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OK To Break The Law For Cuba Story?

By Andy Alexander

Is it okay to break the law for a story? That question was raised by a Fairfax Station reader who wondered about a Sunday Travel section feature co-authored by Post reporter Emma Brown.

She and a friend wrote about touring Cuba on bicycles. They freely acknowledged to readers that they had skirted the law. Despite some exceptions for journalists, researchers and those with family in Cuba, they wrote in a sidebar, “U.S. citizens and residents are generally prohibited from traveling to the island.”

“Americans can, however, travel there, as we did, by flying through a third country, such as Costa Rica, Mexico or Canada,” they wrote, “although you could face civil penalties or prosecution for doing so.”

That prompted the Fairfax Station reader to e-mail: “The merits of the travel ban are certainly debatable, but I find it irresponsible for the Post to have supported and printed an article describing violating U.S. law. What’s next, will the Post be supporting other budding journalists if the travel is to a future embargoed Iran, but excusable because it had cheap lodging and food?”

Joe Yonan, The Post’s Food and Travel editor, said that Brown had traveled to Cuba on her own and pitched the story idea upon her return.

“Obviously, Emma took a risk that she was comfortable with, and we disclosed that to our readers,” he explained by e-mail. “But the fact is, we are a Travel section, and I want our stories to transport readers to places they may never go, in addition to helping them get to the places they are inspired to actually visit.

“Ignoring Cuba altogether as a travel destination, when there are mass-market guidebooks published about it, would seem to reflect an unrealistic viewpoint about how and where some Americans actually travel. We could’ve refused Emma’s piece because she violated the travel ban, but we thought the strength of her tale made the piece viable.”

It is not uncommon for Americans to circumvent the restrictions and travel to Cuba for pleasure. Travel agents and advisers often have argued that the thrust of the government’s restriction is not on banning travel itself, but is intended to forbid spending U.S. dollars there that might support the repressive Castro regime. Some American travelers have gotten around that by pre-paying for their entire trip through tour operators in a third country.

Brown and her traveling companion, Jacob Fenston, decided not to apply for U.S. permission to travel as journalists. Prior to making their trip in May, she said, they were both freelance journalists and feared that not being affiliated with a publication (she subsequently joined The Post as an reporting intern) might doom their request. Journalists who legally enter Cuba as journalists often are assigned a government "minder" who monitors or restricts their travel. Similarly, they worried that they could not venture freely around the island if they joined a pre-packaged tour. Plus, Brown said, they were not certain they would end up writing about their adventure.

Brown acknowledges that she and Fenston broke the law by spending U.S. dollars while in Cuba.

The restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba may be nearing an end. Bloomberg news service reported Monday that a Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said legislation he is co-sponsoring will have enough votes to pass the House by the end of the year. He also predicted that the bill has enough votes to win Senate approval. However, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who sits on the Foreign relations Committee and is of Cuban descent, has vowed to oppose it.

By Andy Alexander  | September 22, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
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I think the ban on travel to Cuba, and most of the present regulations dealing with Cuba are absolutely absurd. They are also highly counter-productive if the U.S. really wants to bring about any change in Cuba. I sincerely hope those laws are changed, the sooner the better.

That said, I share the Fairfax Station reader's dismay that the Post published a story that describes how the writers broke the law, in sufficient detail that others can do the same, and at the same time acknowledged they were deliberately and knowingly doing something illegal. I am further dismayed that in the Ombudsman article, other Post staff give more details about how to break an existing law.

If the writers had a political or moral or ethical reason for breaking the law, I could understand that. But their reason was simply commercial.

Posted by: vklip | September 22, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

So, basically, if a reporter breaks the law in order to sell papers, it's OK.

I guess that was about the same "thinking" behind having the Post's publisher sell access via "salons". If it works for the bottom line, who cares what laws or ethical rules are broken.

You're digging your own grav, WaPo.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | September 22, 2009 11:06 PM | Report abuse

So the Post is encouraging people to break the law now? Great...

Posted by: subwayguy | September 23, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Civil Disobedience is a valuable tool in tearing down nonsensical (or at least unpopular) laws.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | September 23, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

We need to drop the travel ban on Cuba.

America is sounding like a grumpy old man who won't forgive the girl next door for marrying the Russian. Now her husband is dead and we still can't let bygones be bygones.

"Eat my shorts" indeed

If we really want to show little countries that we respect them, maybe we ought to vacate Guantanamo, as the Cubans don't want us there any more than the Iraqis or Afghans do.

