former head of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, Steve Burton, and a former Tampa city commissioner, Mary Mulhern—promoted increased dialogue and cooperation between leaders in the Tampa Bay area and Cuba.
Fox is accused of being part of these trips and facilitating others’ participation. He is also charged with helping to arrange these trips, which is in conflict with the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and association.
Fox’s lawyer, Arthur Heitzer, asserts that Fox had OFAC licenses for both trips, used a licensed Travel Service Provider to book and pay for airfare and accommodations, and is being selectively prosecuted. No other case like this has been pursued by OFAC in the last ten years. In fact, Fox and others gave lists to OFAC of travel agencies in Florida which have for years openly provided travel services to Cuba without being licensed. The difference between those agencies and the Alliance is that the latter actively tried to change U.S. policies on Cuba and unabashedly criticized OFAC.
For these two very positive trips, totaling six days, OFAC is seeking $100,000—nearly $17,000 per day!
Despite President Obama’s forward-looking rhetoric, OFAC is trying to prosecute Fox and the Alliance for alleged technical violations that occurred more than five years ago, even though the purposes and effects of these trips were strongly in the United States’ national interest.
IRS vs. IFCO/Pastors for Peace
Another case in point is that of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace, an “interfaith organization to assist oppressed peoples in their fight for justice and self-determination.” IFCO/Pastors for Peace is being threatened with losing its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In a statement released earlier this month, IFCO/Pastors for Peace announced that, “[a]fter seven years of harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) has been informed it will be stripped of its tax exempt status for its humanitarian work in Cuba.”
Since 1992, IFCO/Pastors for Peace has been sending humanitarian aid to Cuba as a way of challenging the U.S. embargo. After collecting an assortment of donated items, IFCO/Pastors for Peace caravans the goods to the U.S.-Mexico border and then ships them to Cuba to be delivered to different organizations and churches. For years, the organization’s founder, Rev. Lucius Walker, was able to make this journey with limited trouble from the U.S. government, including the occasional attempt by authorities to withhold shipments in Mexico.
Yet, shortly after Obama’s announcement in 2014, the IRS threatened to take away IFCO/Pastors for Peace’s tax-exempt status, claiming they have been in violation of the “Trading with the Enemy Act.”
What is most curious about this claim is the timing. The IRS has been aware of Pastors for Peace’s actions for many years; yet it is at the time of the President’s announcement that the IRS decides to challenge the organization in this manner.
Since its founding, IFCO/Pastors for Peace has successfully transported over 4,000 tons of aid in the form of school supplies, medicines, and even buses. Gail Walker, executive director of the organization, claims that “inside the United States, a campaign still persists whose purpose is to undermine Cuba and its revolutionary principles,” which has led some people to argue that the IRS’ attack on IFCO/Pastors for Peace is largely political.
IFCO/Pastors for Peace says that OFAC had never prosecuted them for their work with Cuba. Rather, despite being out of its jurisdiction, it was the IRS that argued that the organization deserved to lose its non-profit status because of its work with Cuba. Now, in response to IFCO/Pastors for Peace’s appeals, the IRS has suddenly decided that the organization’s tax-exempt status should be revoked for allegedly keeping “poor records.”
Learn more about IFCO/Pastors for Peace, and sign a petition to the IRS and the U.S. Congress protesting the IRS’s actions, here.
Other targeted companies
A third example of the inconsistencies that plague the Obama Administration’s Cuba policy can be found in a recent statement from the Cuban Mission to the United Nations. The statement indicates that 49 companies have been fined by OFAC for allegedly violating the Cuban embargo.
Of these 49 businesses, eight—five American and three foreign—were fined after Obama’s 2014 announcement.
The actions of the IRS and OFAC are incongruous with the Obama Administration’s public stance on the U.S.’s thawing relations with Cuba, and contrast the words President Obama proclaimed in the speech he gave in Cuba in March:
I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas . . . I want the Cuban people—especially the young people—to understand why I believe that you should look to the future with hope; not the false promise which insists that things are better than they really are, or the blind optimism that says all your problems can go away tomorrow. Hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country . . . I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it . . . It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together—un futuro de esperanza.
The fact that the United States, the “leader of the free world,” is the only country that has such strenuous trials for travel to Cuba is nothing short of embarrassing. The administration’s prosecution of individuals, organizations and companies is shameful; any proceedings trying American citizens for exercising their right to travel freely have no place in the current U.S. political, economic, and social context. These sorts of actions completely contradict the President’s statement in Cuba that we should not dwell on our past differences but rather look to the future for new relationships.
Thus, we exhort the Obama Administration to consistently promote and implement its policy of engagement throughout all its departments and agencies.
Beatriz Garcia is LAWG’s fall 2016 Cuba intern.
Andrea Fernández Aponte is LAWG’s Cuba, Colombia, and Central America program assistant.
Mavis Anderson is LAWG’s Cuba senior associate.