By ANNE WALLACE ALLEN | Associated Press Writer
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A retired couple from Strafford is facing $55,000 in fines for trips to Cuba they made while writing a travel book for bicyclists.
Wally and Barbara Smith traveled to Cuba four times - once for a vacation, and the next three to do research for Bicycling Cuba, a book that came out in November 2002.
In doing so, they violated U.S. sanctions that prohibit most U.S. citizens from spending money in Cuba, a communist country that has no diplomatic relations with the United States. Now the Smiths could pay a $55,000 fine, although they plan to contest that at hearings in Washington.
To the Smiths, it’s a matter of principal. They’re opposed to the sanctions.
“We think it’s morally wrong to try to essentially wreck the economy of a country that has not done anything against our interests, of substance, for 40 years, and poses absolutely no threat to us,” said Wally Smith, 61, on Tuesday.
President Kennedy imposed economic sanctions against Cuba in 1963 to deprive the country of U.S. dollars. There are exceptions for working journalists, humanitarian aid workers and others - including Vermont Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who traveled there as part of an agricultural trade mission last week and plans to return in September.
Last year, both the Republican-led House and Senate voted to end the travel ban, but the attempt to lift the ban failed.
President Bush recently called for more stringent enforcement of provisions that forbid most travel to Cuba.
The years of lax enforcement are one reason the Smiths ran into trouble. They assumed nothing would happen if they flew to Cuba from Montreal, and they discussed their travel plans with U.S. Customs agents when they drove back into the United States after their trips, bicycles strapped to the top of their car.
“At the time we started the book (in 1998), Clinton was in office and there didn’t seem to be a great deal of interest at all in enforcing the law,” Wally Smith said.
On the first trip, they traveled as tourists. Once in Cuba, they got the idea for the book. On subsequent trips, they thought that as writers, they qualified for the journalists’ exemption.
“We thought, `We’re going to do legitimate research for a book that’s going to be published, so it must be OK,”’ said Wally Smith.
But in April 2001, the government sent the Smiths a letter requesting information about their travels.
They hired an attorney and gave the government information about their travels.
“Cluelessly perhaps, we’ve told them the complete truth,” said Barbara Smith, 58.
The couple learned 18 months ago that they could be liable for fines of $55,000. Their offense was spending money in Cuba—an estimated 50 dollars a day over a total of six months.
They didn’t worry about the fine at first, because they had been told the government never followed up with a required hearing where travelers can contest the fine.
But the Smiths said hearings were likely to start this summer. They said their lawyer told them they might be able to settle the matter now by skipping the hearing and paying $13,800. But they don’t want to.
“We’re what we call independently poor…we live quite simply,” said Wally Smith. “Would it make a difference? Sure it would. It would screw up our finances for a year.”
For another thing, they’re not sure they did anything wrong.
Wally Smith said he would like more Americans to travel to Cuba.
“I’ve often thought if you could get a congressman or senator on a bike for a few weeks in Cuba, he’d never come back thinking it was an enemy nation,” he said. “He’d meet with the people and see what it’s really like on the ground.”
Meanwhile, they’re at work on another cycling book - this one about eastern Canada. And they’re not planning any trips to Cuba for now.
“This year we went to Mexico,” said Barbara Smith.
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