We own all of Puerto Rico* for crying out loud, including Vieques. Why not take Vieques and call it eminent domain?

* which we acquired from the same country, Spain, in the same war, the Spanish-American war.

If we are still embargoing anything non-lethal like food, gasoline, or medicine, we should stop that too. Is Cuba even doing anything revolutionary these days? I suspect its Angola days are over. Maybe we can even trade technology, if Canada and Europe do.

But America has its wounded pride, Cuba turned its back on America, and besides, it's Communist...

Maybe we ought to listen to Cuba. They seem to be handling a post-petroleum economy better than we would. They can teach us plenty for when peak oil hits.

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Drop the travel ban so when I go abroad for the first time, I can make it Cuba.

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

As for whether U.S. reporters should break the law, I'm really not sure. Isn't it easy enough for a Canadian reporter to go in instead?

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Shouldn't you be writing about how ACORN doesn't get enough coverage.

Posted by: rodneythecat | September 23, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Ends justify the means, etc.

Posted by: craigjjs | September 24, 2009 5:43 AM | Report abuse

I have no problem whatsoever with what the Post did. So they publicized Cuba for commercial reasons, rather than ideological -- so what? If Americans are going, and if it's perfectly legal for the Post's foreign readership to go, then have at it. Having such a robust exchange of ideas is precisely what makes this country strong and precisely what makes things like the Cuba embargo so insanely offensive.

Posted by: simpleton1 | September 24, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

What is it with the justify center layout?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | September 24, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

50 years of embargo and travel ban have done nothing but give the Castro brothers an excuse for all economic ills and convey a hostile impression of the US against ordinary people, who don't have US relatives to send them goodies.

Why do we ban travel to Cuba, but not China, Saudi Arabia, or other autocracies?

Because Cuban-Americans tilt election results in Florida, and they are terrified that others will cut deals on tourism and real estate sites, without them getting a preferred bid. Once Raul is gone and Fidel's body is finnaly buried, Cuban Americans may find a partner in Havana with whom they can grease a cushy deal, upon which they will endorse normalization, perhaps by around 2015. Meanwhile, the embargo is their principal bargaining chip, so they can't let it go.

Posted by: jkoch2 | September 24, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

The WaPo spokeman's defense is downright stupid.

There are ways to fight a stupid law -- which I strongly believe the travel ban one to be -- before deciding simply to flout it.

After all, we're not talking a Rosa Parks moment here, a situation in which Ms. Parks had absolutely no recourse to combat an unjust law *than* to violate.

And let's look at the reporter's reasons for not trying to comply with the law.

1, Might get turned down because she wzas a free-lace jounalist. Well, yes, maybe. But maybe not. And she *still* good have gone to a third country to go to Cuba.

2. Besides, if she *did* get U.S. permission, she might (probably) have been assigned a minder. Well, that's not the fault of the U.S. law. Besides, reporters have sometimes accomplsihed some pretty amazing journalistic feats, never mind the minders. Think about the great coverage a number of reporters were able to give of the run-up to the Tiananmen Square massacre -- and you can sure bet they had minders by the droves. I'm not a reporter, but I've lived and worked in Beijing, and even as a teacher, *I* had minders.

3. If she went with a tour group, she couldn't set her own agenda. Well, poor little thing. Tours by their very nature take a presumably like-minded group of folks to destinations likely of common interest.

In short, she flat didn't want to be bound by U.S. law, Cuban law (the minder requirement), or the constraints of a tour group.

And WaPo backed her, if after the fact. Hardly a call for a celebration of journalistic piety and self-awarding of halos.

What really galls me is were I, a nobody with no one behind me, to go to Cumba as she did, then sell a story to someone who publicized my illegal trip, I have little doubt the authorities would be paying me a visit post-haste. Handcuffs at the ready.

BTW, for anyone at WaPo reading this, in general I *like* the paper. So I'm not some demon seeking to rain destruction upon you.

As I said, I think the travel ban (and the other restrictions) is stupid. But it appears there's a better-than-decent chance the Congress will at least considerably lessen, maybe even eliminate, all that stuff. And I'd lay odds President Obama would sign it.

And I do believe that wold be good public policy. Look at how much China and Vietnam have changed, largely for the better, since we stepped through their "Bamboo Curtains." What do we call what we threw up around Cuba? The "Sugarcane Curtain???" :-)

Posted by: MekhongKurt1 | September 28, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

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