TORONTO (CP)—A Canadian travel company facing a demand for $10,000 US from a 75-year-old American grandmother fined for taking a cycling trip in Cuba has found itself in the middle of a political drama playing out in Washington, D.C.
“I’m not quite sure what action I should be taking,” Lewie Gonsalves, owner of Toronto-based Worldwide Adventures, said Wednesday.
“To me this is idiotic.”
In January 2000, Joan Slote, of San Diego, a gold-medallist at the senior Olympics, booked a cycling trip to Cuba through Worldwide.
While it is legal for Americans to visit Cuba, Washington has effectively banned such travel through a provision that makes it a crime for them to spend any money while there. “It’s one of those idiotic things that they have,” said Gonsalves.
A few months after returning to the U.S., Slote was notified by the federal Treasury Department that the trip was illegal. The retired grandmother of six was fined $7,630 US. Her crime: buying $18 US in souvenirs and an exit visa. Slote, who was caring at the time for a son who was dying of brain cancer, failed to respond within the 30-day time frame to request a hearing.
The Treasury Department, whose actions against American visitors to Cuba increased dramatically under President George W. Bush, refused to negotiate with her or anyone advocating for her, including at least one U.S. senator.
On July 7, the department notified her the case was “closed” and she now owed $9,871.75 US including interest and penalties. She was given 10 days to pay or have the money docked from her social security income.
That threat has made the grandmother who still rides up to 240 kilometres a week something of a poster-child for Americans opposed to the trade embargo of Cuba. “When I went on a bicycle ride, I didn’t have any kind of political reason behind me or anything, I just wanted to see Cuba,” Slote said Wednesday in an interview from Washington, D.C. In a letter to Gonsalves last week, Slote’s lawyer argues the travel company was negligent and should cover the fine because it advised Slote her trip to Cuba was legal.
The letter threatens “appropriate” legal action if Gonsalves doesn’t pay within 10 days. In an interview from Oakland, Calif., lawyer Tom Miller said he has a Toronto counterpart lined up to pursue the case on Slote’s behalf. However, that may not be necessary.
The Treasury Board indicated a new willingness to negotiate after Slote appeared Tuesday at a Washington conference and recounted her tale. “(I) cannot understand why our government is threatening to take away my Social Security check for riding my bicycle in Cuba,” Slote told the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Forum. The message was enough to galvanize some high profile senators and congressmen to lean on the Treasury Department.
“I’m getting all sorts of calls from Treasury saying ‘Maybe, we want to talk to you about a deal,’ ” Miller said with a chuckle. “So we are in the process of possibly negotiating a settlement which would obviate the need to get as much money as we’re requesting from Worldwide Travel.”
That’s welcome news to Gonsalves, who said he first became aware that Washington was cracking down on Americans visiting to Cuba from other clients in 2000. The company immediately changed its literature to warn Americans they could be “subject to investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department.” “We acted as soon as we knew there was in fact a problem,” Gonsalves said.