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A Crackdown Leading Nowhere
Alicia C. Shepard 2003-07-14
Walk into a travel agency and you can book a trip to communist China or North Korea. But not to Cuba. After 40 years, the U.S. government still bans travel to Castro Country, although thousands of Americans have gone there anyway, aware that enforcement had become lax. Until George W. Bush hit town, that is. Since Bush took office, some 1,226 Americans have received letters from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) threatening fines of up to the maximum of $55,000 for violating the travel ban by spending money in Cuba without a license. (The average fine is $7,500.) That's more than double the total during Bill Clinton's entire last term. Scores of others are being investigated. But it's still a hit-or-miss proposition as to who gets pursued. Those most at risk are the ones who tell the truth about where they've been. In effect, the government's policy invites deceit. To make matters worse, legal travel to Cuba just got harder. In March, the Bush administration ended the popular "people to people" educational licenses that allowed Americans to legally explore the crocodile-shaped island's fascinating culture. Officials said the program was being abused to sponsor "fun in the sun" beach tours that put money into Castro's coffers. Now, only for-credit study tours can get a green light. At the Center for Constitutional Rights, a public-interest law group in New York, staff attorney Nancy Chang has seen a "dramatic" surge in Americans targeted upon their return from Cuba. "We've been overwhelmed with their requests for assistance," she says. The center is currently handling 300 cases.
What's behind the tougher posture? "This is the law," explained Tony Fratto, a Treasury spokesman. "When President Bush came in, we looked at the statute and it was our determination to strictly enforce the statute." It may be the law, but those who favor lifting the embargo suspect the administration's actions have more to do with Campaign 2004 than with containing Castro. To win a second term, Bush must carry Florida. And that means wooing Miami's powerful (and conservative) Cuban American community. "The crackdown is simply political," contends Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies, a Manhattan-based nonprofit educational organization.
But Bush may be responding to an "outmoded voting block," Levinson cautions. Recent polls suggest that Florida's Cuban Americans are less enamored of embargos and pressure tactics than their anti-Castro elders. "A significant number of Cuban Americans have clearly decided that ousting the dictator is not as realistic as dialogue with a democratic purpose," pollster Rob Schroth told the Miami Herald in February. A growing chorus in Congress also supports a policy shift -- Castro's continued human-rights abuses, including the recent jailing of 78 Cuban dissidents, notwithstanding. This spring the Senate formed a bipartisan, 16-senator Cuba Working Group dedicated to easing the embargo. The bipartisan House Cuba Working Group already has 52 members. Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who favors abolishing travel licenses and letting Americans see the realities of Castro's Cuba firsthand, intends to reintroduce an amendment this month forbidding OFAC to spend money enforcing the Cuba travel ban. (His bill has passed in the House twice, only to die in the Senate.) "We argue that trade, commerce and contact will help the people in China, North Korea, Vietnam," said Flake in an interview. "But in Cuba we say, not so fast. It simply makes no sense." For now, with a few exceptions for humanitarian, academic or journalistic visits, Americans need a license to tour Cuba. So they cheat, traveling to Havana via Mexico or other countries on prepaid package tours, their passports bereft of Cuban stamps. Last year, some 160,000 Americans had approval to visit Cuba. As many as 60,000 others went illegally. Most never get caught, and even fewer are pursued. Among this unlucky bunch is retired teacher Joan Slote. Her case is one of those taken up since Bush took office, though her trip occurred at the end of the Clinton administration. It not only illustrates how arbitrarily the travel ban is enforced, but how absurdly easy it is to duck the penalties if you are caught. Slote, a San Diego grandmother of six, never sought to deceive the government. At 75, she has pedaled through 21 countries and still bikes more than 100 miles a week. An ad in a Toronto-based adventure catalogue for a Cuba bike trip intrigued her. It said -- incorrectly -- that U.S. law does not bar citizens from visiting Cuba as long as they fly there through Canada. "It never occurred to me to question what I read," says Slote. "I'm a middle-of-the-road person politically. I just wasn't that politically savvy to know that Cuba could be a big problem." Three years later, her dream trip has turned into a legal nightmare, with the government threatening to garnish her $1,184 monthly Social Security check to cover close to $9,000 in penalties and interest. Slote's