November 4, 2002

Cuba News / The Miami Herald

The Miami Herald.

Government cracks down on illegal travel to Cuba

By Tim Johnson. Posted on Sun, Nov. 03, 2002

WASHINGTON - Joan Slote, a 74-year-old grandmother and avid cyclist, is in a big fix. She took a cycling tour of western Cuba with a Toronto-based company in early 2000, thinking it was legal. It wasn't.

The Treasury Department came after her for illegal travel to Cuba. The fine: $8,305.23.

It didn't stop there: Several weeks ago, the feds sent a letter saying they might start deducting the penalty from her $1,184 monthly Social Security check.

"This whole thing has just been a nightmare," said Slote, a former cycling gold medal winner at the Senior Olympics who lives in San Diego. She said she depends on her Social Security income to survive.

Slote's attorney, Tom Miller of Oakland, Calif., calls the case "outrageous," and has appealed to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control for a hearing. But, like hundreds of other U.S. citizens who have received fines for illegal travel to Cuba, no hearing has been set.

Even strong advocates of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba say they are puzzled why the Treasury Department pursues people, like the cycling granny, who appear to have inadvertently broken the travel ban while some high-profile celebrity trips to the island go unpunished.

"This is the wrong target. You should go after the people who are deliberately trying to violate the law," said Dennis K. Hays, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization that staunchly supports the four-decade-old U.S. embargo. Hays said he wanted to know if boxer Mike Tyson was fined for a Cuba trip earlier this year.

The Bush administration - which vigorously defends the Cuba embargo against congressional efforts to ease or lift it - carries out "fair and full enforcement of the Cuba travel embargo program," Treasury Department spokesman Rob Nichols said.

"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," Nichols said.

Has Treasury fined Tyson? "I can't comment on ongoing enforcement matters," he said.

Slote is far more active than most grandmothers.

"When people find out she's in her 70s, they go, like wow!" said Amy Olsen, a 41-year-old cycling companion from San Luis Obispo, Calif., who accompanied Slote on the trip to Cuba and faces a stiff fine, too. "She's still doing 50- and 60-mile days, and she's fast."

Back in 1999, Slote said she studied the brochure from Worldwide Adventures of Toronto and took note that it said, "U.S. law does not prohibit U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba, provided you are flying from Canada or Mexico and not directly from a U.S. port."

"Once I read that, it never occurred to me to question it," Slote said.

In fact, it was incorrect. Most U.S. citizens are banned from visiting Cuba, even when they leave from third countries. Among them are scholars, journalists, humanitarian and religious workers, and Cuban Americans with relatives on the island.

"If I had known it was illegal, I would have never gone," Slote said.

About 176,000 U.S. citizens are believed to have traveled to Cuba last year, most of them with U.S. licenses, although 22,000 to 25,000 Americans went without authorization, said John Kavulich, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

The Bush administration is imposing more fines. The Treasury Department sent 200 letters to suspected illegal travelers in 2000, then 698 letters last year, Nichols said. This year, through Sept. 30, the department has sent out 391 letters, he added.

When Slote and Olsen returned, U.S. Customs officials questioned them.

"Amy said, 'Let's not tell them where we were.' I said, 'Oh no, Amy, we shouldn't lie. Be honest. It's not illegal,'" Slote recalled.

The first certified letter from the Treasury Department demanding an explanation of her trip to Cuba arrived at Slote's residence in February, while she was on a bicycle tour of Italy.

She later was distracted as she tended to her son, who was dying of brain cancer.

Other letters followed in July, August and September.

Miller, her attorney, offered the Treasury Department $1,000 to drop the matter. He included a $100 check, which he said was to be cashed only if the government accepted. The check was cashed, but no one from Treasury wrote back, he said.

The president of Worldwide Adventures, Lewie Gonsalves, said many Canadians don't agree with the U.S. embargo of Cuba: "We think you're nuts."

Slote is still pained by being caught on the wrong side of the law.

"I don't like to do anything illegal," she said.

