Trading with the enemy
A cultural trip to Cuba puts a Davis woman at odds with the Bush administration
Surrounded by pictures of happy couples walking on pristine beaches, and scenes of bustling life on Havana streets, a final message beckons to Americans visiting the Cuban Adventures Web site: “U.S. CITIZENS … 90 percent of our clients are Americans and to their often pleasant surprise, they are warmly welcomed by Cubans.”
The Cuban residents were, indeed, pleasant and welcoming toward Barbara Melander when the Davis resident traveled to Havana as part of a music and cultural tour in April 2001.
That wasn’t the reaction of the U.S. government upon learning of the 88-year-old’s sojourn to an embargoed country.
But Melander, now 91, insists she isn’t a rule breaker and contends she was unaware of the ban on travel to Cuba still in effect for most U.S. residents when she took her trip. So, the suggestion by her government that she knowingly engaged in illegal activity when she traveled to Cuba as part of a pre-paid packaged music and cultural tour with fellow Davis residents strikes her as both ludicrous and offensive.
Almost as ridiculous in her eyes is the $7,500 fine she was slapped with about six months after her return, when the U.S. Treasury Department first notified her that she had violated the “Trading with the Enemy Act” of 1917.
“As far as we knew, we did nothing wrong,” said Melander recently. “I wasn’t aware this ban was in effect. Certainly, I would not intentionally break any laws; what’s the use?”
In fact, when Melander booked her tour, she was told she needed nothing but a valid passport to travel.
A group of 17 Davis residents—most of whom were older than 65—went to Terra & Hendrickx Travel in Davis, which essentially acted as a facilitator between the travelers and an agency in Canada specializing in Cuban tours. Though the Davis travel agency booked the round-trip airline transportation from Sacramento to Toronto and the return trip from Cancun to Sacramento, the residents booked their seven-day, six-night Cuban excursion through a company called Cuban Adventures out of White Rock, British Columbia, Canada. Cuban Adventures charged each traveler’s credit card for airfare, hotel accommodations, meals and assorted taxes. Cuban Adventures requires American clients to depart from Toronto and return to the states by way of Cancun, Mexico.
“It was a cultural tour. We were assured this was all quite legal,” said Carroll Terra, owner of Terra and Hendrickx, reiterating that her agency did not receive any commission for passing the Davis travelers on to the Canadian agency.
Adding to the confusion was the misbelief that as long as Americans traveled with an agency that was properly licensed for travel to Cuba, they were “legal.”
But without either a general or specific license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), any American traveling to Cuba stands in violation of the embargo under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
Yet, there is nothing on the Web site for Cuban Adventures (at www.cubanadventures.com) to indicate to travelers that such licenses are required. In fact, under the heading “travel documents,” the site simply states, “You will need a valid passport. We provide you with the essential CUBAN TOURIST VISA, which is what Cuban Customs stamp upon entry.”
The U.S. government contends that citizens unsure of travel requirements or restrictions can check them easily by visiting the Treasury’s Web site (at www.treasury.gov/ofac).
Americans may travel to Cuba on a limited basis under two types of licenses, one general and one specific. General licenses constitute blanket authorization, allowing persons who fall into one of five categories to travel without receiving individual permission from OFAC.
Under the general-license heading, journalists, government officials, full-time professionals engaged in noncommercial academic research, and amateur or semi-professional athletes (for purposes of competition) may travel to Cuba legally. Additionally, persons traveling once a year to visit Cuban nationals who are close relatives also may use the general license.
By contrast, specific licenses are applied for and issued on a case-by-case basis through OFAC and typically are granted for reasons such as religious activities; public performances, clinics or workshops; activities of private foundations, or research for educational institutions; humanitarian projects and support for the Cuban people; and undergraduate and graduate studies.
“In other words, the trip can’t amount to tourism,” said Molly Millerwise, spokeswoman for the Treasury Department. “The point of the travel embargo is to choke off the dollars to the Cuban economy; trips that end up being tourism end up being money in Castro’s hands.”
The Cuba embargo has never been lifted, and its enforcement has been stepped up dramatically since George W. Bush took office— something his administration takes no small pride in publicizing.
On March 24, new OFAC rules eliminated the “people to people” educational license that had allowed educational travel unrelated to academic coursework.
“The license had increasingly been abused for trips that amounted to little more than tourist travel, thus undermining the intentions of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba,” said Treasury Secretary John W. Snow in a recent speech. “So, we got rid of it—because we’re serious about enforcing the sanctions.”
