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

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.

Cuba was placed on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list in 1982, and the list’s other occupants now include Iran, Syria and Sudan. The four nations are banned from receiving foreign assistance from the U.S., and are subject to financial and trade sanctions, among other penalties. They also cannot receive “dual-use” U.S. technology that could be used for military purposes.

In recent years, some U.S. lawmakers have pushed to have Cuba removed from the list, arguing that the island represents no threat to American citizens. But according to the State Department, Cuba remains on it for several reasons, including a lack of cooperation in global U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

“Although Cuba signed and ratified all 12 international counterterrorism conventions in 2001, it has remained opposed to the U.S.-led Coalition prosecuting the war on global terrorism and has been actively critical of many associated U.S. policies and actions,” a statement on the State Department web site reads.

Cuba also hosts several militants from the Basque separatist group ETA, and a number of former guerrilla fighters from the Colombian rebel groups FARC and ELN, the site says.

But critics point out that many of the ETA militants reside in Cuba as the result of an agreement with the Spanish government, and the Colombian government has asked Cuba to be a mediator in its negotiations with guerrilla forces. None of the groups purport to attack Americans in the United States.

The State Department also cites the presence of U.S. fugitives residing on the island, including several Puerto Rican separatists and black nationalists who fled to Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s and have remained there since. Castro opponents in Congress also note Cuba’s diplomatic ties with Iran, which has recently expanded relations with countries in the hemisphere including Venezuela and Brazil.

Cuban authorities see hypocrisy in the American terror claims, pointing to anti-Castro militants living in the United States who are wanted on the island for alleged terrorist acts. Among them is Luis Posada Carriles, who was imprisoned in Venezuela for blowing up a Cubana airlines flight in 1976, killing all 73 passengers abroad.

Posada later escaped from prison, and now lives in Miami, where lawyers have fought his extradition to Venezuela.

Not all of the travelers at Havana’s International Airport objected to the new TSA procedures, though. “I think any security measure is a good thing,” said Luis, waiting to board a flight to Miami with his family. “I don’t mind the inconvenience, if it’ll make us safer.”