BY OSCAR CORRAL | Miami Herald
In the midst of a widespread federal crackdown on illegal travel to Cuba, the U.S. Treasury Department met Friday in Miami with agencies that specialize in travel to Cuba to go over the rules they must follow to keep their licenses.
Since January, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has been auditing travel agencies and religious organizations that specialize in travel to Cuba. In the past few months, four of those agencies have had Cuba travel licenses suspended. Six religious organizations have also had their licenses suspended. The Foreign Assets Control office would not provide the names of the religious organizations.
At least one popular Cuba travel agency, ABC Charters, has seen travel to Cuba cut in half in the last few weeks, said ABC Vice President Maria Aral.
Aral said Friday’s meeting at Department of Homeland Security offices near Miami International Airport was to update Cuba travel agencies on some of the travel restrictions that went into effect in 2004.
‘‘They want to make sure that the travel we provide is legal,’’ Aral said. ``It’s a tough environment now. They just came to enforce the policies that politicians put together. As much as I don’t like certain things, I have to defend them because they are just doing their jobs.’‘
In the last four months, 26 of about 200 travel agencies have not renewed their Foreign Assets Control licenses, a substantial drop. But agency spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said it wasn’t because the travel companies had done anything wrong.
‘‘The majority of the changes were due to service providers deciding that they no longer wanted to be in the business and notified OFAC that they were voluntarily giving up their authorizations,’’ Millerwise said in an e-mail responding to questions. ``Another handful moved without leaving any means to contact them. And a couple of service providers terminated their authorizations because the owner died or sold all of their interest.’‘
The Foreign Assets Control office has suspended the licenses of PWG Trading, Baby Envios Travel Inc., Fortuna Travel Services and Cubatur Express.
Pedro Gonzalez-Munne, owner of Cuba Promotions, which promotes travel to Cuba, said the Treasury agency has several agents investigating Cuba travel in Miami. Their focus is not only illegal travel but illegal shipments of money to the island, said Gonzalez-Munne, who did not attend Friday’s meeting.
‘‘The most important thing for them [the federal agents] now are the remittances,’’ Gonzalez-Munne said.
In the summer of 2004, the Bush administration tightened travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba. Friday’s meeting was ‘‘an effort by OFAC to reach out to the community to help ensure they understand and are aware of their obligations as licensed service providers,’’ Millerwise said.
In the meeting, about five agents went over some of the restrictions that took effect in 2004, Aral said. For example, Aral said, fully hosted travel, in which a person was allowed to travel to Cuba through a third country as long as he didn’t spend any money there, is no longer allowed. Also, educational programs in which students study in Cuba now have to be at least 10 weeks long.
The most controversial change in policy in 2004 restricted family visits to once every three years for Cubans and Cuban Americans, and does not include aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins on the list that qualifies as family.
The tightened travel restrictions have been hailed by hard-line Cuban exile leaders for denying the communist government of Fidel Castro badly needed hard currency, but others have criticized the restrictions as antifamily.
Millerwise said Friday’s meeting, conducted in English and Spanish, was intended to help Cuba travel agencies understand the rules.
‘‘OFAC thought it would be beneficial to meet with the [agencies] to go through key points . . . especially any new material or changes,’’ Millerwise said.
Earlier this week, a group of Cuban Americans united to denounce U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba.
The group, named Emergency Network of Cuban American Scholars and Artists for Change in U.S.Cuba Policy, or ENCASA, declared its commitment to fight the U.S. embargo of Cuba and the travel restrictions.
ENCASA’s bold attack on U.S. policy comes just weeks before the Bush administration’s Cuba commission will recommend ways to President Bush to help speed up a democratic transition on the island. The last time the Cuba commission issued a report, in 2004, the president heeded its advice and ordered sanctions to be tightened.