BY PABLO BACHELET | Knight Ridder Newspapers
A couple from Michigan facing a $9,750 fine for illegally traveling to Cuba on Monday appeared before a U.S. administrative court set up recently to consider appeals against such fines.
Michael and Andrea McCarthy challenged the fine on grounds that they’d flown to Cuba for religious purposes, basically to visit a convent and distribute medicines. They conceded that they spent three days at a modest beach resort in the Cienfuegos region of southern Cuba.
Administrative law judge Irwin Schroeder said he’d rule before Christmas, after hearing two hours of testimony. The Port Huron couple are the first travel ban violators to appeal their fines under a new system set up by the Bush administration. Under the 1960 embargo, travelers to Cuba can be fined up to $55,000.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the government agency in charge of enforcing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, oversees the new appeal procedure, part of a stepped up administration effort to enforce the travel ban after Cuban leader Fidel Castro arrested and jailed 75 dissidents in March and April 2003.
Dozens of cases like the McCarthys’ could come up on appeals in coming months. According to foreign assets office spokeswoman Molly Millerwise, 134 of 257 fined violators have settled their cases, netting the government about $150,000 in civil penalties. Forty-eight cases await appeals hearings. The remainder are still to be determined.
The McCarthys claimed the travel ban’s provisions were confusing and that a Canadian firm that sold them a $1,420 travel package failed to inform them of any prohibitions.
Michael McCarthy, a physician’s assistant who said he attends Mass several times a week, argued that it “is our birthright as Americans to be outreaching.”
He said he had done past humanitarian work in Chiapas, Mexico, and Haiti, “to be connected to people of our faith across cultures.”
In Cuba, Michael and Andrea McCarthy, a registered nurse, spent about $120 to rent a car and buy gifts, including cigars they purchased from a street vendor. A Customs officer on the U.S.-Canadian border seized the cigars after they admitted they’d been bought in Cuba.
Under the embargo, U.S. travelers are not literally barred from visiting Cuba, but are prohibited from spending any money there.
Treasury reduced its initial fine of $7,500 each by 35 percent because of mitigating circumstances - mainly the two days the McCarthys spent with Cuban nuns.
Andrea McCarthy broke down in tears when asked how they’d pay the $9,750.
“We’d probably take out a loan,” she said. They have a combined annual income of $65,000 and four children, two in college. They have $500 in savings, she testified.