NYC
05/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

FBI Questions American Travelers To Cuba

At least 10 Americans who recently traveled to Cuba through cultural exchange programs have been questioned by FBI agents, either at home or over the phone, lawyers for the groups tell Huffington Post.

Most of those who claim they were questioned traveled to Cuba through the Venceremos Brigade, a group which sends up to 100 people to Cuba each year to participate in exchange programs, perform volunteer work and meet Cuban artists.

Several of the travelers were visited at home by agents, who inquired about their trip to the island nation, which is subject to a decades-long embargo by the U.S. government.

Americans are prohibited by U.S. law from spending money in Cuba and violators who are caught usually get a stern letter from the Treasury Department's Office Of Foreign Assets Control, warning them of penalties, which are rarely assessed. But FBI involvement is even more rare, prompting questions about the purpose of the visits. Both countries have accused each other of spying and have occasionally arrested their own citizens. Last year, Kendall Myers, a retired State Department official, and his wife Gwendolyn were arrested and charged with passing U.S. secrets to Cuban agents.

Groups advocating for greater openness with Cuba expressed surprise and disappointment at the FBI involvement, considering that the Obama administration has eased restrictions by allowing travel by relatives of Cubans and decriminalizing Web contact.

In one case, a traveler living in the NYC area was questioned by two agents. "They produced photographs, taken off the Internet and asked them, "Do you recognize this person?" said Center for Constitutional Rights lawyer Anjana Samant, who said she is planning to file a freedom of information act request with the Justice Department to learn more about the rationale for the bureau's interest in recent visitors to Cuba.

In another case, an FBI agent informed the person they were questioning that the agents are part of a special task force, says Michael Tarif Warren, an attorney for the Venceremos Brigade, who speculated that the agents may be operating under a new directive from the Justice Department.

A spokesman for the FBI declined comment.

According to Warren, at least six people in the New York City area have been contacted by FBI agents. When the travelers refused to answer questions, the agents left their cards without explaining the purpose of the questions or indicating whether there would be more visits, says Warren. Other recent visitors who have been questioned live in the Washington, D.C. area and in Minneapolis, says Samant.

The involvement of the FBI surprised CCR President Michael Ratner, who used to represent members of the Venceremos Brigade. He said that such visits were most prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s and dropped off during the 1990s and at the end of the Bush administration. "Every once in a while, I'd be told about a visit to the home or sometimes their workplace, which was horrifying for them, and they'd be asked, 'What did you see?' and 'Who did you talk to?'"

Ratner said that none of those questioned were ever arrested and that he advised travelers not to talk to the agents: "Talking to the FBI is like eating potato chips -- once you start, you won't stop."