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Posted March 30, 2004 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

Lawmakers are considering adding extra fees to charter flights to Cuba and requiring detailed itineraries for student trips.

TALLAHASSEE - With the support of several Hispanic lawmakers from Miami-Dade County, the Florida Legislature is considering tightening rules on travel to Cuba—slapping extra fees on charter airlines that fly to the island and requiring state universities organizing educational Cuba trips to submit detailed itineraries well in advance.

Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican and chief sponsor of the measures, said the proposed fees on charter flights would help pay for improved security at Florida airports and seaports, while the school reporting requirements would crack down on tourist excursions masquerading as academic trips.

Such tourist trips have been criticized by exile groups as helping prop up the regime of Fidel Castro.

‘‘The public will know who’s going on these trips and where they’re going. Are they going to the Copacabana [nightclub]? Are they going to party?’’ Rivera said. “I just want to know that the trip is genuine.’‘

The fees on charter planes make sense, Rivera said, because the money is coming from travel to a nation listed by the federal government as a sponsor of terrorism. Those traveling to such places should help finance security efforts back home, he said.

GUIDELINES

Rivera’s legislation is titled Charter Travel to Terrorist States and avoids singling out Cuba by saying its guidelines apply to travel between Florida and any of the seven nations the U.S. State Department labels as supporting terrorism. Besides Cuba, the countries are Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Lybia, Syria and Sudan.

Because direct charter flights from Florida to any of the other nations are basically nonexistent, the bill ultimately applies to only one.

Rivera admitted as much to a House committee last week, saying, “You’re basically looking at Cuba.’‘

The bill has six cosponsors in the House and won unanimous approval at its first committee stop last week. The Senate version, sponsored by Miami Republican Alex Diaz de la Portilla, gets its first committee stop Monday.

An official at one charter airline that would be saddled with the bill’s extra fees—which vary based on a plane’s weight, but amount to thousands of dollars per flight—accused Rivera and other state politicians backing the measure of playing election-year games to prove their toughness on Cuba.

`EVERYDAY PEOPLE’

‘‘Obviously, this is something that would add to the fare,’’ said Armando Garcia, vice president of Marazul Charters, who said the fees, if approved, would ultimately be paid, at least partly, by passengers. “The people who are going to be affected are the everyday people from the street who are going to visit their relatives.’‘

Florida International University Provost Mark Rosenberg wondered if Rivera’s disclosure requirements could run afoul of federal guidelines on student privacy.

The school has a week-long trip to Havana planned this summer as part of a three-credit class, Humanities in Cuba.

FIU ‘‘could have some issues’’ with submitting the names and addresses of students going on such trips, Rosenberg said.

Rivera’s bill calls for not only that, but also asks schools to provide at least 50 days in advance, a list of planned hotel and restaurant accommodations, scheduled meetings with governmental officials or average Cuban citizens and an accounting of how everyone’s money will be spent.

NOTHING TO HIDE

Rosenberg said his school welcomed transparency, and had nothing to hide, but he did worry about scrutiny going too far.

‘‘It could also lead to issues of what are you going to teach, and what are the actual materials used in the course,’’ he said.

“I can’t deny I have some concerns about the specificity of the information.’‘

The U.S. Treasury Department, which issues travel licenses for colleges and universities to visit Cuba, declined to comment on Rivera’s proposal.

Spokeswoman Molly Millerwise did say the department had problems in the past with pseudo-educational trips that were really tourism in disguise.

In response, the federal government last year suspended the more informal, person-to-person education trips, limiting cultural exchanges to formal school-organized excursions.

‘‘Any travel-related dollars that are going into Cuba, the majority go to Castro and his regime,’’ Millerwise said. “Which can be used to further oppress his people.’‘

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