By Niala Boodhoo | Business Writer | Sun Sentinel
Nearly a month after the U.S. government clamped down on travel to Cuba, local air charter companies say their businesses have been decimated, passengers have yet to receive new licenses required for travel and thousands have voiced their opinions to the Treasury Department about the proposed new rules.
The new rules, which caught many by surprise when they were published June 16, only allow Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba once every three years and reduce the list of relatives on the island that they can get government permission to visit.
“Today is the 24th day of the [new] regulations, and not one Cuban-American has been able to travel because the Treasury Department has not issued any—zero—licenses,” said Xael Charters owner Eddie Levy on Friday. Levy, who had already laid off 14 of his 16 full-time employees, says his business has been paralyzed.
Treasury Department official Juan Zarate, in town this week to meet with local federal officials, said his office has received more than 2,000 comments about the new regulations.
Zarate is a deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department and oversees its Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which issues the only legal licenses for U.S. travel to the Caribbean island. His office has received hundreds of applications for new licenses, which are being processed, Zarate said, adding he hoped licenses would start being issued next week.
The rules went into effect on June 30, but the Treasury Department is still receiving comment on the rules, which may be tweaked. Zarate said after the comments were reviewed a final rule would be published in early fall.
OFAC has also started investigations into a “number” of people that had already violated the new rules, Zarate said, but declined to provide further details. Those who had traveled to the island with old licenses have until July 31 to come back legally.
Anyone who violates the restrictions is subject to civil fines of up to $65,000, Zarate said.
ABC Charters Chief Executive Tessie Arau said because she’s had almost an entire month of empty planes, she’s cut the number of flights she operates from Miami to Cuba by more than half.
“Basically, I’ve had good days of 45 passengers, and two bad days of two passengers,” said Arau, who has also had to lay off 12 of her 16 workers.
The new rules have cracked down primarily on visits Cuban-Americans are making to family on the island, so the only traffic Arau has had on her flights were others with licenses to visit the island.
Arau said that she is a Republican but couldn’t understand why the Bush administration had changed the rules.
“Theoretically the Republican party has always stood for family values and small businesses. They’re destroying all the small businesses here,” said Arau, who is helping to organize a protest on Saturday about the restrictions near Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s offices in northwest Miami-Dade.
Arau said she knew of at least four local travel agencies that had already gone out of business because of the lack of Cuban-Americans traveling to the island.
Zarate said he sympathized with small business owners, but that the larger policy issue and the tightening of sanctions was meant to “impel as quickly as possible change within Cuba and within the regime.”
“The market and the demand will still be out there,” he said. “I think it’s up to the business community to adapt to the new regulations to figure out what those demands are.”