U.S. cracks down on illicit trips to Cuba
By David Adams
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2001
When a group of U.S. sports fishermen recently broke the law by casting their lines in Cuba, they never expected to get in trouble for it.
But federal officials were waiting for them in Canada when they stepped off a plane from Havana. Each member of the group later received a shock in the mail -- letters from the U.S. Treasury Department threatening each with a $7,500 fine.
Unlucky as it might seem, the fishermen, whose case is pending, were just one example of a new trend in the 38-year-old embargo against Cuba. Lawyers and civil rights groups say hundreds of Americans, from scuba divers to cigar aficionados, are being slapped with fines as the Bush administration clamps down on violations of the so-called "Cuba travel ban."
Ironically, stricter enforcement of the ban comes just when Congress is for the first time seriously considering lifting it. The House of Representatives last month passed an amendment stripping funding for its enforcement. A similar amendment is expected to be introduced in the Senate next month.
Under the 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act, U.S. travel to Cuba is sharply restricted, although certain categories such as business executives, journalists, religious activists and others may visit the island with a Treasury Department license.
Civil rights groups and left-wing activists have challenged the ban on constitutional grounds, but to no avail. A Supreme Court ruling in the mid-1980s narrowly found in favor of the Reagan administration, holding that national security outweighed Americans' freedom to travel.
Even so, a small trickle of curious Americans discreetly defied the law without much consequence. Embargo enforcement was fitful at best. Officials occasionally targeted the more blatant offenders, such as the Texan who bragged of his repeated trips and the cigar dealer who sold illegal Cuban stogies to one of New York's top restaurants.
But times have changed, both in terms of travel and politics.
After decades in the doldrums, Cuba's tourism industry is booming. Word is fast spreading of the island's forbidden attractions, and the numbers of illicit American visitors is growing.
"They want to see Cuba while it's still communist and before there's a McDonald's on the Malecon (Havana's sweeping seafront)," said Pamela Falk, a New York law professor and expert on Cuba travel issues.
Meanwhile, a new administration in the White House with close ties of political loyalty to Miami's Cuban-American exile community, appears to be taking a sterner view of the law-breaking American tourists.
"The increase in American public interest has paralleled the increase in enforcement," Falk said.
From May 4 to July 30, the U.S. Treasury Department office that monitors embargo violations sent out 443 letters to suspected illicit travelers. That was a dramatic increase from the 74 letters mailed in the previous four months.
The letter takes the form of a detailed questionnaire, asking for an explanation of the purpose of the visit, places visited and the amount of money spent. They have 20 days to reply.
In the past, lawyers advised people receiving such notices to negotiate payment with the Treasury Department, or else demand an administrative hearing to contest the fine. The Treasury Department was usually happy to negotiate much lower fines; just a few hundred dollars in some cases.
Also, because of a lack of judges assigned to embargo issues, hearings were never held, creating a backlog of unresolved cases.
That may be changing. The Treasury Department now says it plans to begin using judges from the Environmental Protection Agency to hear travel cases. Experts wonder if it's a bluff designed to make more people pay up.
"I don't know if they are really gearing up the hearings or not," said Michael Ratner, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York advocacy group that opposes the travel ban and provides legal advice to those facing fines.
Ratner and others say the administration may be nervous of opening a legal hornets nest. Holding hearings could give lawyers the venue to challenge what they complain is an unfair and discriminatory practice. Ratner asks why ordinary Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba, while religious groups and Cuban-Americans can obtain special permits.
Several recent cases have made a mockery of the regulations.
One Seattle man was fined after he traveled to Cuba to bury his fathers' ashes. The Treasury Department tried to impose a $20,000 penalty, but settled for much less. Another couple were fined after their boat broke down and they were forced to dock in Cuba for repairs.
Yet the actor Kevin Costner had no trouble when he recently applied for a license to visit Cuba to show his latest film about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days. Costner's license even allowed him to hold a private viewing for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Other prominent entertainment bosses, including the head of CBS Television and MTV's top executive, have also made trips to Havana and met with Castro.
It was Falk, the New York lawyer, who arranged the Costner visit. She argues that unknown to most Americans, it isn't so difficult to travel to Cuba legally. At least 22 different license categories exist, from amateur sports, to professional researchers and conference attendees. As examples she cites the license granted to a karate club exchange, as well another for crocodile research in Cuba.
"More and more Americans are finding legal ways to travel to Cuba," she said. "All kinds of groups are taking up their options and filling planes."
Last year an estimated 173,000 Americans visited Cuba legally, up from only 20,000 in 1995, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a non-profit corporation in New York that monitors Cuba business issues. Another 22,000 visited Cuba illegally.
Falk believes the increased travel, both legal and illegal, is gradually eroding justification for the ban. "The clock is ticking on travel," she said. "In one form or another, I think some travel (restriction) lifting will happen soon."
She points out that U.S. travel magazines, including the New York Times Sunday travel section, recently have begun featuring Cuban destinations. After Conde Nast Traveler named Falk in this month's edition as an "indispensable travel agent" for anyone wanting to visit Cuba legally, her phone has been ringing off the hook.
"There's not a lot of understanding what the rules are," she said. "They are surprised that U.S. law restricts their travel. That's not the American way."
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