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Pat-downs for Nigerians, Pakistanis ... and Cubans

Cuba is hardly a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism. So why the extra TSA security checks?

Staff at the U.S. Transporation Security Administration (TSA) Systems Integration Facility, one playing the role of a airline passenger demonstrate the use of Millimeter Wave technology for passenger security screening in Washington, Dec. 30, 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — Travelers from this island making the 90-mile trip to the United States already face a gauntlet of roadblocks.

First there are the bureaucratic hurdles — a visa from the U.S. government, and permission to travel from Cuban authorities. Then there is the cost of the 45-minute flight to Miami, which, at more than $500, can feel like a galling rip-off. Hefty baggage fees further gouge Cuban wallets.

And now, as a result of new Transportation Security Administration screening policies adopted in the wake of a failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day, Cuban travelers will face pat-downs, body scans and other inspections otherwise reserved for citizens of nations whose cultural devotions do not include salsa dancing and rum drinks.

Because the U.S. State Department has designated Cuba’s communist government as a “state sponsor of terror,” Cuban travelers will be pulled aside for extra security checks under the TSA policy. Travelers from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen will also be subject to the added screening measures.

“No one in this country is capable of terrorism like that,” said Maria del Carmen Rodriguez, referring to a 23-year-old Nigerian man’s alleged attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Dec. 25 with explosives tucked in his underwear.

“It makes me sad that we’ll be treated differently,” she said, while waiting to board a Miami flight from Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

But it wasn’t clear if and when travelers like Rodriguez might face the added scrutiny. Security measures at the Havana airport had not changed as of Jan. 5, despite the new TSA regulations for all U.S.-bound flights, according to one Cuban airport official.

“We comply with ICAO [United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization] regulations and will continue to do so,” the official said. “If [U.S. officials] want us to change our screening procedures, they’ll have to come down here and discuss that with us.”

While Cubans have been known to occasionally use their undergarments to sneak potent cigars into the United States, the island is hardly a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism. Cuba has no mosques, no Al Qaeda presence (outside the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo) and a vast state security apparatus guards against any perceived threat. Young people who want to leave the island often dream of marrying Americans, not blowing them up.

Cuba’s state-controlled media promptly denounced the new measures as “anti-terrorist paranoia,” as Cuban officials protested in Washington.

“Cuban territory has never been used to organize, finance or carry out an act of terrorism against the United States or any other country,” said Cuban government spokesman Alberto Gonzalez, who challenged U.S. authorities to “cite a single terrorist act or attempted act that originated on Cuban soil.”

Cuba has also lodged a formal complaint with the U.S.'s top diplomat in Havana.