August 17, 2001
SAYS TREASURY DEPARTMENT'S OFAC IS SUPPOSED TO BE FIGHTING TERRORISM, NOT
CHASING RETIRED AMERICAN
WASHINGTON, D.C., 8/17/01) I am both surprised and disappointed by the actions the Treasury Department has now taken against American citizens who have traveled in Cuba.
I personally have talked to American citizens who have been subject to these fines. They include Donna Schultz a retired 64-year-old social worker who joined a Canadian bicycle tour of Cuba and was fined $7,600 by the Treasury Department, and Kurt Foster, a traveler who joined some friends to fly from the Grand Cayman Islands to Cuba, was fined $19,000 by the Treasury Department.
These and other U.S. citizens, including a man who took his deceased father's ashes to be buried in Cuba, have become targets of the Treasury Department's heavy handed enforcement.
It is true that under current law Americans, but for a few exceptions, are prohibited from traveling in Cuba. It's also the case that the ban has not been enforced with any aggressiveness. In any event, I believe the Congress is about to repeal that misguided
travel prohibition. I think it's just unseemly for the Treasury Department to crank up an enforcement effort and chase a retired social worker who rides a bicycle in Cuba for thousands of dollars in fines.
I am Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Treasury functions, and I don't believe this represents the best use of the taxpayers' dollars. The Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) is supposed to be fighting terrorism, not chasing retired American citizens who are riding a bicycle in Cuba.
Today, I am asking the Treasury Secretary to do two things.
1) Suspend these enforcement activities until Congress votes on provisions dealing with this matter next month. The House of Representatives' appropriations bill already includes a provision prohibiting OFAC from spending money to enforce this travel ban. I intend to offer an amendment with several of my colleagues to lift the ban, and I expect the ban either to be lifted or, at a minimum, for a prohibition on enforcement to be the policy that comes out of the appropriations bill conference. For those reasons I believe the Treasury Secretary should suspend these enforcement activities until Congress completes its work on this appropriations bill, which will almost certainly bear directly on this subject.
2) Abandon plans to use EPA judges to hear these travel enforcement cases. News reports from the Department of the Treasury say that they are intending to use judges from the Environmental Protection Agency to prosecute these travel cases. Aside from the fact that I think that is a bad idea, if judges from the EPA have enough time to go over to Treasury to handle enforcement cases on Cuba travel, then there's something wrong with the priorities of EPA. I intend to add a provision in the appropriations bill that would prohibit Treasury from spending funds to use the EPA judges for these cases. The money appropriated for the Environmental Protection Agency is designed to be used for those purposes, not to engage in some ill considered crack down on Cuba travel by American citizens.
summary, I think what the Treasury Department is doing is heavy-handed
and ill- advised. I'm asking the Treasury
Secretary to suspend those actions until
Congress acts in September.
The law preventing U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba has not been aggressively enforced and is, on its face, an unjustifiable restraint on the freedom of travel by U.S. citizens. No such travel restriction existed in the height of the Cold War for travel to the Soviet Union. There have been no similar restrictions on travel to communist North Korea, China or Vietnam. And it defies all logic to continue this policy. But it certainly makes no sense for the Treasury Department to begin an enforcement crackdown at this time, given that Congress is about to consider a change in the law in the coming month.
- END -
Sept 7, 2001
In recent years, American travel magazines have been flooded with images of vintage Chevys, hand-rolled cigars, mojitos and virgin beaches beckoning American tourists to catch a "last chance" glimpse of Cuba in the sunset days of Fidel Castro's regime. But Americans might want to think twice before booking a flight. The Bush Administration has launched an aggressive crackdown on Americans who violate the Cuba travel ban, a provision of the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. This spring, the U.S. Treasury Department stepped up enforcement of the travel restrictions, sending customs agents to airports in Canada and the Bahamas to catch Americans disembarking from planes arriving from Cuba. Between May and July, the department sent letters to more than 443 people, informing them of fines averaging $7,500 for illegal visits. The Treasury Department says the surge in fines is due to a backlog in paperwork, but it marks a departure from the approach during the Clinton administration, when lax enforcement and new avenues for legal trips raised the number of Americans traveling to Cuba to an estimated 45,000 in 2000. A growing faction in Congress thinks it's time to revisit U.S. policies toward Cuba. In July, the House voted to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, hopes the Senate will follow suit this month. Dorgan chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls funding for the Treasury Department, and he says he will introduce a measure to cut Treasury Department funds to enforce travel restrictions. In addition, he may introduce separate, more ambitious bills to abolish the travel ban completely and ease the overall impact of the embargo. NEWSWEEK's Jane Spencer spoke with Senator Dorgan about the travel crackdown, his proposed legislation, and his hopes for a new era in U.S. relations with Cuba.
