By Rafael Lorente | Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON · The Bush administration for the first time is beginning judicial proceedings against dozens of people accused of illegally visiting Cuba, 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 any administrative law judges.
But earlier this year, the office borrowed several judges from the Justice Department and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. 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 are often questioned in writing about their trips. Many are later told to pay a hefty fine, often about $7,500.
That’s exactly 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, visiting Trinidad on the south side of the island and even giving a ride to a hitchhiking woman and her daughter trying to get a newly purchased fan 30 miles back to their home.
An awkward time
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 were sent letters from the Treasury Department asking for $15,000 in fines—$7,500 each. They asked for hearings and last month Michael McCarthy received a letter signed by Richard Newcomb, the director of the foreign assets control office.
The letter says McCarthy violated the Trading with the Enemy Act by spending about $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 about $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 government 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.
This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-5 for a separate bill that would overturn the travel ban altogether.
Chang, the New York lawyer, thinks the legislation would make the hearings before administrative law judges moot.
The filibuster option
President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation weakening the travel 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 being held now to work out differences between the House and Senate versions.
This week, two Republicans and two Democrats in the Senate opposed to the president’s Cuba policy sent a letter to the conference 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. Bush 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. During the 2000 campaign, Bush promised to be tougher on Castro, and enforcing the travel ban was one way to do it.
But many of Bush’s Cuban-American allies have not been happy with the administration, saying it has not done enough and threatening to withhold support in next year’s presidential election.
In response, Bush 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, which he said encourages “an illicit sex trade.”
But within two weeks, the Senate voted to forbid enforcing the travel ban, setting up the current 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.”