Group keeping Cuba's past alive

Exiles band together to share culture, hope

By Rene Diaz Iturrey. Herald Writer. Posted on Sun, Nov. 03, 2002

Teresita Nunez was born at Mercy Hospital in Miami -- but that's not what she tells people when they ask.

Instead, the 17-year-old says she was born in Cuba, and she means it.

''I am from the Cuba my parents brought with them and lives in our hearts,'' she says with conviction.

Teresita believes in the homeland of her parents, and she doesn't want yesterday's Cuba to fade away.

That's one reason she's part of a group called Cuban Municipalities in Exile, which is dedicated to maintaining the Cuban culture that thrived before 1959.

The heritage has been handed down by her parents who have been active in the Municipios, as the group is called in Spanish, since before she was born.

The Municipios were organized in the early 1960s when the first Cuban refugees began to arrive in Miami.

At first, it was informal groups of people from the same towns who would help each other find jobs, send medicine to those left behind and comfort each other in a strange land.

Today, they have a president, a national assembly and an organization that represents each of the six provinces and 102 of Cuba's 126 municipalities that existed under the 1940 Cuban constitution.

The members are not only in Miami, but also scattered throughout the United States.

They hold elections every year and membership is open to anyone who was born in Cuba or is recommended by a member.

The only other requirement is that members promise to uphold the principles of freedom and democracy.

''We want to be an example of what Cuba should be,'' said Silvia Diaz, 65, the current president.

But members do more than dream of the day Cuba will be free.

Moravia Capo, 72, a gentle-mannered, retired schoolteacher from the province of Pinal del Rio, has been the president of the Municipios human rights commission for seven years.

She and the other members of the commission each year go to Geneva, Switzerland, to attend the United Nations hearings on human rights abuses.

They also have worked closely with Freedom House, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded almost 60 years ago by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

''It is sad how the Cuban government representatives treat us and insult us at the UN,'' Capo said. "But, it has been worth it.''

The Cuban government has been condemned by the UN General Assembly 11 times since 1990 for human rights abuses.

Vitral, one of the few nongovernment publications in Cuba, published a May interview with Capo over the Internet. Capo said she took advantage of the rare opportunity to reach those on the island.

Vitral quoted her as saying: "I have faith in the people of Cuba, and the hope of a dignified and glorious future for my homeland keeps me alive.''

It is a hope and love shared by both young and old at the Municipios.

At the last presidential installation ceremony, Teresita, a senior at St. Brendan's, read from an essay she had written:

The place where I was born you cannot visit because it only exists in my heart. For me Cuba is not an island in the Caribbean. For me that is not Cuba. Cuba for me has a deeper meaning. Cuba is the food that I eat, it is the language I speak, the way that I think, the music I enjoy, something I feel deep in my being and something that is stronger than my will.

The Municipios also keep Cuban holidays and traditions alive by holding conferences, seminars and celebrations on special days during the year.

Every spring for 20 years, they have held the Municipios Fair, the last 17 years at Flagler Dog Track in Miami.

''That is our biggest event of the year and the one that provides the Municipios the funds that make possible all the other activities we do during the year,'' said Ivan Hernandez-Diaz, the fair's director.

About 70 percent of the municipalities participate in the fair. Each sets up a booth with typical foods from its part of the country.

''You will be surprised how much variety there is in tastes in such a small island,'' Hernandez-Diaz said. "In the east part of Cuba, where most of the coffee is grown, they like their coffee light and in the west they like it strong. Those are the little things that make us who we are.''

The fair also features art exhibits by local students, live music, and poetry and history readings.

This year, Monsignor Agustin Roman, the archbishop of Miami, had a replica of the medal given to all the veterans of Cuba's war of independence made from melted-down Cuban pennies.

He presented the medal to the president of the Municipios at a Sunday Mass given in September at the AmericanAirlines Arena.

''When I arrived in Miami in 1966 I immediately contacted my municipality of San Antonio de los Baños,'' he said. "One of the riches of the Cuban exile community is in their organization of the Municipios -- in each there is a little of Cuba.''


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