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Curbs on Travel to Cuba Feared

Tour and charter operators say Bush's push for restrictions will hit them hard.

October 18, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — From her third-floor office in the weathered Mission District, Ana Perez has arranged for more than 6,000 Americans to travel legally to Cuba on education and cultural exchange tours in the last two years.

The Cuba "reality tour" program is the most successful of several operated by her San Francisco nonprofit organization, Global Exchange. But Perez said a recent Bush administration push to restrict travel to the island would cut her business to a trickle by the end of the year.

Long Beach travel agent Michael Zuccato, who operates a weekly charter flight to Havana from Los Angeles International Airport, fears losing customers to a rival Cuban government charter that departs from Tijuana.

"The only result of the travel restrictions," he said, "is to take money away from American businesses."

Also affected by the administration's restrictions on the "People to People" travel category established under President Clinton are university alumni associations, Central and South American study programs and nonprofit religious organizations.

"We are worried about being stopped by U.S. officials and asked a lot of questions. It's scary," said George Friemoth, whose Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas leads three small delegations a year to Cuba, with each traveler carrying 30 pounds of medicine and humanitarian supplies.

In a Rose Garden policy speech last week, President Bush vowed to crack down on what he described as "deception" by sponsors of humanitarian and educational trips to Cuba in violation of the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of the island nation.

This followed a March announcement by the Treasury Department that it would not renew most group travel licenses granted under the Clinton administration.

"Our license expires Dec. 31," said Perez, a 35-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador who directs Global Exchange's Cuba program. "We have been told it will not be renewed. This will cut our programs by at least 75%."

The Bush announcements, including a move to use the Department of Homeland Security to track illegal American travel to Cuba from third countries, have been celebrated by conservative Miami-based Cuban American organizations that still play an important role in Florida politics.

"A lot of these travel licenses," said Joe Garcia, executive director of one of the most outspoken of those groups, the Cuban American National Foundation, "were basically a joke that allowed them to operate a tourist service in Cuba and promote the Castro regime."

But the Cuba travel ban is not popular in Congress. In September, the House voted 227 to 188 to ease travel restrictions. The Senate is considering a nearly identical amendment that Bush has threatened to veto if it reaches his desk.

The author of the House amendment, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), says the administration's crackdown on Cuba is "unfortunate and runs counter to Republican foreign policy everywhere else. Frankly, it smacks of politics."

Flake said he is also concerned about adding the enforcement of Cuba travel violations to Homeland Security's duties.

"We will now station customs officials in Canada looking for Americans with suntans," he said, "when a better use of their resources would be looking for terrorists."

Since taking power, the Bush administration has steadily increased pursuit of Americans who go to Cuba by way of third countries.

The most celebrated such case involved Joan Slote, a 75-year-old San Diego grandmother and bicycle enthusiast who traveled to Cuba from Canada in 2000, thinking it was legal. After her return, the Treasury Department presented her with a $8,305.23 fine under the Cuban Trading With the Enemy Act. The fine was followed by a notice that the government planned to deduct the penalty from her $1,184 monthly Social Security checks.

Last July, Slote finally agreed to settle the claim by paying a $1,907 penalty. But according to her attorney, Tom Miller of Oakland, she continues to be "harassed" for payments by private collections agencies hired by the Treasury Department.

In another recent development, letters sent by the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control have announced plans to hold hearings under administrative law judges for Americans accused of violating Cuban travel rules. Alleged violators will be given the choice of an administrative trial or paying a $1,000 fine for each charge.

"The Bush administration has, in essence, barred travel to Cuba for ordinary Americans," said Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. "Bringing in administrative law judges will convert the Office of Foreign Assets Control into a giant collection agency to go after grandmothers who take innocent bike trips to Cuba."

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