The State Department has given a group of South Dakota college basketaball players permission to travel to Cuba in an apparent signal of the Carter administration's willingness to increase exchanges with Cuba.
In response to are request by Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.), the State Department waived the 16-year-old travel restrictions to permit a chartered plane to fly the group from Sioux Falls to Havana.
The travel restrictions come up for review every March 15 and Sept. 15. This time officials are actively considering the possibility of allowing the restrictions to expire, but no decision has been made, sources said.
"We were at the stage for this sort of thing before Angola," one official said of the basketball visit. The intervention of Cuban troops in Angola brought an end in early 1976 to the gradual improvement in Cuban-American relations of 1975.
Asked about the meaning of the basketball trip, and administration source said: "This wouldn't have happened under the last administration."
If the five players from the University of South Dakota at Vermillion and five from South Dakota State at Brookings make the trip late this month or in early April as expected, they will be the first U.S. sports team to compete with Cubans outside the framework of an international competition.
An aide to Abourezk said that a few people from the senator's staff would accompany the players and that other seats on the large plane would be sold to interested South Dakotans.
A second sizable group organized by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce has applied for a similar charter flight at about the same time.
Kirby Jones, a consultant to companies that want to prepare for the future time when the U.S. trade embargo will be lifted, said the Minnesota group would be the largest he has taken to Cuba if its plans are approved.
The chamber of commerce hopes to include representatives of about 50 Minnesota companies in its group, Jones said.
Jones took his first U.S. company representative to Havana in October 1975, and has taken 14 others since then. He is the only American consultant working in the U.S. Cuba trade field, he said.
Cuba first expressed interest in talking with officials of companies dealing in medicines and foodstuffs, Jones said, but subsequently has talked with aircraft officials, shipping agents, fertilizer manufacturers and business representatives dealing in minerals and metals.
The travel restrictions forbid use of U.S. passport that is not specially validated for Cuban travel, not the travel itself. Therefore, Jones and his clients have gone in the out of Cuba without using their passports, he said.
They avoid violating U.S. Treasury bans in engaging in any business transaction in Cuba, even paying a hotel bill, by having the Cuban government pay all their expenses on the island.
Since 1974, foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies have been allowed to trade with Cuba and, taken as a group, have become Cuba't third largest trading partner after the Soviet Union and Japan, Jones said.
More than $300 million worth of such goods has been sold to Cuba in just under three years, according to official estimates.
Jones said that since the Carter administration took office there has been a significant increase of U.S. business interest in preparing to trade with Cuba.