The Will Adams Embargo

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

Meanwhile Adams is left to ponder whether the political currents pushing Congress toward dismantling the embargo will ever overcome those flowing in the other direction. He was heartened this past July when the U.S. House voted 262 to 167 to stop funding the Treasury Department's travel ban enforcement operations. Also in July a House measure proposing to end the embargo altogether came closer than ever to passage, but still failed 226 to 204. But the Senate has taken no action on either.

Particularly annoying to Adams is that while OFAC is cracking down on someone who didn't spend a cent in Cuba, it is ignoring people who routinely pour money into the island, some of whom he knows personally. Under federal law, U.S. citizens and residents may send no more than $300 to a household in Cuba over a three-month period, provided that no member of that home is a senior-level official of the Cuban government or Communist Party. They may also send a one-time payment of $1000 to someone on the island to help that person emigrate. Cubans in the U.S. send at least a half-billion dollars to the island every year, according to Cuba economy specialists.

Steve Satterwhite
From morning commute to bedtime, Adams wonders: Just who does his government think the enemy is here?
Steve Satterwhite
From morning commute to bedtime, Adams wonders: Just who does his government think the enemy is here?

"I know a guy in Cuba that I knew in Miami," Adams related. "They threw him out of Miami because he had three DUIs. He spoke English as well as you and I. And he gets a check every month from his family. And I can't even go down there and buy a goddam beer."

Adams hasn't bothered to contact U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who as of her re-election in November now represents Keys residents. The GOP-run state legislature drew them into her district and out of Deutsch's early last year. Oddly enough, though, she is probably in a better position to intervene than Graham, Nelson, and Deutsch. In 2001 President Bush named her former chief of staff, Mauricio Tamargo, chairman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a Justice Department office that works closely with the Treasury Department on monetary matters related to embargoes. But while Ros-Lehtinen is a fiery defender of the inalienable right of Cuban citizens to leave Cuba for the United States, she does not support a U.S. citizen's right to travel freely in the opposite direction. Adams, tired of "the typical blah, blah, blah" from elected officials, believes anti-Castro politics would trump any appeal he could make to her.

"Under Clinton they only hassled a couple hundred people. But George Bush decided, well, we gotta play the Cuban card," Adams surmised. "Don't misunderstand me. I'm not being prejudiced against the Cuban people. I'm just saying that they're playing their political card. Ileana's playing her political card and what's-his-face, Diaz-Balart, is playing his deal."

A Treasury Department letter dated September 30, 2002 ratcheted up the pressure on Adams. If he did not pay the $10,743 he now owed within the next 30 days, the notice warned, the department would target his federal payments. The letter listed a variety of sources from which OFAC could snatch funds, including income tax refunds, salaries, pensions, checks to victims of black lung disease, and Social Security, Will-Bob's only current source of cash.

"The boys are playing hardball now," Adams said, sounding resigned. "Excuse me, I don't know whether you're Republican or Democrat or Independent or what, but George Bush has decided he's really going to get tough. The problem is, it's all political. The Cubans in South Florida got Bush elected president, in Florida. They got Jeb elected governor in Florida. So they've gotta play baseball with the Cubans."

The next two years will give President Bush a chance to consider whether a policy that squashes freedom in the name of freedom could become a liability. In Congress, many of his fellow Republicans have already defected on the issue, as have many of those whose political clout led to the policy in the first place: Cuban Americans. Year after year Florida International University sociologist Lisandro Perez's biannual polls show that an increasingly large majority of Cuban Americans believe the embargo is a failed policy, even though, illogically, many simultaneously support it. As word of that trend spreads, more in Congress are likely to jump ship.

Not President Bush yet, though. As Nichols, the deputy assistant Treasury secretary, told New Times: "Our Cuba policy recognizes that a relationship of continuing hostility exists between Cuba and the United States. International human rights organizations recognize that Cuba violates internationally accepted standards of basic human rights." And, as if liberty to travel freely were not a human right, he continued: "The American people need to know that if they go to Cuba illegally they run the risk of being fined. We will enforce the law of the land."

If all else fails, Adams has an exit strategy. If he learns federal authorities are moving in to confiscate the Tigua, he is prepared to lift anchor and sail to Mexico. Then everyone involved in maintaining and enforcing a law intended to punish a regime that has produced enough refugees over the past 43 years to fill entire cities, can marvel at the creation of a new kind of refugee.

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