Break Law to Visit Cuba
By Will Weissert, Associated
Press Writer. September 10, 2007.
Thousands of Americans
Flout U.S. Travel Ban to See 'Forbidden
Fruit' of Cuba
HAVANA (AP) -- Barack Obama would lift
restrictions on visits by Cuban Americans
to the hemisphere's only communist country
if elected president. A growing chorus of
Democratic and Republican lawmakers would
go even farther, loosening the U.S. embargo
enough to allow all Americans to travel
But thousands of U.S. tourists already
travel to Cuba behind Washington's back,
and many say being sneaky is part of the
fun. Some are scrambling to get to the island
while Fidel Castro is still alive, fearing
the U.S. government could scrap the travel
ban once he's gone and bring profound change
"The fact that you're not supposed
to be there, that was the top for me,"
said Amit, 29, a New York City native who
visited Cuba in September 2006, shortly
after the 81-year-old Castro fell ill and
ceded power to his younger brother.
"I was like, 'It's time to go,'"
said Amit, who asked that his full name
not be published to avoid U.S. fines. "You
just don't know what Cuba will be like after
Traveling to Cuba is not illegal for Americans,
but provisions of the Trading With the Enemy
Act prohibit spending money here without
authorization." If caught, unauthorized
U.S. tourists can face civil fines of up
to $55,000, though many settle for smaller
Since January 2006, 19 Americans have paid
fines for sneaking to Cuba, including four
people involved in making Oliver Stone's
documentary about Castro, "Comandante."
Fellow filmmaker Michael Moore is now being
investigated for filming "Sicko"
without permission in Cuba.
Obama would like to do away with tighter
restrictions imposed by U.S. President George
W. Bush in 2004 that limited educational
and religious travel and reduced trips by
Americans with family on the island to one
every three years.
The U.S. Treasury Department issued 40,308
licenses for family travel last year, almost
all to Cuban Americans, and the Cuban government
counts these travelers as Cubans, not Americans.
Separately, Cuba said 20,100 Americans
visited the country through June of this
year, almost all presumably without U.S.
Other than family members, the U.S. government
granted permission 491 times for people
involved in religious, educational and humanitarian
projects. Some other Americans -- including
journalists and politicians -- can come
without licenses, though few do.
Cuba said about 37,000 Americans not of
Cuban origin came in 2006 -- down from the
more than 84,500 it reported in 2003, before
the latest restrictions.
The American Society of Travel Agents recently
estimated that nearly 1.8 million Americans
would visit in the first three years following
an end to the travel ban.
"We wanted to get here before all
the other Americans come and ruin it all,"
said Bridget, a 20-year-old from Minneapolis,
Minnesota, who wandered Old Havana's colonial
streets with her friend Erik in August.
They wouldn't give their last names.
"It's forbidden treasure," said
Erik, also from the Twin Cities. "It
will be so Americanized in a few years.
Just like Cancun," where U.S. franchises
from Hard Rock Cafe to Hooters tend to drown
out Mexican culture.
Some Americans sail to Cuba, but most fly
through Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or Jamaica.
Cuban tourist cards can be purchased at
third-country airports and customs officials
usually stamp only these loose-leaf visas,
not the permanent pages of U.S. passports.
Bridget and Erik sent money orders to a
U.S. travel agent recommended by a friend
who had visited Cuba, and flew from Detroit
to Cancun. A man at the Cubana Airlines
ticket counter then gave them their Cuban
tourist cards, hotel vouchers and tickets
for a connecting flight to Havana.
Traveling to Cuba is not as easy as punching
dates into an Internet site, however. Travelocity
recently agreed to pay $182,750 in fines
for booking nearly 1,500 flights between
the United States and Cuba from 1998 to
2004. The company says it fixed technical
glitches and no longer lets such trips go
Danielle Drobot, who spent a legal semester
in Cuba while pursuing an International
Studies degree at the University of North
Carolina, predicted that "it will be
the end of the U.S.-Cuba blockade, not necessarily
the end of Castro, that forces the economic
and political systems to change in Cuba."
"As sad as it is," Drobot said,