odyssey began in January 2000, when she and a friend's daughter, Amy Olsen, flew through Toronto to Havana. There they picked up bicycles. They were the only Americans in their group. "I remember our bike leader saying, 'You really shouldn't buy anything,' " recalls Slote. "So we were careful not to buy cigars or rum." That was the first Slote knew the travel ban included greenbacks. After a delightful week, where a Cuban teen marveled at the septuagenarian's muscular arms, the pair flew home via Toronto. They filled out standard customs forms, which ask -- under penalty of perjury -- what countries were visited. Olsen suggested not mentioning Cuba. But Slote urged honesty. Today, Slote wishes she had lied. At U.S. Customs, the two women were pulled aside. "As soon as we said 'Cuba' -- zoom. Amy went into one room and I into another," recalls Slote. The female Customs agent who searched Slote's suitcase found $18 worth of trinkets: souvenirs for the grandkids. The agent told Slote she had broken the law, and could be fined $55,000. The pair heard nothing more for 16 months. In May 2001, Slote was cycling in Italy when a certified Treasury Department letter arrived for her in San Diego. She didn't know of the letter, however, for several weeks. While still overseas, she found out that her oldest son, Jack, had been diagnosed with brain cancer and needed surgery. Slote dashed home, quickly unpacked, repacked and flew to his bedside in northern California. She never saw the two notifications telling her that the certified letter awaited her at the post office. When Slote finally got to the post office, it was too late. "They had no record of it," she says. It wasn't until later, when she reconstructed the paper trail and learned that her biking companion had also heard from Treasury, that she realized that their Cuban adventure had attracted OFAC's attention. "I suppose at the time I should have gotten in touch with Treasury," says Slote, "but frankly, my son was dying and that was all that mattered." (He passed away the following February.) Since Slote did not answer the letter within the prescribed 30 days, OFAC automatically fined her $7,630. Her friend Olsen, however, had asked for a hearing within the time limit. That put the brakes on OFAC's attempt to fine her.
Nowhere is the travel ban more perplexing than in this 1992 "right to a hearing" provision. It basically allows those accused of violating the embargo a way to protest the charges. But the law practically guarantees that anyone can beat the penalties simply by requesting a hearing. Why? Because there's no judge to hear their cases. In the 11 years since the Cuban Democracy Act gave citizens the right to due process, OFAC has not hired one administrative law judge or held a single hearing. As a result, many violators wind up in limbo -- if they ask for a hearing within the prescribed time. Today, according to OFAC, some 450 Americans await hearings, taking full, legal advantage of a federal Catch-22 that allows them to duck thousands of dollars in fines. Even supporters of the embargo bemoan its capricious enforcement. "It purposely is arbitrary," says Joe Garcia, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. "Mike Tyson can go down there and tear up a hotel and nothing happens. Yet a grandmother goes there on a bike trip and gets a $10,000 fine. You are telling me that's fair?"
 

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VIEJO CABRÓN
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Having been born in La Habana, I can go back by obtaining certain permissions, but I haven't wanted to until the communist regime was gone.

I still have mixed feelings, but now my mom is getting older and I'd like to be able to take her back at least once before she dies. Still haven't decided though.
 

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Thanks for reviving this. I believe administrative justices (3) have indeed been hired since the article so keep that in mind.
 

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In may i was caught coming back into the US from Canada. In june I went down again and was caught in the bahamas on the way back. Apparently they have now flagged me and whenever I return to the country I am automatically searched very carefully. No cavity search but everything else. They also made copies of CC and every scrap of paper in my lugage and wallet. In the bahamas they scaned my passport and just asked me to step aside to another place where they proceeded to search me. In October coming back from 3 weeks in the philippines same deal. They just flat out told me I am now flagged and will be foreever as long as this embargo is in place.
In October they askedme about my travel to Cuba again and I just said do you seriously think i just went to cuba? I took a 15 hour flight to the Philippines then back to Cuba then back to the Philippines then back to the US? These are our tax dollars hard at work.

Alll that being said I miss the place very much and cant wait to get back. Hopefully in march. Legally of course.
 
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