HAVANA - She was an unlikely rebel: a white-haired, exceptionally well-mannered 79-year-old retired school principal from California. But there she was, an outlaw, sitting at a hotel here in deliberate defiance of the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.
"Our constitution guarantees our citizens the right to travel anywhere in the world, and I don't like being told I'm not free," she said, asking not to be identified. "I guess it's a late-in-life rebellion."
Each year, 20,000 to 50,000 U.S. citizens violate the long-standing ban on travel to Cuba, usually flying from third countries such as Mexico, Jamaica or Canada. Many, like the retired principal and her four companions, say they believe "people-to-people" contact with Cubans is more productive for relations between the countries than the four-decade-old U.S. economic embargo on Fidel Castro's communist nation.
The House sided with that view in July by voting essentially to lift the travel ban. The Senate has not yet acted on the issue, which remains deeply divisive in Washington.
President Bush is cracking down hard on unauthorized travel to Cuba, vowing to punish violators "to the fullest extent."
So U.S. customs and immigration officials are carefully checking travelers returning from countries used as gateways to Cuba.
In sharply increasing numbers, those found to have been in Cuba - usually given away by Cuban cigars, rum or other souvenirs in their luggage - are receiving letters from the Treasury Department threatening them with fines that can reach as high as $55,000, depending on such factors as the length of their stay in Cuba and the amount of money they spent there.
A Treasury spokesman said the department sent out 188 penalty letters last year and 517 through July this year. The average threatened fine was about $7,500; the department gives people an opportunity to respond and sometimes drops its case based on the explanation.
The spokesman said many of those cases began during the Clinton administration, and that the department was simply enforcing the law, not responding to political pressure.
'Little old ladies'
But Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.), who opposes the travel ban, said in an interview that Bush's pro-embargo stance led directly to the stepped-up enforcement. He said he knew of a retired woman fined $7,650 for biking in Cuba on a package tour arranged by a Canadian travel firm. Dorgan said another man who went to Cuba for a weekend while visiting the Cayman Islands was fined $19,020.
The Treasury Department, Dorgan said, "ought to be using its resources to track terrorists, not to track down little old ladies who ride bicycles in Cuba."
Dorgan had planned to offer an amendment to the department's annual appropriations bill cutting off funds to enforce the travel ban, a measure similar to the one the House passed, he said. But he decided not to offer anything so controversial after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, an independent group based in New York, about 176,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba last year. The council estimates that about 124,000 of those were Cuban Americans, who are allowed one trip a year to visit relatives. It says another 30,000 visited legally as journalists, humanitarian workers, academics or others who received Treasury Department permission.
The remaining 22,000 traveled illegally, according to the council. That number is impossible to verify independently, and others have said it could be as high as 50,000. Cuban authorities, eager to accept U.S. visitors paying in dollars, routinely do not stamp the passports of Americans, leaving no official trace of their visit.
Roberto de Armas, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that before the Sept. 11 attacks, which severely curtailed tourism to Cuba, the number of Americans visiting this year was on track to surpass last year's total.
Tourism is Cuba's most important moneymaker, generating almost $2 billion last year; the United States is the third-largest source of visitors, after Canada and Germany.
"That means that the policy being implemented [by Washington] is not working at all, and it is not going to work," de Armas said. "It's a policy that is a challenge to the freedom of the American people. It's nonsense."
And, he added, "for every American they find, we have 10 more coming to Cuba."
That infuriates anti-Castro activists, particularly Cuban Americans in South Florida, who see it as simply lining Castro's pockets with dollars.
"These tourists are actually complicit; they stay in hotels that violate every form of labor law," said Dennis Hays of the Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro group in Washington.
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc