Cuban Americans

Florida travel agents forced to operate under new Cuba travel restrictions

Posted June 30, 2008 by publisher in Cuban Americans.


For dozens of Florida-based travel agencies that book flights to Cuba, the future of their livelihood is, well, up in the air.

On Monday, a coalition of 16 Miami-based travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba plan to file a lawsuit against the state, hoping that a judge will halt a recently approved law aimed at increasing state regulation of their trade.

They say the measure, which goes into effect Tuesday, will drive up operating costs and force many to shut down if they can’t muster the $250,000 bonds mandated by the bill.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. David Rivera as a homeland-security issue, was drafted to apply to all Florida-based vendors selling trips to countries on the U.S. State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism—which includes Cuba.

‘‘It is unfortunate that certain state of Florida legislators have decided to waste taxpayer funds to further their own goal of preventing and hindering Cuban-Americans who desire to visit their families in Cuba,’’ said Steven Weinger, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit against the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The travel agents have until Tuesday to register their companies with the state, pay $2,500 in fees and find bond companies willing to front the thousands of dollars required by the law, which the Legislature passed in May and Gov. Charlie Crist signed last week.

‘‘There is just so much confusion and chaos going around right now,’’ said Armando García, president of Miami-based Marazul Charters Travel, one of the companies filing suit.

Travel to Cuba has long been a divisive issue among Cuban-Americans, some of whom rely on travel to Cuba to visit families while others criticize the trips for the money it provides the Cuban government.

‘‘This family issue is going to be an albatross around their necks,’’ said Francisco Aruca, a Spanish-radio talk-show host and business associate at Marazul.

Many travel agency owners spent Friday rushing to ensure they could line up the bond money and filling out registration forms required by the state.

While the agencies are normally given two months to file paperwork, that time frame was whittled down to two business days. Department of Agriculture staffers were awaiting Crist’s signature on the bill before they could post the new requirements on the state’s website Thursday afternoon.

‘‘We didn’t have any more time than this. The bill was just signed into law,’’ said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the department. ``We realize that there are people out there who may be sick, people may be on vacation or out of town, and we’ll work with these people. It’s not our intention to harm these companies, no one is going to be hammered.’‘

The assurances were not enough for García and other travel agents, who say they are part of a state ``witch hunt.’‘

‘‘I held on to hope that the governor was going to veto this,’’ said Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters Travel. ‘I’m a Republican and I said to myself, `He’s got to veto this, he’s going to protect the interest of small businesses,’ but obviously somebody was putting the pressure on him.’‘

Earlier in the month, Aral tried to exert her own pressure on Crist: She was one of about 120 travel agents and Cuban-American families who flew to Tallahassee to protest the measure.

Aral added it’s too soon to estimate how much consumers can expect to absorb from the increase in fees.

There are seven charter companies and 12 travel agencies that handle flights to Cuba from the United States. Prices for trips to the island average from $500 to $600 before taxes, and some agents estimate the new law may up the cost of the trips by as much as 15 percent.

Rivera remains steadfast that the measure will aid those looking to book trips to Cuba, adding that he’d like to see some of the money collected from the registration fees to launch an investigation into alleged ‘‘price gouging’’ and ``excessive luggage fees.’‘

‘‘This is for the consumer protection of my constituents,’’ Rivera said. ``You are dealing with businesses dealing with terrorist countries that pose a risk to the United States, and they’re using our airports.’‘

Rivera and the Cuba-travel agencies have long had a cantankerous relationship. In 2006, he successfully sponsored legislation banning state funding of educational trips to Cuba. The measure, aimed at the pocketbooks of travel agencies arranging such trips, remains tied up in the courts.

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.

Member Comments

On June 30, 2008, manfredz wrote:

‘’This is for the consumer protection of my constituents,’’ Rivera said. ``You are dealing with businesses dealing with terrorist countries that pose a risk to the United States, and they’re using our airports.’’

I see it more the otehr way around.  The above statement could be referring to the US where US government supported parties have used US airports to attack Cuba…..

Just my 2 centavos worth.

