State ACLU joins suit on Cuba travel
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | May 24,2008
MONTPELIER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has entered the legal fray between a group of Cuban-Americans in the state and the federal government over tighter travel restrictions to the Caribbean country.
In a friend-of-the-court legal briefing filed late last week, Vermont's ACLU chapter argues that the 2004 order by President Bush further limiting when Cuban-Americans can travel back to the country violates the U.S. Constitution.
Vermont civil liberty advocates were joined by ACLU chapters from Massachusetts and Florida — where most of the country's Cuban-American population lives — and the Center for Constitutional Rights in the legal brief, which they say is the first of its kind challenging the new travel restrictions.
"This is an important issue, not just for the plaintiffs here in Vermont, but for all the Cuban-Americans in the country whose travels to see family members have been hampered by these new restrictions," explained Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the ACLU-VT.
Four Vermonters, including three who were born in Cuba, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in Burlington's U.S. District Court in March making the argument that the new travel restrictions are unconstitutional.
Trade and travel restrictions by the United States government against Cuba date back to 1961 and the early days of Fidel Castro's communist regime. Most Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba, although Cuban-Americans were allowed to visit the country once a year to see family members.
That changed in 2004 when Bush passed an executive order limiting those visits to once every three years. The order also reduced the definition of family members to now exclude aunts, uncles and cousins — making it more difficult for relatives in the U.S. to visit relatives in Cuba.
That caused serious problems for Jared Carter, a Montpelier resident and a student at Vermont Law School, and his wife, Yurisledis Levya Mora, a Cuban citizen and legal U.S. resident. The two wanted to visit her family in Cuba this summer to celebrate the anniversary of their marriage.
"We were denied because she had emigrated here less than three years ago," said Carter, who filed the suit against the federal government. "My wife wanted to visit again with her elderly grandparents."
The ACLU's legal brief filed in the case aims straight for that issue, making the argument that the federal government has no right to keep families separated. Specifically, the organization argues that the travel restrictions "violate the fundamental constitutional right to maintain family relationships …"
"This case raises issues of fundamental importance to our society – the right to maintain close family ties without government interference except when adequately justified by compelling government interests, and the right to equal treatment under the law," the court document reads. "The challenged regulations are not narrowly tailored to justify the inhumane separation of families permanently or for unbearably long periods of time or at times of family emergency."
Carter said their case is bolstered by the backing from several arms of the ACLU and other civil liberties groups.
"Obviously I think the case law speaks for itself, but we are really pleased that these organizations are supporting us on this," he said.
One of the plaintiffs in the case has an interesting connection to Vermont state government, which has developed an agricultural trade relationship with Cuba over the last several years.
Armando Vilaseca is a U.S. citizen who came here from Cuba with his mother and father in 1963. He's now the superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union in Vermont and acted as a translator and tour guide for two of Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie's trade visits to the country during recent years.
Vilaseca wants to visit Cuba again to visit a terminally ill aunt, according to court filings in the case.
"Armando really personifies the American dream," Dubie said Friday afternoon. "He came here with his family, went to the University of Vermont to become a teacher and went on to become a principal and superintendent."
Dubie recalled Vilaseca negotiating with his father, who lives in Florida, over the first visit to Cuba with the Vermont delegation. Vilaseca's father has strong memories still of living under the regime of Castro, Dubie said, but gave his son the blessing to travel there again once he learned of the mission of the trip.
When asked about the lawsuit, Dubie said allowing for connections between United States citizens and Cubans — whether in the form of trade, sports competitions or family connections — benefits both countries.
"There are lots of things we can teach Cuba," Dubie said. "And there are some things we can learn from them as well."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees travel to Cuba and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case Friday as part of the department's policy of not talking about pending legal matters.
Questions concerning the new travel restrictions were referred to a document released in 2004 by the Commission for Assistance of a Free Cuba, on which Bush's executive order was based.
That document, available at www.cafc.gov, explains that the new travel restrictions were put in place to "reduce the regime's manipulation of family visits to generate hard currency …" A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for the Burlington court on Wednesday, May 28 at 1:30 p.m.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com.