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Our Kids in Havana

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Many Americans worry these days about the state of the economy. Some are concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still others fret about environmental matters.

But this is a big country, with enough important problems for just about everyone to ponder. Take this July 8 e-mail from the office of Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

"As Members of the Cuba Democracy Caucus," the message to various Hill aides said, "your bosses are cordially invited to a meeting with officials from the State Department and Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Officials from State and Treasury will include Bisa Williams, Coordinator for State's Office of Cuban Affairs, and Barbara Hammerle, OFAC Deputy Director. The meeting is at 10:15 AM this Thursday, July 10 in 2244 Rayburn HOB. However, we may need to move to a larger room depending on expected attendance. I will keep you posted of any room changes."

What's the trouble? "This meeting was scheduled at the request of Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart," the invite said, "to discuss the very troubling granting of a Treasury/OFAC license to a little league team to travel to Cuba in August. I have included links to two newspaper articles that provide details on the issue."

The press reports were about a planned trip by an all-star team of 11- and 12-year-olds from eastern Vermont and western New Hampshire to Havana next week to play several games with Cuban counterparts. Unclear what happened at the meeting, but, as of yesterday, representatives of the 14 kids and their coaches said they had their license.

We asked several caucus members for comment but got no response. We asked the Treasury Department if the license was still valid.

"All licenses are protected by the Trade Secrets Act," a spokesman said, "so I can't comment on that. Treasury can't confirm or deny."

The 10-day trip, which starts Aug. 8, is not sanctioned by Little League International in Williamsport, Pa. "I called them up for advice and they wouldn't even talk to me," Ted Levin, one of the coaches, told a Vermont newspaper, the Rutland Herald. Levin said it took him 20 months and three rejections before OFAC approved the trip in April.

(Under the increasingly effective 46-year-old embargo, travel licenses for U.S. citizens wanting to go to Cuba are strictly limited to educational and professional research, religious activities, and such. U.S. citizens are not to spend money there that would help the Cuban economy. The team is staying in a Havana convent.)

One reason for Treasury's decision may be the strong bipartisan support that the team, according to its Web site, had from some of the two states' top politicians -- Vermont Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R); U.S. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and John E. Sununu (R-N.H.); and U.S. Reps. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Trip opponents might note, correctly, that there's absolutely nothing in this for the United States. For example, if there's a reciprocal trip here by the Cubans, the players would be too young for baseball scouts to properly assess. Now, if they were high-schoolers, the Nats would like to pick up a long-ball hitter, a couple of starters, a middle reliever, a closer . . .

Smokey Bear Hats Are Fine

Speaking of important things . . .

Since its founding in 1849, the Interior Department has been entrusted with many tasks, including overseeing national lands, offshore mineral rights, Native American lands, parks and forests, reclamation of mining land, and management of island territories in the Pacific.

And, with varying degrees of success, it has done all those things, even though it has never, ever had a dress code to guide its 80,000 employees in determining appropriate attire. There was no place employees could go to see, for example, whether white slacks could be worn after Labor Day (the answer is no) or whether golf plaid would be appropriate for staff meetings (hey, go for it!).

As the brutal Washington summer approached, agency officials began working on the traditional summer dress memo, which usually called for comfortable, casual dress, generally what's worn on Fridays only.

But "upon further investigation," Deputy Assistant Secretary Paul Hoffman said in a July 15 e-mail to all employees, "it has been determined that the department did not have a dress code policy or a business casual policy for Fridays. "Personnel Bulletin #8-11 supersedes all previous Summer Dress Code Memorandums," Hoffman advised, "and eliminates the need for future summer business casual dress policy referendums."

The policy is broad, in keeping with the department's generally laid-back dress habits. Just keep it "neat, clean, and in good condition," Hoffman wrote, and "not provocative or offensive."

Blue jeans? "Yes, as long as the blue jeans or blue denim clothing meet all the criteria articulated in the dress code policy," Hoffman wrote. Tank tops? Flip-flops? Shorts? Better check with your supervisor.

Some folks may scoff at this new policy, but it could improve Interior's efficiency. Who knows? Maybe they'll finally figure out how to manage those Indian tribal lands.

Another America Beckons

No August travel plans yet? Really? Looking for a relaxing, free meet-and-greet swing through Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela? Got just the thing.

"I hope you can join me on August 6-12, for a six-day Congressional Delegation (CODEL) to Uruguay, Colombia, and Venezuela," Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said in our late-notice e-mail invitation yesterday. "As you know, there have been many developments in this region of the world recently, all of which have important relevance to our work as members of the Foreign Affairs Committee."

You betcha. So the trip to Uruguay "will include meetings with legislators, Afro-Latino representatives from civil society, and meetings with the business community," Meeks said. "In addition, members will have the opportunity to participate in the Council of the Americas Latin American Cities Conference: Uruguay: Regional Opportunities in a Changing Global Scenario."

And in Colombia and Venezuela? The trip "will similarly include meetings with legislators and Afro-Latino representatives from civil society, and meetings with the business community. In addition, we are working to arrange meetings with President Uribe in Colombia and President Chavez while in Venezuela."

If not, you'll probably have to do some touring, shopping, hanging by the pool. Don't worry. Meeks is a skilled traveler. You won't be bored.

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