Bush administration showing willingness to enforce law on visiting Cuba
Few of the tens of thousands of Americans who every year break the law by visiting Cuba ever hear a peep from the federal government, whose prosecution of a Treasury Department prohibition against spending tourist dollars there is scattershot at best.
But according to administration officials, lawyers and travel agents who arrange trips to Cuba, examples of that ban being enforced have multiplied this year and could become more prevalent in the wake of an announced crackdown by President Bush several weeks ago.
"We've observed a marked increase, over the last five or six months, in the number of phones calls and inquiries we get," said Nancy Chang, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in Manhattan, which does legal advocacy work for Americans facing fines for going to Cuba.
These travelers usually call the center after receiving letters from the Treasury Department threatening them with penalties, typically about $7500. About a month ago, when the number of cases that the center was working on reached 400, it stopped accepting more.
Figures from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the arm of the Treasury Department that enforces the restriction, show that the number of letters sent to Americans it suspects of violating the ban has been rising markedly. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, OFAC sent 188 letters, according to Tasia Scolinos, a spokeswoman for the agency. Between May 4 and July 18 this year, she said, it sent 443 letters.
That sill represents a fraction of the Americans who violate the restriction. Although the United States government has no estimates for how many Americans visit Cuba illegally, an analysis of figures from the Cuban government suggests that perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 did so last year.
Cuban soil is not actually off-limits to Americans. But the Treasury Department forbids United States citizens to spend money there without authorization, effectively barring tourist travel. Even prepaid tours booked in another country are illegal without authorization. On paper, although not in practice, a violation can lead to a fine of up to $55,000. Theoretically, violations could also face criminal prosectution and a fine of up to $250,00 and 10 years in prison.
The Treasury Department permits Americans to spend money in Cuba if they are traveling there for such reason as academic excursions, cultural exchange, religious missions, journalistic ventures and visits to relatives. In all but those last two cases, a license authorizing the trip is required.
And tour operators have become more savvy about -- more successful at -- sending groups under these auspices. Such travelers can fly directly to Cuba from the United States on charters from New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
But a greater number of tourists go without authorization, traveling through the Bahamas, Canada, or Mexico. Cuban authorities do not stamp these traveler's passports, making it difficult for American officials to determine if an American has been to Cuba.
One way that American officials catch offenders is by watching for tourists who arrive in the Bahamas or Canada on flights from Cuba and then proceed directly to a connecting flight to the United States. A Brooklyn woman who was recently threatened with a fine said that she was caught that way. The woman, who insisted on anonymity, said that a United States Customs agent in Montreal had stopped her, said he knew she had been to Cuba and took down her name and address.
Weeks later, she got a letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control requesting information about how much money she had spent in Cuba, which is usually the prelude to a fine. The Center for Constitutional Rights is handling her case.
Ms. Chang said that although OFAC typically assesses travelers with $7,500, it often accepts a payment of between $700 and $2,500. Travelers can try to avoid paying a fine by exercising their right to request a hearing; lawyers and Cuba experts said that the agency, short on personnel, had not actually held such a hearing in 10 years.
But administration officials said that that could change. When President Bush announced his crackdown, which critics attribute to his desire for good political relations with Cuban-American leaders in southern Florida, he said he would devote more resources to enforcement of the ban.
Even so, some lawyers and other experts said that Americans traveling to Cuba without authorization would still probably be playing a game of odds that was decidedly in their favor.
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