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U.S. crackdown puts end to travelers' Cuba party

| Sunday, Oct. 19, 2003

The rumba party isn't over yet for U.S. travelers to Cuba, but the lights have dimmed, the music is fading and guests are starting to leave. It might be time to grab that last dance -- or is it?

A year ago, business was booming for nonprofits that annually send an estimated 20,000 Americans to Cuba. Then, in March, the U.S. Treasury Department said it would stop issuing "people-to-people" licenses, which many of these operators use. As the remaining licenses expire -- most in November or December-- so do these trips.

By next year, nonprofits I talked with expect to have virtually ended their Cuba travel programs or plan to offer far fewer departures -- in one case, only one-fourth as many. Meanwhile, they are scrambling to redesign tours to qualify under more restrictive licensing categories.

The bottom line: It looks as though you'll still be able to travel to Cuba legally next year, but on fewer and more limited itineraries that might require, for instance, that you spend virtually all your time doing research or delivering humanitarian aid. Trips also might become pricier, mostly because the nonprofits' staffing costs will be spread over fewer tours.

If you're thinking of going illegally on your own, without a licensed group or by traveling through Canada or Mexico, think again. The Treasury Department is cracking down on these trips, too.

The department last year penalized about 450 alleged violators, spokesman Taylor Griffin said. That's only a fraction of the estimated 22,000 to 60,000 people who go to Cuba illegally each year, but it's several times the number typically penalized under previous administrations. Fines can be as much as $55,000 under civil law; criminal penalties can include 10 years in jail or a $250,000 fine.

Ignorance is no excuse. Joan Slote, a 75-year-old San Diego woman who has become a cause celebre for advocates of Cuba travel, was fined nearly $8,000 in 2001 after joining a bicycle trip in Cuba sponsored by a Canadian company. She said she didn't know her visit was illegal. (Last month, she negotiated the penalty down to $1,907.)

"The Bush administration is committed to full and fair enforcement of the U.S. sanctions against Fidel Castro's Cuba," Griffin said.

That attitude is putting a chill on a 4-year-old thaw in U.S. travel to Cuba, which has been tightly restricted during four decades of trade sanctions designed to isolate the communist island 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Technically, it's not illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba under the convoluted regulations. It's just illegal to spend money there, with certain exceptions. These include people visiting close relatives or traveling as part of their work, such as journalists, government employees and professionals attending conferences.

Other Americans can travel to Cuba with educational or religious institutions or with other groups, mostly nonprofits, that have secured so-called specific licenses from the Treasury Department. These licenses authorize trips for specific purposes, such as professional research or to attend workshops.

About 154,000 Americans went to Cuba legally last year, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc., a New York-based not-for-profit organization that advises businesses on dealing with the island. He estimated that at least 85 percent of them were people of Cuban descent visiting family.

Of the rest, he estimated that 70 percent or 16,000, went with groups that held one type of specific license: for educational activities that promote "people-to-people contact."

Treasury began to issue these broadly worded licenses in 1999 under the Clinton administration, and such trips have since burgeoned.

The boom, experts said, brought unscrupulous use of the license. "It was beginning to be used for tourist travel," Griffin said. In the view of the Bush administration, that "does little more than line the pockets of the Castro regime."

Kavulich was blunter. He said "some two-bit hustlers" tried to profit at the expense of the program by, among other ploys, making business deals while traveling on the license or trading it to unauthorized parties.

Critics have accused the Bush administration of clamping down on the licenses to curry favor with anti-Castro expatriate Cubans. They note that restrictions on visiting relatives in Cuba and sending them money have been loosened. They also say the ban on people-to-people contact is unfair because many groups use the license legitimately.

But Griffin said tightening enforcement on the license was not an option because it was so vaguely worded; nearly any activity could be viewed as educational.

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