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Judge to hear academic travel suit.

A federal judge in Washington will soon decide whether to allow a case to move forward against the Bush administration over its policy of restricting academic travel to Cuba.

In June 2004, the White House imposed tough restrictions on such travel, reversing a policy to encourage the exchanges fostered by the Clinton administration. Academic travel was restricted to college students enrolled in a degree program and full-time employees of a college or university.

In addition, travel to Cuba could only be for three purposes: to attend a structured program offered as part of a course in a Cuban school, to take formal courses at a Cuban institution or to teach at a Cuban school. The specific program must last at least 10 weeks.

The Bush administration also reversed Clinton's decision to give institutions two-year licenses to travel to Cuba. Now institutions that qualify for the licenses must apply for them every year.

The restrictions prompted a lawsuit last summer against the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which polices the embargo and grants travel licenses to certain categories of Americans. These include journalists, athletes and other classes of people as well as academics.

But most Americans don't fit into any of those categories and are prohibited from spending money on travel to Cuba.

The lawsuit against OFAC was filed by Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat who once headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He now runs a Cuban exchange program at Johns Hopkins University, whose students say the policy change has harmed their ability to finish course work.

U.S. District Court Judge Ellen S. Huvelle is expected to soon rule on Treasury's request that the case be dismissed.

One argument made by the academics and students is that the Bush administration does not have authority to make changes in U.S. travel policy regarding Cuba.

They say a series of acts of Congress codified the embargo, so that any changes require congressional action. They also argue the travel policy is unconstitutional.

"[OFAC's] actions violated plaintiff's First and Fifth Amendment rights to travel abroad in exercise of academic freedom and they did so egregiously," the suit claimed.

But in its filings, OFAC maintains that the academics and students who brought the suit have not been harmed by the new restrictions and have no basis to sue.

It says the Bush administration changed Clinton's "people-to-people" policy--which aimed to foster greater contacts between Americans and Cubans--because a report by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba "emphasized the extreme importance of tourism revenues to the Castro regime."

The commission was a panel appointed by the Bush White House to suggest changes to U.S.-Cuba policy.

The report also said academic travel was often thinly disguised tourism, claiming that academic travel allowed the Castro regime to "use the visits by U.S. education groups to cultivate the appearance of international legitimacy and openness to exchange of ideas."

It's very difficult to win a lawsuit against he federal government. But, if it's not dismissed this summer by Huvelle, the case may eventually be overtaken by events.

A growing number of lawmakers are championing legislation that would end all travel restrictions--or at least make it impossible for Treasury Department to enforce.
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Title Annotation:Wayne Smith v. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control
Author:Radelat, Ana
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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