The Will Adams Embargo

The sad saga of how the feds hounded a senior citizen over, what else, Cuba

Under federal law it is legal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba without a Treasury Department license as long as they don't spend a cent. The challenge, however, is proving that they didn't. How can you produce evidence of something that didn't happen? The conundrum is driving Adams asunder. "In a criminal suit the government has to prove I'm guilty. In a civil suit I have to prove that I'm innocent. Well, how in the hell am I going to do that? There's no fucking way I can prove I'm innocent. Excuse my French."

Worse, the Treasury Department never granted Adams a hearing. "No due process," he complained. In December 2001, Newcomb forwarded the case to the department's Financial Management Division for debt collection (under the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996).

After a year of frustrating phone-tag games with bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., Adams has now concluded that justice will not be sailing his way. But he is drawing a line in the sand: He's innocent, he doesn't have the money, he's not paying, and he's prepared to go to prison. "I said, screw it, you know? And if worst comes to worst," he continued, eyes getting moist, "I'm going to send Donna off, give her the few bucks that we have, and say, 'Come down and put 'em on, baby," Adams said serenely. And with that, he thrust two fists together for handcuffing by the imaginary law enforcement officers who had just boarded Tigua.


Their delightful sail to Cuba in the summer of 1998 was the calm before the storm. Before leaving for the island Adams and his wife informed the U.S. Coast Guard station in Key West of their plans to enter Cuban waters. Such notification is required under Presidential Proclamation 6867 (proclaimed by Clinton in March 1996), which established a "security zone" around the coast of South Florida. The purpose was to keep angry exiles out of high-seas confrontations with Cuban patrol boats after one of Castro's bloodthirsty MiG pilots pulverized two Cessnas and four Brothers to the Rescue members over the Florida Straits in February of that year.

When Coast Guard officers faxed Adams an application for a security zone permit, he noted a paradoxical Privacy Act Statement at the bottom, which read: "DISCLOSURE IS VOLUNTARY: If you do not provide the requested information ... you will not be issued a permit." So he sent it in. Will-Bob and Donna even drove down to Key West and bought a security zone permit for $25. The transaction would come back to bite him.

The sail took two days. "The weather was nice. Beautiful," he recollected. When they arrived at the buoy marking the channel into Hemingway Marina, Will-Bob radioed Canadian Jack. "And he said, 'Just hold up out there. I'll be out there in a minute in my dinghy.' So he came out in his rubber dinghy and said, 'I'll escort you in.' So he took us in and everything was cool and he says, 'You gotta check in with customs, immigration.' They were very nice. Unlike American immigration. And I said, 'How much is that going to cost me?' and he says, 'Don't worry, I've taken care of everything.'"

Canadian Jack insisted on taking them to Old Havana right away. "I said, 'Great. That's why I'm here," Adams recalled. "Old Havana is beautiful. It is spectacular."

They spent two weeks docked at Hemingway, sleeping on the Tigua, hanging out on Canadian Jack's boat, taking day trips into Havana, but never using any of their own money, Will-Bob stressed. "We'd ride with people who were going to town. We didn't use a taxi to go anywhere, because you had to spend money for a taxi," Adams emphasized. "We made damn sure we got a ride. If we didn't get a ride we didn't go to town. And then we'd get a ride back with some tourists." They ate from the ample supply of food they routinely keep on their boat whether they are traveling or at home in their Marathon Key harbor.

One day while watching TV on Canadian Jack's power boat (via a satellite system), they caught a report featuring Jack Nicholson, who happened to be visiting Cuba at the time. "So Jack Nicholson is there and he's on the goddam television, smoking a cigar, buying everyone drinks. He's saying, 'Why can't we smoke these cigars? Goddam!' And he's cursing. We all watched that and we all laughed and thought that was funny as hell. Little did I know that I was going to run into all this shit coming back."

Upon their return to Marathon, Will-Bob called a toll-free U.S. Customs number to check in, as he routinely did when coming back from trips to the Bahamas, Mexico, and other places. Thinking they were being extra-diligent, he and Donna again drove to Key West for processing by customs and immigration officers.

Almost a year had passed when a Treasury Department envelope arrived in Adams's P.O. box. The letter, dated May 28, 1999, was signed by David Harmon, chief of OFAC's enforcement division. He wanted the Adamses to know he had received information from the U.S. Customs Service in Key West about their June 1998 visit to Cuba. Because OFAC had no record of issuing him a license authorizing "travel-related transactions involving Cuba," Harmon wrote, the Adamses were now required to provide a detailed report about the trip.

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