Judicial Hearings on Travel to Cuba Finally Begin

By Jeannine Aversa
Associated Press
Friday, December 26, 2003; Page A21

Vacationing in Mexico in 1999, Frederick Burks could not resist hopping a cheap flight to Cuba for a spur-of-the-moment visit, an excursion that led to accusations by U.S. authorities that he had illegally traveled to the country.

Now, after years of waiting, Burks faces a judicial hearing, although he does not know exactly when.

"I'm getting tired of all this stuff," said Burks, 45, of Berkeley, Calif., who contends his trip to Cuba was an honest mistake. "I broke some regulation I didn't know was there."

Eleven years after Congress authorized civil hearings for anyone alleged to have violated the Cuba travel ban, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has installed three administrative law judges to hear the cases. Budget problems and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been cited by officials for the delay in starting the hearings.

Burks said he requested a hearing in 2001, the same year he was notified by the government that he was facing a proposed penalty of $7,590 for alleged violations of the Cuba embargo. "I thought, 'Oh, boy. This is getting serious,' " he said.

Burks, who works as an interpreter, still does not have a hearing date.

The Treasury office has begun action for 90 people who had requested hearings, Treasury spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw said. Of those cases, 37 people have settled with the government, 27 cases have been referred to administrative law judges and the remaining 26 are in various stages of the process, Bradshaw said.

President Bush has ordered that the travel ban be enforced more vigorously.

Both the Republican-led House and Senate voted to end it, but congressional negotiators stripped that provision from a compromise measure to finance the Transportation and Treasury departments for the federal budget year that began Oct. 1. The White House had threatened to veto legislation that would have weakened the travel ban.

Under current rules, most travel to Cuba is forbidden. There are exceptions for working journalists, relatives of Cuban citizens, providers of humanitarian aid and others.

Americans accused of traveling illegally to Cuba have several options: pay a fine assessed by the government, which typically ranges from $3,000 to $7,500; negotiate a lower payment; or request a civil hearing.

Nancy Chang, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has advocated an end to the travel restrictions, said she has clients who have been accused of illegal travel and have been waiting for hearings since 1998.

"The delay harms people's ability to present a case. Documents may be destroyed. Memories may fade," Chang said.

President John F. Kennedy imposed the penalties against Cuba in 1963 during the Cold War. The goal is to isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of U.S. dollars, the government says.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company