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Posted November 10, 2003 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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By Rafael Lorente | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration for the first time is beginning judicial proceedings against dozens of people accused of visiting Cuba illegally, even as Republicans and Democrats in Congress move to end enforcement of the four-decade-old U.S. travel ban to the island.

Last month, unauthorized travelers to Cuba started receiving notices from the Treasury Department that they would be required to appear before a judge. The notices went out about the same time the Senate voted to prohibit enforcement of the travel ban.

“It’s incredible that hearings to enforce fines against Cuba travelers are beginning at a time when Congress and the American people have clearly stated their opposition to the travel ban,” said Nancy Chang, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. Chang said two of her center’s clients have received such notices and could face hearings early next year.

Until last month, people accused of illegal travel to Cuba had three choices: Pay the fine levied by the Treasury Department, negotiate a settlement for a lower fine or request a hearing before an administrative-law judge. Those who requested a hearing found themselves in legal limbo because Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the travel ban, did not have administrative-law judges.

Judges borrowed

But the assets office borrowed several judges from the Department of Justice and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission earlier this year. Judges for the commission usually settle legal disputes arising under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act of 1977.

Fifty cases have been referred to the judges, said Taylor Griffin, a Treasury Department spokesman.

“We’re going to be really stepping up enforcement,” Griffin said.

Under the existing travel ban, Americans who do not qualify for one of a limited number of licenses allowing them to legally fly directly from the United States to Cuba usually travel via Canada, Mexico or the Bahamas. If they are caught when they return to the United States, American travelers often are questioned in writing about their trips. Many are told later to pay a hefty fine, often about $7,500.

That’s what happened to Michael and Ande McCarthy of Port Huron, Mich. The couple spent a week in Cuba in 2001, taking medicines to a Catholic group in Havana and visiting Trinidad on the south side of the island.

The McCarthys returned from Cuba through Toronto and started driving home to Michigan. When the couple reached the Blue Water Bridge that connects Canada to Port Huron, they were asked by border agents where they had been. Instead of saying Toronto, they said Cuba.


“We’re for independence, we’re for being free to travel,” said Michael McCarthy, 56.

For their honesty, the couple was sent letters from the Treasury Department asking for $15,000 in fines $7,500 each. They asked for hearings, and Michael McCarthy last month received a letter signed by Richard Newcomb, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The letter says McCarthy violated the Trading with the Enemy Act by spending approximately $750 for a Cuba vacation package. The letter also says McCarthy violated the law by “purchasing, transporting, and importing cigars, a bottle of rum, and clothing” from Cuba valued at $150.

The move to crack down on travelers such as the McCarthys comes at an awkward time. On Oct. 23, the same day the letter from the assets office to McCarthy went out, the Senate inserted an amendment into the Transportation and Treasury Department appropriations bill that would prohibit the Bush administration from spending money to enforce the travel ban. The House passed a similar amendment in September.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-5 last week for a separate bill that would overturn the travel ban all together.

Chang, the New York lawyer, said she thinks the legislation would make the hearings before administrative law judges moot.

President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation weakening the ban or the embargo against Cuba. The White House and its allies are hoping to avoid a veto by stripping the travel-ban provisions from the appropriations bills in a conference committee that is working out differences between the House and Senate versions.

Foes on both sides of the aisle

Two Republicans and two Democrats in the Senate opposed to the president’s Cuba policy sent a letter to negotiators demanding that the travel-ban provisions remain. Otherwise, the letter said, “we will consider all parliamentary options available to us to respond” a not-so-veiled threat of a filibuster.

Enforcement of the travel ban has been stronger since Bush took office. He benefited from a huge turnout by Cuban-American voters in South Florida who perceived the Clinton administration as soft on Cuba’s Fidel Castro and who oppose tourism to the island because it puts money in the coffers of the government.

But many of Bush’s Cuban-American allies have not been happy with the administration, saying it has not done enough. The president last month announced a new presidential commission on transition to democracy in Cuba and said his administration would crack down on travel to the island. But the Senate voted within two weeks to forbid enforcing the travel ban, setting up the showdown.

“There’s only one man standing between my wife and myself and our friends who want to make connections (in Cuba),” Michael McCarthy said. “And that man is George W. Bush.”

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