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Feds go after Berkeley man for Cuba visit

By Laura Counts, STAFF WRITER

BERKELEY -- Fred Burks was hardly the first American tourist to visit Cuba when he spent 10 days there four years ago. The documentary "Buena Vista Social Club," which reignited the faded popularity of Cuban music, had helped make the island a trendy vacation spot.

But Burks may have the distinction of being the first U.S. tourist prosecuted for violating Cuba travel restrictions.

It has been 11 years since Congress established the right to civil hearings for those accused of violating U.S. regulations. Although thousands of people have been threatened with prosecution and many have paid fines in the $3,000-$7,500 range to settle, no judges were ever assigned and no cases pursued against those who refused to pay up. Until now.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, acting on President George W. Bush's orders that Cuba travel restrictions be more vigorously enforced, recently hired three administrative law judges to hear cases.

Burks' case number is 03T001 -- the first to be called.

"This is what I get for being honest," said Burks, who, unlike many, declared his visit to the island on a U.S. Customs form upon his return. "I didn't even really know it was illegal to go to Cuba when I went."

Burks said his girlfriend suggested the trip after she fell in love with the island portrayed in "Buena Vista Social Club," the sweet story of aging musicians who gain worldwide fame.

Burks called a few American airlines and was simply told they didn't have any flights to Cuba, so the duo decided to bag the trip and vacation in Mexico instead.

While in Yucatan in December 1999, the pair noticed ads for cheap flights to Havana and decided to take one. Burks said he did buy a guidebook before leaving that said even though it wasn't illegal to travel to Cuba, it was illegal for Americans to spend money there. But the guidebook also noted no one was ever prosecuted, so they decided to take the 10-day trip.

On their return flight from Mexico to Minneapolis, Burks and his girlfriend were separated and interrogated after revealing their visit to Cuba. Six months later, Burks received a notice he was facing a $7,590 fine.

In the four years since the trip, the government has made several offers to settle for varying amounts, Burks said. At one point the Office of Foreign Assets Control -- which is charged with enforcing sanctions against foreign countries as well as terrorists and narcotics traffickers -- even agreed with an offer he made to settle for $250.

But Burks, an Indonesian translator who does contract work for the State Department -- and recently helped translate during Bush's visit to Bali -- had researched the situation and believed the political winds had shifted against enforcement of the travel restrictions. So he refused to settle.

Since then, the politics have gone in the other direction, but he has decided to fight his case.

Why of all the thousands of people who have travelled illegally to Cuba Burks' number came up is unclear. New York piano tuner Ben Treuhaft, an Oakland native who has openly mocked the Cuba sanctions and sent hundreds of used pianos to Cuba to replace old ones, at one point was threatened with $1.3 million in fines. He has repeatedly requested a hearing so he can use it to publicize contradictions in the policy, but never gotten one.

The Treasury Department did not return phone calls seeking comment, but a spokesperson told the Associated Press action has begun in 90 cases. Of those, 37 people have settled, and the rest are moving forward.

"Why they are making (Burks) the poster child, I don't know," said Milwaukee attorney Art Heitzer, chairman of the National Lawyers Guild Cuba Subcommittee, who is helping Burks and others who have run afoul of the policy. "But it's ridiculous to make him and his witnesses go all the way to Washington to prove his innocence."

Heitzer said the law allows fines up to $65,000 per violation, but it's unclear whether Burks could face more than the original $7,590 fine. Burks is waiting for a hearing date.

Former President John F. Kennedy first imposed sanctions against Cuba in 1963 in an attempt to isolate it. Travel restrictions eased somewhat during the Bill Clinton era.

Both the Republican-led House and Senate voted to end the travel ban this fall, but the provision was later stripped from a larger bill after Bush threatened a veto. Bush is now tightening Cuba on all fronts.

Berkeley lawyer Tom Miller suggested a small but powerful group of Cuban expatriates who have helped shape U.S. policy against Fidel Castro's socialist regime is influencing Bush.

There are many ways for Americans to go to Cuba legally. Educational, research and humanitarian groups, as well as certain professionals such as physicians, journalists and politicians, can obtain licenses to visit. Last year, 200,000 U.S. residents traveled to Cuba, including 110,000 Cuban Americans, 60,000 citizens with licenses, and about 30,000 who went illegally, according to Marazul, a New York charter company that tracks trips.

The most popular license has been for "people-to-people" excursions, such as the educational trips sponsored by San Francisco-based Global Exchange. But those licenses are expiring Dec. 31, said Cuba program coordinator Ana Perez.

"After the end of the year we won't have a license to take people there. I have never felt more frustrated than I do now, dealing with the Treasury Department," said Perez, who is coordinating a trip for 160 people over the new year.

"Some of the conversations we have are ridiculous, like they said no biking in Cuba because it was a tourist activity, even though everyone in Cuba rides bikes."

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced it had stepped up inspections of legal travelers to Cuba, searching 45,000 of the 54,000 passengers during the past two months. Inspectors did find 600 people violating the embargo, mostly by bringing back some extra rum or cigars, but concluded that 99 percent of people were complying.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail Laura Counts at [email protected] .