Florida lawmakers, travel agents row over Cuba trips
23 hours ago
MIAMI (AFP) — Florida travel agents specializing in Cuba trips are
up-in-arms over plans to make them pay more than 100,000 dollars in
bonds to fund any probe into irregularities in their dealings with the
Such agencies currently put up a one-time bond to the Department of
Agriculture of 25,000 dollars.
But new legislation proposed by Florida Republican lawmakers would
require the travel firms to pay anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000
Representative David Rivera, who is among Florida Republicans sponsoring
the bill to the state's House and Senate, said agents specializing in
Cuba travel had operated largely under the radar of state and federal
law over the years.
"Every other business in Florida is regulated," said Rivera. "This bill
provides for reasonable oversight (for Cuba travel.)"
The new legislation was an "anti-terrorism bill" that would require
agencies that provide direct travel to any country on the State
Department's state sponsor of terror list to pay out the increased bond,
Cuba is just one of several countries on the list, which also includes
nations like Iran, Sudan and North Korea.
Washington has no direct links with Cuba and imposed a trade embargo on
the island not long after the 1959 revolution that swept Fidel Castro to
Despite a wave of small changes introduced by new Cuban President Raul
Castro since he took over from his brother Fidel in February, President
George W. Bush's administration says the embargo is not about to be
lifted any time soon.
So Cuba travel agents have hit back, vowing to legal action against the
state if the bill passes later this week.
Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters Travel, said the bill was
a calculated "political move" to "take control of the Cuba policy from
the federal government and put it on the hands of Florida politicians."
Long-time Cuba trip provider Teresa Aral, head of ABC Charters, added it
was ironic that agencies should be forced to shell out hundreds of
thousands of dollars to pay for their own federal investigation if the
government accuses them of running foul of the law.
"You are giving them money to investigate yourself — isn't that the
American way?" said Aral.
Travel agents like Garcia and Aral contend the scheme would prove
prohibitively expense for many small companies, forcing them out of
But Rivera hit back that they should instead complain to the Cuban
government, which charges 3,000 dollars per plane to land at Havana Jose
Marti Airport and 1,200 dollars to merely fly over the country.
He also notes that in the past enterprising travel agents exploited
legal loopholes to provide illegal travel to Cuba.
In February 2007, two Florida men cooked up a scheme to circumvent Cuba
travel restrictions by creating fake churches and applying for licenses
with the federal government that permit religious groups to go to the
Agents in turn say it is the new administration laws on Cuba travel that
prompted some to take drastic, albeit illegal measures, to fill the
demand for trips to Cuba.
Tourism is one of the main pillars of Cuba's economy, generating more
than two billion dollars a year, according to Havana figures.
In 2007 some 2.15 million tourists mainly from Europe and Latin America
visited the island, a 3.1 percent decrease over 2006. Cuban officials
however are forecasting a recovery for 2008.
During the course of the Bush administration, the White House has
systematically tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba.
In 2004, the US government changed the laws allowing Cuban-Americans to
return home only once every three years and just to visit immediate family.
"So if you travel today to visit your sick mother back in Cuba, and she
dies the following year, you can't go back for the funeral," said Garcia.