On June 30, 2008, Mako wrote:

It is clearly unconstituional and a suit has already been filed to halt implementation

On July 01, 2008, publisher wrote:

MIAMI—Travel agencies that book trips to Cuba are celebrating a small victory after a federal judge temporarily blocked a new Florida law that imposes stiff penalties and restrictions on those companies.

More than a dozen local travel agencies filed the lawsuit on Tuesday. They said the law that requires them to pose up to a $250,000 bond for bookings would put them out of business.

The next hearing is scheduled for July 11.

On July 02, 2008, Mako wrote:

This will be over turned rather rapidly. There are already numerous cases that have ruled that foreign policy is the sole jurisdicition of the federal government. The shame of it is that Crist was such a moron to sign it. He will do anything to try and get chosen as McCain’s VP. The whispers are starting to come out in the “main stream” media about his alternative life style; so he would probably never make it through the vetting process anyway

On July 03, 2008, Scott Kelm of St. Cloud, Minnesota USA wrote:

Hi, my name is Scott, I operate the St. Cloud Youth Boxing & Wrestling Club here in Minnesota.  I was actually looking for information regarding taking our boxers on a cultural exchange trip to Havanna, Cuba for about a week to ten days.  I didn’t know that the travel agencies in Florida could help out and actually book flights to Cuba, or is that just for families.  I am looking for coaches in Cuba or Florida to actually help us plan a trip for our boxers to stay with hosting families so we could practice and learn from the Cuban boxing culture.  We took our wrestlers overseas to Australia, Kiev, and Norway in the past and we would like to share that experience with our boxers.  You can call me at 1-888-754-0202 or email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  Thank you for any help and assistance.

On July 03, 2008, publisher wrote:

Just for Cuban Americans who are going to visit family.

As humanitarian as your organization sounds, it is evil and would only support Fidel Castro if you spent any money in Cuba so you need to apply for a license that you can’t get.

Don’t waste your time.

On July 07, 2008, publisher wrote:


After a few weeks of uncertainty, business dealings will remain the same for Florida travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba—at least until September.

A lawsuit between 16 Miami-Dade based travel vendors and the state of Florida was initially scheduled for a federal court hearing on Friday, but it was postponed until Aug. 29 at the request of the state.

At stake is whether a law aimed at increasing state regulation of Florida travel agencies selling trips to Cuba flies amid claims that it unfairly targets a specific group of companies.

‘‘The long holiday weekend would not have given us sufficient time to prepare and provide a full and meaningful response,’’ said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Sponsored by state Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican, the law requires travel agencies who arrange trips to countries on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist nations list to post a $250,000 bond with the state and pay up to $2,500 in annual registration fees.

Approved by the state Legislature in May, the requirements are 10 times stricter than for those travel agencies that don’t sell trips to Cuba, or any of the other four countries on the federal terrorism list.

The measure was slated to go into effect on July 1, but was temporarily lifted when the band of agencies filed a lawsuit in federal court on June 30.

Last Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Alan S. Gold ruled to stop enforcement of the law until both sides could present their arguments.

Since then, several agencies say they have been faced with the challenge of making customers aware that direct flights to Cuba from Miami are still operational and being sold. ‘‘We have gotten calls from customers who are unsure of whether they are still allowed to move forward with purchasing tickets, but we let them know that everything is carrying on as normal,’’ said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters Travel, one of the companies behind the lawsuit.

On July 13, 2008, rocheleau wrote:

as far as travel to cuba from states..duhh travel to the Bahamas and then go to cuba .alot cheaper to .you can pick up a charter trip for practically nothing to get you to cuba /.it is a cival right of the united states people to be able to travel freely to where ever they want .if people do not wake up and start fighting for their rights ,,no wait .stop our government from taking our rights away .yeah thats it .i always thought the us governemet worked for us ..not against us .and no one is to blame for it but us ,,ourselves.for letting our government run amuck and have complete control over everything .

On March 08, 2009, josh wrote:

The laws here in the USA about travel to Cuba are unconstitutional.  The fact that we allow are government to tell use were we can travel is nuts.