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Flouting ban, Americans sneak into Cuba

12 September 2007

Despite the United States’ embargo on Cuba, thousands of US nationals are traveling to Cuba with many of them doing so just for the thrill of it.

Reports say that some Americans are sneaking into Cuba while Fidel Castro is still alive, fearing that the US government could lift the travel ban once he is dead, paving the way for profound changes in Cuba.

In fact, traveling to Cuba is not illegal for Americans, but provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act prohibit spending money in Cuba without authorization. If caught, unauthorized US tourists can face civil fines of up to US$55,000, though many settle for smaller amounts.

Since January 2006, 19 Americans have paid fines for sneaking into Cuba, including four people involved in making Oliver Stone’s documentary about Castro, titled Comandante. Fellow filmmaker Michael Moore is now being investigated for filming Sicko without permission in Cuba.

In 2004, US President George W Bush limited educational and religious travel and reduced trips by Americans with family to the island to once every three years.

The US Treasury Department issued 40,308 licenses for family travel in 2006, almost all to Cuban Americans, and the Cuban government counts these travelers as Cubans, not as Americans.

Separately, Cuba said 20,100 Americans visited the country through June 2007, almost all presumably without US permission.

Other than family members, the US government granted permission 491 times for people involved in religious, educational, and humanitarian projects. Some other Americans – including journalists and politicians – can go to Cuba without licenses, though few do so.

According to Cuban authorities, about 37,000 Americans not of Cuban origin came to Cuba in 2006 – down from over 84,500 Americans 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.

Some Americans sail to Cuba, but most fly through Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or Jamaica. Cuban tourist cards can be bought at third-country airports, and customs officials usually stamp only these loose-leaf visas, not the permanent pages of US passports.

However, traveling to Cuba is not that easy. The internet website 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 through.




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