NEWSWEEK: What's your response to the Bush administration's recent enforcement of the Cuba travel ban?
Sen. Byron Dorgan: It's a ridiculous provision in the first place, but it has never been enforced like this. The Bush administration has begun to levy fines ranging from $7,000 to $55,000. Some of these are people who visited Cuba a year and a half ago, and they're now getting massive fines in the mail. In some cases they have no idea they were doing something wrong. I've heard from a woman who answered an ad in a Canadian magazine to join a bicycle tour and she didn't have the foggiest idea she was doing something wrong. She went on an eight-day tour, and now she's been fined $9,000. If the Treasury Department doesn't have any more to do than track down Americans who went to Cuba on vacation, that's a concern.... This policy is about an obsession with Fidel Castro. It's about people who want to slap around Fidel, but it hurts the American people. It's absurd that Americans can travel to China, Vietnam and North Korea but not Cuba. It seems to me that violates the rights of American citizens.
NEWSWEEK: What kind of reception do you anticipate your proposals to end the travel ban and ease the broader embargo will receive in the Senate?
Sen. Byron Dorgan: We're really shooting ourselves in the foot with a continued embargo that doesn't work and, in a bizarre way, actually helps Fidel Castro keep his hold on power. I believe Congress will repeal the travel ban. We had 70 or 72 votes in the Senate to stop using food and medicine as part of the embargo last year, and sentiment has changed in the Congress. If you had an up-or-down vote on whether members of Congress thought the embargo was effective, the vote in both the House and Senate would repeal the embargo. No member of the House or Senate wants to give comfort to Fidel Castro. We're really shooting ourselves in the foot with a continued embargo that doesn't work and, in a bizarre way, actually helps Fidel Castro keep his hold on power.
NEWSWEEK: Do you think the travel ban, and the embargo in general, are inconsistent with U.S. policies on travel and trade with other communist nations?
Sen. Byron Dorgan: It's a completely inconsistent policy. With other countries-China, Vietnam, North Korea-all communist countries, our policies have been to engage them, and through that engagement, move them toward more constructive approaches to human rights and other issues. The argument, with respect to China, is that engagement, through trade and travel, will introduce democratic ideas. But with Cuba, we do just the opposite. Our policy is to prevent travel to Cuba, to prevent trade with Cuba and we even deny them food and medicine. Using food and medicine as a weapon is, in my view, entirely immoral. That's not good policy, that's not accomplishing anything, and frankly, that doesn't hurt Fidel Castro, it helps him.
NEWSWEEK: How do you think the embargo has bolstered Fidel Castro's regime?
Sen. Byron Dorgan: The economy in Cuba is in shambles, but Fidel Castro uses that by saying "the United States has slapped an embargo on us, this 500-pound guerrilla to our north has it's arms around the Cuban neck and that's what's causing our misery." It's been his greatest aid in retaining the Cuban power base. It invokes a sense of nationalism with his people. Eliminating the embargo would eliminate any excuse he has about the miserable performance of the Cuban economy.
NEWSWEEK: How do think U.S. policy toward Cuba is perceived by the rest of the world?
Sen. Byron Dorgan: I think most countries look at us in kind of a strange way for continuing to impose an embargo that clearly hasn't worked four decades, that's outlived 10 U.S. presidents. Now, they're seeing that we are beginning to strictly enforce the travel ban. Most countries see that as rather bizarre. The Canadians and Europeans are very involved with Cuba. The best strategy is to open up Cuba to U.S. trade and travel. It's potentially a $1 billion market for food products that Canadians and Europeans and others are able to serve and we're not. That doesn't make much sense to me. And it doesn't hurt Fidel Castro-I don't think he ever misses a meal. It's the poor, sick and hungry people that are penalized by these policies.
NEWSWEEK: What do you think has motivated the Bush administration's strict enforcement of travel restrictions? What role does Florida play in U.S. policies towards Cuba?
Sen. Byron Dorgan: I think Bush is playing to the gallery of the Cuban-American community. This action of his to clamp down on travel and begin fining Americans for traveling to Cuba makes no sense. I think it's a political assessment to endear himself to certain set of voters. Florida has a huge impact. It has a very aggressive Cuban-American group that's very active. They certainly have managed to do some work in Congress. For example, this issue of eliminating food and medicine from the embargo. I got a provision passed last year that allowed for the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, but leaders of the House of Representatives hijacked different conference committees and got a provision passed that prohibits private financing of those sales. So it got perverted along the way. They did that at the request of just a few members of Congress from Cuban-American communities, one from Florida.... But Castro has clearly been an irritant. He's poked his finger in our eye at every opportunity, no question about that. But because he makes our country furious, our policies have been really counterproductive.
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