U.S. Cracks Down on Travel to Cuba

Wednesday, August 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Even as Congress considers easing the ban on travel to Cuba, the Treasury Department is cracking down on Americans who may have traveled illegally to the communist island.

The department has increased sharply the number of letters it sends seeking fines from Americans thought to have violated the travel ban. A suspected violator must pay the fine, prove their innocence or request a hearing before an administrative judge.

The maximum penalty is $55,000, but lawyers say the average is about $7,500.

From May 4 to July 30, Treasury sent out 443 letters, compared with 74 letters from Jan. 3 to May 3. That's an average of about 19 a month before May and 150 a month afterward.

President Bush said July 13 he was tightening enforcement of the 39-year-old embargo, intended to pressure democratic changes on President Fidel Castro's island.

The Treasury Department said, however, the increase in letters stems from decisions made during the Clinton administration.

Faced with a backlog of cases of Americans who may have traveled to Cuba illegally, the Treasury office that oversees the sanctions temporarily assigned more workers last fall to speed up the process, Treasury spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.

That work led to the surge of letters in recent months, Scolinos said.

Treasury is likely to keep up the pressure. The office is considering how to implement Bush's order for stricter enforcement of the embargo, Scolinos said.

Congress, meanwhile, is moving to lift the travel ban. A House amendment to a Treasury spending bill would bar the department from enforcing it. The bill will now be considered by the Senate.

The Republican who introduced the amendment, Jeff Flake of Arizona, said Treasury's crackdown is ``just an example of how absurd it is for our government to try to restrict where our citizens can go.''

Most U.S. citizens are effectively barred from visiting Cuba under laws that prohibit Americans from spending money there. Journalists, researchers and certain other categories of travelers are exempted.

During the Clinton administration, travel regulations were eased in hopes that greater contacts between Cubans and Americans could help bring democratic change. As travel to Cuba increased, Cuban-American groups accused Clinton of doing little to enforce the embargo.

``Our sense was that under the previous administration, (Treasury) was certainly not encouraged, and maybe actively discouraged, from enforcing the law; and that under this administration, they've been told or allowed to do their jobs,'' said Dennis Hays of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation.

Bush has counted on the support of politically important Cuban-Americans in Florida, the pivotal state in the 2000 election where Bush's brother Jeb will seek re-election as governor next year.

Bush's July announcement that he would step up enforcement came just three days before he made a decision less popular among Cuban-American groups: suspension of a law that would have allowed more lawsuits over property seized in Cuba.

Many Cuban-American activists favor the travel ban, arguing that tourist dollars help Castro's government. But Cuban Americans also comprise the biggest group of U.S. visitors to Cuba. Most travel under laws that allow them to make annual humanitarian trips to Cuba to visit relatives.

The Cuban government estimates that 120,000 Cuban-Americans visited last year, 60 percent of the 200,000 overall American visitors.

U.S. officials are unsure of the specific number of American visitors to Cuba. Many travelers, both legal and illegal, fly through third countries, such as Mexico and Canada. Also, most of the legal travelers, including Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, need not apply for U.S. permits to visit the island.

The New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council estimates 173,000 Americans visited Cuba last year, including 22,000 in defiance of the travel ban.

Treasury has various ways of identifying Americans who have visited Cuba illegally, including the travelers' admissions on Customs forms and surveillance of Americans getting off flights from Cuba at foreign airports.

An American suspected of flying illegally may at first receive a letter from Treasury requesting information about the trip.

In one high-profile example, Scolinos confirmed Treasury is looking into a trip to Cuba in February involving top entertainment executives, including chief executives Leslie Moonves of CBS and Tom Freston of MTV. She cautioned the review was preliminary and no determination had been made.

The executives' attorney, Richard Popkin of Washington, declined comment.

Bob Guild, whose agency arranges travel to Cuba, said strict enforcement of the ban could discourage legal visits.

``I think it's meant to deter people from going and send a signal that they're really serious about cracking down on it,'' said Guild of Marazul Tours, based in Weehawken, N.J.

Scolinos said most legal travelers are familiar with the rules. ``We believe that the enforcement of U.S. law will not impact lawful travel,'' she said.