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The Rev. James Somerville saw the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba while ambling down Havana streets filled with 1950s American cars and ancient bicycles patched together with homemade parts. Behind the crumbling, peeling fa�ades of Spanish colonial buildings, Cubans survive on poverty wages and government rations of black beans and rice. Somerville, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., avoided discussing politics when he and two church members visited a sister church in Cuba last year. Nevertheless, the pastor now finds himself mired in the isolationist politics of U.S.-Cuba relations, which haven’t improved despite the serious illness of Cuban President Fidel Castro and the July 31 temporary transfer of power to his brother, Raul. The Treasury Department has accused First Baptist Church of being one of five Baptist churches that engaged in prohibited tourist activity during trips to Cuba that were authorized under the religious travel license of the Alliance of Baptists, the Washington-based national denominational body of the churches. The alliance, which had its travel license suspended last year, is now appealing the “pre-penalty notice” of a $34,000 fine from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the Treasury branch that oversees the Cuba sanctions program. The case is part of a larger clampdown by OFAC on religious-based travel to Cuba by national church organizations under restrictions that have been questioned by more than 100 members of Congress. “I think it’s a clear-cut violation of the free exercise of religion,” says the Rev. Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists. “I think church bodies ought to be able to associate with other church bodies anywhere.” HAVANA BOUND In March 2005, Somerville and two First Baptist members visited their sister church in Havana, the William Carey Baptist Church. The group also traveled to a mission church in Guanimar, a ramshackle fishing village on the southern coast of Cuba that was damaged by a hurricane. Though the group has been accused of engaging in tourist activity, Somerville says he preached five times during the weeklong visit, “which is way more than I work while in Washington.” On the recommendation of the pastor of the Cuban church, the group visited an art museum and the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. The Treasury Department hasn’t explained what specific activities were tourist-oriented, but Somerville says an afternoon spent touring museums and parks in Havana was the group’s only alleged tourist activity.
The rules for traveling to Cuba for U.S. citizens and permanent residents wherever they are located
General licenses to travel to Cuba can be granted to the following travelers, and they are permitted to spend money for Cuban travel and to engage in other transactions directly related to the purpose of travel: • Journalists and supporting broadcasting or technical personnel (regularly employed in that capacity by a news-reporting organization and traveling for journalistic activities).• Official government travelers on official business, members of international organizations of which the United States is also a member.• Full-time professionals whose travel transactions are directly related to research in their professional areas, provided that their research is of a noncommercial, academic nature, comprises a full work schedule in Cuba, and has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.• Full-time professionals whose travel transactions are directly related to attendance at professional meetings or conferences in Cuba organized by an international professional organization, institution, or association that regularly sponsors such meetings or conferences in other countries. An organization, institution, or association headquartered in the United States may not sponsor such a meeting or conference unless it has been specifically licensed to sponsor it. The purpose of the meeting or conference cannot be the promotion of tourism in Cuba or other commercial activities involving Cuba or to foster production of any biotechnological products.• Those with immediate family members in Cuba can visit once every three years for no more than 14 days.• Licenses can be granted, on a case-by-case basis, for humanitarian projects and support for the Cuban people; freelance journalism; professional research and professional meetings; persons traveling to Cuba to engage in religious activities that are not authorized pursuant to a religious organization’s specific license; public performances, athletic or other competitions, and exhibitions; activities of private foundations for research or educational institutions for noncommercial purposes.
Source: U.S. Department of State

“Visiting an art museum may not seem to be in line with religious activities, but it is something that helps us to know more about the culture of the Cuban people,” Somerville says. He believes the notice of the potential $34,000 fine is political retaliation against Hastey and the Alliance of Baptists for their outspoken opposition to the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions imposed against Cuba. Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise says the department does not discuss individual fines, but she says the regulations are enforced in an evenhanded manner. The Treasury and State departments decided last year to tighten the travel restrictions for national church organizations because some groups were engaging in trips that included tourist activities, Millerwise says. The more restrictive travel licenses now issued to national church groups permit up to four trips to Cuba per year, with a maximum of 25 people on each trip. But individual churches can still apply for licenses without those restrictions, and First Baptist Church received its own license last month even though it is still part of the tourist-violation case against the Alliance of Baptists. “It seems ironic to me that at the same time we are being censured for our tourist activity in Cuba, some other division of the Treasury Department said, �Travel in Cuba as much as you like,’ ” Somerville says. QUESTIONS FROM CONGRESS In March, 105 members of Congress signed a letter to then-Treasury Secretary John Snow questioning the reasoning for OFAC’s tighter restrictions on national church bodies. “We believe it is inappropriate and unacceptable for politics and government to serve as a hurdle and now as a barrier to faith-based connections between individuals,” the letter stated. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who took the lead on sending the letter, still hasn’t received a response from Treasury, says Michael Mershon, McGovern’s press secretary. McGovern believes the travel restrictions “are a further continuation of a lousy policy and making a lousy policy even worse,” Mershon says. On Aug. 30 the Alliance of Baptists filed its appeal with OFAC along with affidavits denying any wrongdoing by the five churches accused of tourist activity. If the $34,000 fine is upheld, the alliance will have to decide whether to request an evidentiary hearing before an administrative judge. If the alliance also loses that hearing, then it would have to decide whether to file suit. Hastey concedes the alliance has “a hard case to make” if it decides to sue Treasury on First Amendment grounds. Hastey says church-state legal experts have told him such a lawsuit would pit the First Amendment against the broad powers given to the president to establish foreign policy under Article II of the Constitution. If the Treasury Department is enforcing the religious travel restrictions uniformly against all church denominations and religions, then the Alliance of Baptists doesn’t have a First Amendment claim, says Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, an expert on separation-of-church-and-state issues. The alliance, which has a $375,000 annual budget, has only 117 member churches, but 25 of them have sister churches in Cuba. Hastey says both the Democrats and Republicans have pursued a counterproductive isolationist policy against Cuba because they want to win the votes of anti-Castro Cuban Americans living in Florida. Hastey has no proof the Treasury Department is targeting the alliance for its opposition to foreign policy toward Cuba, but he is suspicious because the alliance is the only mainstream national church body facing a possible fine. “Why would they take on one of the smallest licensees, but one which has been noticeably outspoken?” Hastey asks. “You take the chance that you’re going to incur the wrath of the government, and we’re willing to do that.”

Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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