- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

HAVANA They come by boat or plane, sneaking into Cuba with barely a trace. If you ask from where they hail, they may lie. After they return home, their passports often have no sign they were here.

They aren't spies or undercover agents just American tourists wanting to see forbidden Cuba while it's still forbidden.

More American lawmakers both Democrats and Republicans support ending the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said during a visit to Havana last month that he thought Americans soon would be able to travel to the communist island freely.

While Americans who come to Cuba would like to do it legally, many also like visiting a place where few compatriots are seen.

"I know what will happen if it opens up to tourism. It'll be nasty and materialistic and the Backstreet Boys will be playing in the streets," said Zac Christie, a San Francisco resident sitting on Havana's Malecon seawall. He said he had met only four Americans during his three weeks here.

European visitors had similar feelings.

"McDonald's will show up, and it will be kind of dangerous," Neale Blevins from Newcastle, England, said while sipping a rum cocktail at an outdoor cafe. "It will lose its charm."

Tourism has increased steadily the past 15 years, becoming a major currency earner for Cuba. It is especially popular with Europeans and Canadians, who come to sunbathe on the island's beaches, hike in its mountains and listen to the live music flooding Old Havana.

Backed by other pro-business Republicans, Mr. Flake won House approval this year for an amendment to bar the U.S. Treasury Department from spending money to enforce the travel ban. The Senate had been expected to take up a similar measure, but consideration has been sidelined by the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Even if approved by the Senate, an end to the travel ban is unlikely to be supported by President Bush. He has promised not to relax the 4-decade-old economic embargo of Cuba until it holds free elections and releases political prisoners.

The U.S. Treasury Department was stepping up enforcement of the ban this year as lawmakers debated its removal. Officials mailed 74 letters from January through April to people suspected of traveling to Cuba without permission; that number increased to 443 over the ensuing three months. (To read the rules, visit the Internet site: https://www.treas.gov/ofac/cubapage.html.)

Americans are effectively barred from traveling to Cuba by regulations prohibiting them from spending money here. American journalists, humanitarian workers, academic researchers and some Cuban Americans can obtain U.S. permission to spend money in Cuba, letting them fly here on charter flights directly from the United States.

Those without such permission come by boat or on flights from third countries such as Mexico or Canada. If caught, they can face fines of up to $55,000, but the average is around $7,500.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan business organization focusing on Cuba, estimates 173,000 Americans visited the island last year 22,000 without U.S. approval. The Cuban government says a total of 1.7 million tourists visited in 2000.

Mr. Flake (www.house.gov/flake/) argues that increased contact with Americans and their democratic ideas could help force reforms in President Fidel Castro's authoritarian government.

Manolo Garcia, a spokesman for Cuba's tourism industry, says the island would welcome more American visitors. (The Cuban government's Internet site in English: http/www.cubagov.cu/Ingles/default.htm.)

Cuban customs officials generally haven't stamped Americans' passports, helping them avoid problems back home. However, some American tourists complained recently that officials appeared to have changed that policy, insisting on marking passports.

Nelsa Lafuente, who sells brightly colored papier-mache crafts at a local market, says she has stopped writing "Made in Cuba" on her souvenirs because customers say they fear problems back home.

Because the stricter U.S. enforcement against American travel to Cuba is so new, as are the moves to eliminate the ban, it is too soon to say whether more or fewer Americans are visiting. Also unknown is the impact that the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington will have on visits by Americans.

Many U.S. visitors interviewed said they decided to come because they heard the ban on travel might soon be lifted. Almost all knew about the increased enforcement.

"I've been a little worried about going home, but I know a lot of people who have come and they haven't had problems," said Mr. Christie, the San Franciscan sunning himself at the Malecon.

Most Americans wouldn't give their names, however, fearing fines or other repercussions back home. Four Florida men who sail here nearly every other weekend worry their employers will fire them if they find out.

New Yorker James Lavoie said the travel ban made coming to Cuba more of an adventure.

"Obviously, it has a kind of appeal," he said. "Kind of the forbidden fruit."

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