Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
Wednesday February 26, 2003
Joan Slote, who went on a cycling holiday to Cuba, was fined nearly $8,000 (£5,000) for breaking the US embargo of the island. Her case is one of a growing number in which the US treasury department is actively pursuing Americans who have visited the island or who are suspected of encouraging others to do so.
The numbers of American visitors sought for breaking the embargo has quadrupled since the Bush administration took office. The treasury department now warns that those who visit without permission may face fines of up to $55,000. The moves come despite a growing campaign in the US among farmers, entrepreneurs and politicians, many of them Republicans, to end the embargo. Currently, Americans are banned from visiting Cuba unless they have a licence to do so on religious, humanitarian, educational or journalistic grounds.
Mrs Slote, 74, from San Diego, is a gold medal-winning cyclist at the senior olympics. She booked a cycling holiday three years ago through a Toronto-based company which told her she did not require a licence if she entered Cuba via Canada. Her holiday was a success but on her return to the US from Toronto, she was asked by US customs if she had visited any countries apart from Canada. She told them about Cuba and said she had bought token souvenirs, each worth about $1, as presents.
Months later, she received a letter from the treasury saying she had been fined $7,500 and an additional $130 for the souvenirs. As her monthly income is $1,200, she is unable to pay. The treasury demands are now increasing, adding 6% interest to every claim.
“The whole thing has been a nightmare,” said Mrs Slote. The treasury has now indicated they may subtract the money from her social security.
It is not only people who travel to Cuba who are being investigated. Tom Warner of the Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee was told by the treasury that he now faced thousands of dollars in fines because his website listed details of holidays in Cuba. They said he was seeking “to organise and promote” in breach of the embargo.
“They told me I had 20 days to respond or face a $20,000 fine,” said Mr Warner yesterday. He believed he had “the dubious honour” of being the first to face a penalty just for posting such information on a website.
Mr Warner said he believed the treasury’s action was unconstitutional. “I am concerned that this assault on the freedom of speech and expression - especially through the internet - be staunched before it chills people’s free expression and their ability to respond to objectionable behaviour by the government,” he said.
Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based organisation which organises educational trips to Cuba and other countries, said the harassment of American travellers to the island had increased significantly over the past year. Malia Everette of Global Exchange said that although the US allowed visits to China and Vietnam, “powerful lobby groups” opposed loosening restrictions to Cuba.
Around 19,000 travel licences were granted in 2001 but there is no record of how many Americans entered without notifying the government. The treasury is investigating 697 people for breaking the embargo in 2001, compared with 188 the previous year.
The main pressure for maintaining the embargo comes from the conservative wing of the Cuban American community in Florida which played a key part in the election of President Bush and his brother, Jeb, as the state’s governor.
More than 160 countries have called, through the UN, for an end to the embargo, which was launched in 1962 and intensified by President Reagan in 1982.