Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Bush administration is making it very hard for American tourists to lie on the white sand beaches of Cuba’s Varadero or enjoy a daiquiri at Old Havana’s El Floridita without facing a stiff fine when they get home.

The result, officials say, is a sharp drop in the number of Americans visiting Cuba — legally or illegally — and pumping dollars into the Cuban regime.

Even Cuban-Americans are coming under increased scrutiny if they try to visit the island more than once a year or carry more money to their relatives than is permitted.

“The Bush administration is using all the resources of [the Homeland Security Department] to aggressively enforce the existing regulations,” said John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan group that monitors trade with Cuba.

“The result has been to discourage all travel, even authorized travel. People don’t want to go because of the hassle factor. The goal is to decrease the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba, lessening the economic benefit to Cuba.”

The Trading with the Enemy Act, which makes it illegal for U.S. visitors to spend money when traveling to Cuba, rarely was enforced before Florida’s Cuban-American voters played a key role in President Bush’s razor-thin 2000 victory.

In a Rose Garden speech before Cuban-Americans on Oct. 10, Mr. Bush announced plans to step up enforcement of the law. In the next 20 days, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sent out 159 “new notices” to Americans suspected of violating the law.

White House Latin American envoy Otto Reich told a group of businessmen and academics in Washington this month that “surveillance and enforcement have increased 100 percent.”

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Department of Homeland Security, said in December that his department had examined 54,000 passengers traveling to Cuba to ensure that they were properly authorized in the two months after Mr. Bush’s remarks.

He said 171 persons had been denied permission to travel and 44 persons returning to the United States after visiting Cuba face civil prosecution.

“More than 99 percent of the people we searched were in compliance with the restrictions of the embargo,” he said. “I attribute this to the fact that this crackdown has been well publicized.”

There have been strong efforts in Congress to repeal the travel ban, with the House voting 227-188 and the Senate 59-36 in October. But that was stripped out of the final version of the bill before it was sent to Mr. Bush.

In 2000, the Office of Foreign Assets Control sent “pre-penalty notices” to 188 Americans suspected of traveling illegally to Cuba. The number jumped to 697 in 2001, but as word of the increased enforcement got out, it dropped to 447 in 2002 and 350 in the past year.

According to Mr. Kavulich, 156,000 Americans visit Cuba each year, almost 90 percent of them Cuban-Americans making authorized visits home. A small number of journalists, academics, businessmen and humanitarian and religious groups also make “licensed” visits.

However, 22,000 to 25,000 Americans travel to Cuba illegally, either as political activists or simply as tourists looking for a cheap Caribbean vacation. Most travel to Cuba through a third country, often on vacation packages from Canada or Mexico.

If U.S. citizens visit Cuba and fail to put it on the post-trip declaration form, they can be charged with perjury and their name entered into the Homeland Security Department database. If they admit to traveling to Cuba, they are subject to a fine of as much as $10,000.

Until recently, there were no administrative judges to hear the cases of those accused. But, with the push from the White House, three judges have been hired and are expected to begin hearing cases in the near future.

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