Passport to Paradox

The Cuban embargo is supposed to be getting tougher on travelers, but it's just getting weirder

Those who can't claim general license exemptions may apply for licenses under a broad and relatively vague classification the Treasury Department has created. It covers individuals who travel for professional research or who need to visit family members more than once per year, or whose reasons for travel are religious or educational, or who travel "to bring information in or out of the country," or those whose travel supports "civil society." If a proposed trip falls within one of these definitions, the Treasury Department will grant a specific license for that trip. The same spending limit of $100 per day applies to this group.

One final way to travel legally to Cuba is to be "fully hosted." Since it's only a violation for a U.S. citizen to spend money in Cuba, if someone not subject to the embargo covers all costs without reimbursement the trip is legitimate. In the past, travelers could claim to be fully hosted simply by producing a letter stating as much. Treasury officials and travel watchers say hundreds of people claimed to be fully hosted when in fact they were not. "The fully hosted [clause] has been abused for years, and everybody knows it," says John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

So on March 20, in an effort to get tough on unauthorized travel, the Treasury Department changed the rules again. Travelers must now prove they didn't spend dollars in Cuba.

"This is about a presumption," says a senior Treasury official who declined to be named. "If you travel, you have to spend money. When someone pays for your trip, there are records for this."

Critics of the embargo scoff at what they call just another layer of rules that can't be enforced in any coherent way. "Conceptually, it is very difficult to prove that something didn't happen," says Rona. "It represents the frustration that [Treasury] has."

The thaw produced by the Pope's visit to Cuba in January spurred the Clinton administration to allow resumption of direct flights between Miami and Cuba. Paradoxically, that move came as Treasury itself has increased enforcement. Many observers consider it a concession to those who support tougher policies against the Castro government.

"It doesn't make sense, but what about the embargo ever did?" asks Wayne Smith, a former State Department official in Cuba and long-time foe of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Supporters of the embargo argue that, even if enforcement is flawed, the United States must continue to apply pressure against Cuba; when Fidel Castro dies, they say, that pressure will pay off in leverage to force elections.

"Let's keep it in perspective," says Miami Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "[The embargo] should be complied with. But never lose perspective of what we are doing here -- we are denying them billions of dollars." With that in mind, the congressional delegations of South Florida and New Jersey -- from states with the largest number of Cuban Americans in the country -- relentlessly pressure the Treasury Department to enforce its rules. One congressional aide who works for a Cuban-American legislator says her boss performs a ritual every month: He calls Richard Newcomb, director of OFAC, into his office to demand that the agency do more to enforce the embargo. Aides in the offices of other pro-embargo legislators tell similar stories.

"We would like to see these people harassed a little bit," says Stephen Vermillion, an aide to Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Vermillion says the office wants more criminal prosecutions of those who violate the travel embargo; there has been only one criminal prosecution of a travel violation in the past five years.

Lawyers say the burden of proof required for a criminal conviction is usually too difficult for OFAC to meet. In a criminal case, the agency must prove that a defendant knew the exact provision of the law; in civil prosecution, the agency need only demonstrate that the law was, in fact, broken. From fiscal year 1994 to January 1998, OFAC has collected a total of nearly $1.6 million in civil penalties for embargo violations in 287 separate cases.

Trying to appease everyone has left a wake of frustration, anger, and confusion. Regulatory disarray caught the attention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the nation's oldest professional societies. Based in Washington, D.C., its membership comprises more than 143,000 scientists, engineers, educators, and policymakers worldwide. The association also publishes the prestigious journal Science. So it's not so surprising that, when presented with a labyrinthine quandary, analytical minds went to work. Last June the AAAS won the promise of a grant from the Ford Foundation to establish a Website in order to document the enforcement of travel restrictions to Cuba. The association has also had a Freedom of Information Act request pending for two years requesting information about all applications for licenses to Cuba by U.S. citizens for educational or scientific purposes.

The idea for the Website information clearinghouse arose after a series of incidents that left U.S. scholars struggling to make sense of the travel provisions of the embargo. In the past year alone, the Treasury Department has barred Cuban scientists from participation in U.S. conferences and has denied travel licenses to American academics. Some scholars received warning letters citing their possible participation in even organizing such trips. In March, for example, twenty Cuban professors and professionals were denied entry visas for a conference titled "Dialogue with Cuba" at the University of California, Berkeley, despite the appeals by 21 congresspersons made directly to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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