Cuba
Selected Press Coverage on OFAC and the Right to Travel to Cuba

 
  September 1, 2001

Canada opposes U.S. crackdown on Cuba visitors 
Travellers 'scared': American tourists en route to Cuba hassled at airports

By Glen McGregor and Mike Trickey
Ottawa Citizen; Southam News

OTTAWA - The Department of Foreign Affairs says it will protest a recent U.S. crackdown on Americans who circumvent the U.S. travel ban to Cuba by flying to the Communist country from Canada.

The get-tough order from the White House to the Treasury Department has resulted in American customs officers in Canadian airports questioning American travellers about whether they've been to Cuba. If they have, they face fines as high as US$55,000.

A retired social worker from Chicago who joined a Canadian bicycling tour in Cuba recently received notice of a US$7,500 fine from the Treasury Department after having her passport scrutinized by a U.S. customs officer at Pearson International in Toronto.

The 1974 Pre-Clearance Treaty permits U.S. customs official to enforce American rules for entry into the United States.

"In order to do so, they are authorized to apply U.S. laws related only to the admission of these travellers and their goods," says Foreign Affairs spokesman Carl Schwenger.

"Other applications of any U.S. law in Canada is not envisaged. We intend to raise this issue with U.S. authorities."

Bruno Coulome, who runs the Fredericton-based USA Cuba Travel, says many of his American clients have been intimidated by U.S. customs agents at Canadian airports. "The clients are really scared."

He says he has seen customs agents watching his clients check in for their charter flights to Cuba at Montreal's Mirabel Airport.

"Many times in the last month I've seen U.S. customs agents waiting at the departure counter," said Mr. Coulome, whose company handles Cuba-bound U.S. customers exclusively. He also thinks customs agents are watching for Americans arriving on flights from Cuba.

"The strategy they have is they stay at the arrival gate for Havana and they spot the travellers who walk to the counter of U.S. connecting airlines."

Nancy Chang, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, says there are reports of surveillance in Canadian airports.

Ms. Chang is challenging the constitutionality of the fines on behalf of 400 travellers.

The U.S. customs service denies it uses surveillance operations in Canadian airports, but won't say how it determines which travellers visited Cuba.

The procedures are "enforcement sensitive" and not discussed, said customs spokesman Jim Michie.

Mr. Coulome says Americans can protect themselves by asking Cuban customs officers not to stamp their passports. Cuba allows visitors to enter with a tourist card and does not require a visa in a passport. He also recommends travellers not carry cigars or other obviously Cuban souvenirs in their luggage.

Susan Ross, a California lawyer specializing in customs law, says although she suspects Canadian and U.S. authorities are informally sharing information at border points, she says most U.S. travellers are caught when they admit they've been holidaying in Cuba.

"People aren't good liars," she says. "When the agents start asking questions, people start getting nervous."

Canadian officials deny Canadian immigration or customs officials are giving their American counterparts any information about Americans returning from Cuba to international airports with U.S. pre-clearance customs services.

Pre-clearance facilities are in place at airports in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The interrogation at Canadian airports is part of a broader crackdown on Americans who ignore the U.S. government's Trading with the Enemy Act, which has been in effect since 1962.

President George W. Bush has provided the catalyst for the re-energized customs efforts, saying the White House was going to get tough again after the Clinton administration took a more relaxed approach to Americans visiting Cuba.

Between May 4 and July 30, the Treasury Department sent out 443 letters seeking fines from Americans suspected of travelling to Cuba compared to only 74 letters during the first four months of the year.

Opponents of the crackdown say the U.S. laws smack of the same sort of totalitarianism that is being fought in Cuba.

"It's repugnant to everything that we as Americans think," says Democratic congressman Charles Rangel.

"This type of behaviour is the behaviour that you would expect from a communist dictatorship that wants to keep its people at home."

Ironically, the crackdown comes at the same time the U.S. Congress is mobilizing a campaign to lift the travel ban.

Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, who heads to Senate appropriations sub-committee in charge of Treasury Department funding, says he will seek measures that would lift the ban when Congress returns to work later this month. Dorgan is confident a bill lifting the ban will pass the Senate and believes it has a good chance of getting through the House of Representatives. The Republican-dominated House voted in July to deny money to the Treasury Department to enforce the ban.

About 200,000 Americans legally travelled to Cuba last year, with about 60% of them being Cuban-Americans who are permitted to make annual humanitarian trips to visit relatives.

The others are from various other categories, such as journalists on assignment and researchers, who can receive clearance from Washington.

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