Snow continued, claiming, “Until Castro’s reign is ended, any money that is spent in Cuba—for products or tourism—benefits only that oppressive government, not the hardworking people of Cuba. As you know all too well, dollars spent at Cuban hotels go to the dictator’s government coffers. That government, in turn, pays only a few measly pesos to the staff who work at those hotels.”
Since October 10, 2003, 264 cases have been opened by OFAC’s enforcement division for investigation of alleged travel to Cuba. Three cases have been referred for criminal investigation.
Additionally, because of intensified training and inspection efforts, OFAC reports that nearly 300 passengers have been denied travel after examination “revealed they did not qualify under any legitimate category” for travel to Cuba.
“Of course, I blame Bush,” travel agent Terra said of the government’s decision to get tough on tourism. “Prior to his actions, the existing ban wasn’t invoked, or, if it was, they were so behind on [issuing] fines that no one ever got one. Certainly, there wasn’t true enforcement.
“I mean, this ban—it’s nonsense, isn’t it?” Terra continued. “Castro’s on his last legs; his own people aren’t particularly fond of him. But they’re very kind to Americans. It’s just very sad. … The recognition in the U.S. of China, with its human-rights abuses, yet you can go there and buy anything you like. And Iran at one time was a greater enemy than Iraq is and Korea … and we’re worried about Cuba.”
Terra also questioned the targeting of citizens like Melander, who receive no direct warning of these restrictions. “I don’t understand why the government isn’t going after the [foreign] travel agencies who book these tours and advertise to Americans.”
The Treasury Department’s Millerwise, however, said the department is doing just that and that it recently posted on its Web site a list of travel agencies with which Americans are barred from doing business (in terms of traveling to Cuba) and those businesses that are authorized by the government to provide such services.
But, Millerwise hastened to say, none of this relieves citizens of the responsibility of getting the proper licenses themselves.
“It is illegal to travel to Cuba without a license. Period,” Millerwise continued. “These laws aren’t brand-new; they weren’t sprung on people recently. Yes, it’s an exceedingly unfortunate situation—no question—what happened with Mrs. Melander. OFAC is not out to target little old ladies. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure people who are traveling to Cuba are doing so legally.”
And the fact that no safeguards are in place to stop people before they travel?
“Cuba doesn’t have a ban against us; they don’t care who comes into their country,” Millerwise said. “So, no, there’s no one to stop Americans and ask if they have the proper license until they get to U.S. Customs, when they come back home.
“We’re working to find these travel agencies, though, and put them out of business. But, on the other side, it’s up to the person traveling to an embargoed country to do due diligence and know what is needed to travel legally.”
Calls to Cuban Adventures seeking comment went unreturned.
Millerwise added that, although she’s sympathetic, cases like Melander’s cannot be singled out, for “national security reasons.”
“It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that national security laws were broken,” Millerwise said. “You can’t pick and choose your battles. I’m not going to speculate on [whether a larger public education campaign is needed]; do your own due diligence.”
Whether Melander, who has appealed the ruling, will receive a reprieve is anyone’s guess at this point. OFAC officials responded to her first appeal, filed in 2002, with a letter reducing her fine to $5,500—a reduction that changes little in Melander’s view. She wrote once again to OFAC, appealing the revised penalty, but has yet to receive an answer.
But the entire experience has left a sour taste in the Davis resident’s mouth, especially, she said, when juxtaposed with what she saw on her travels.
“Many countries, with the exception of America, are building in Cuba,” Melander said. “Tourism is the only thing Cuba has, now that they don’t have Russia to support them. China, Spain, Germany, Japan, Holland … are building great big, beautiful hotels there, and that’s where many Cubans work. In fact, doctors get paid so little there, that many of them can earn more working in hotels because of the tips.
“Cubans do get excellent medical care, though, and are extremely literate,” Melander continued. “And they’re very gracious and welcoming of Americans. They’re not very accepting of our government, for obvious reasons, but there was no anti-American-citizen feeling toward us at all.”
Melander continued to emphasize that politics played no part in her decision to go to Cuba—that her reasons were purely cultural. She also contends that the U.S. embargo toward Cuba drew little attention from Americans she met there.
“Our hotel was full of Americans, [but] nobody talked about the ban. We were there to see Cuba and into seeing how the people lived, and that was what was interesting. Nobody talked about [the ban] at all. It just wasn’t an issue,” she said.
Melander gets agitated, however, when asked her opinions about the politics driving the increased enforcement of the ban.
“I don’t want to get into the politics of it,” she said, tersely. “It seems to me that we should have a friendly relationship with Cuba. Of course, I don’t like Castro, but the people are wonderful, and we’re hurting them, I think.”