Rafael Lorente | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
WASHINGTON - President Bush’s October call for more rigorous enforcement of sanctions against Cuba has led to an increase in searches of people traveling to and from the island, the Housing and Urban Development secretary said Friday.
Mel Martinez, who will quit his post next week to run for the U.S. Senate from Florida, is co-chairman of President Bush’s commission on a transition to democracy in Cuba with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The group, which includes representatives from the Treasury Department and other federal agencies, met for the first time Friday morning. The one-hour meeting included comments by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
“The commission is only part of our policy,” said Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.
“Our efforts to enforce restrictions on financial transactions that benefit the regime have been stepped up significantly since the president’s speech.”
Noriega said before Bush’s Oct. 10 speech that about 5 percent of passengers on one flight to Havana per month were scrutinized or searched. Now, he said, it is 100 percent of passengers on every flight.
In the 30 days after Bush’s, speech, the Homeland Security Department searched 8,800 people on 144 aircraft leaving for Havana, Treasury Department spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw said. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control enforces many of the sanctions against Cuba.
Bradshaw said 55 people were denied permission to fly to Cuba in that 30-day period. Bradshaw also said there were 188 seizures of cigars, alcohol and other goods from returning passengers during that period.
And, as reported in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last month, Treasury officials also have for the first time begun judicial proceedings against travelers who have visited Cuba illegally. Bradshaw said that since Sept. 11, 90 cases have been initiated and 27 of those have been referred to administrative law judges.
An additional 37 cases have been settled.
The White House also has ordered a review of licenses issued to organizations for travel to Cuba and is looking at ways to clamp down on illegal remittances to the island.
Critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba say the 4-decade-old embargo does nothing to hurt Fidel Castro and only deprives the Cuban people of contact with Americans.