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U.S. fines citizens for travel to Cuba

From Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Until recently, the biggest dilemma for American tourists visiting Cuba was how to get cigars past United States Customs. Now the problem is how to get themselves past customs.

For the last few years, U.S. authorities had basically turned a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Americans who come illegally to see this forbidden fruit of the Caribbean. But no more.

On President George W. Bush's orders, the Treasury Department has begun an energetic campaign to track down and punish Americans who defy U.S. travel restrictions to the communist-run island, the only country in the world off-limits to most Americans.

Donna Schultz, a retired social worker from Chicago, Illinois, traveled to Cuba via Canada for a bike tour. On her way home through Toronto, American immigration and customs officials were waiting.

CNN's Lucia Newman has more on the crackdown on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba (August 22)

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"This woman was leafing through my passport very carefully, and she said to me, 'Have you been anyplace else besides Canada?' And I said, 'Yeah, it's pretty obvious that I had my passport stamped in Cuba.'"

A couple of months later, she received a notice from the Treasury Department of a $7,500 fine.

'Moral statement' or undemocratic?

Since May, hundreds of Americans who didn't even have their passports stamped have received these notices, with fines that can go as high as $50,000.

The law forbids unauthorized Americans from spending money there, effectively preventing them from traveling. Critics say that's a violation of the First and Fifth amendments, which guarantee freedom of expression and other individual rights.

"It's repugnant to everything that we as Americans think," said United States Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York. "You know, this type of behavior is the behavior that you would expect from a communist dictatorship that wants to keep its people at home."

The White House argues that American tourist dollars only help Fidel Castro stay in power, with Bush calling the sanctions "a moral statement."

Still, most Americans have no idea the Bush administration is cracking down. They're still going there as tourists, against the law, unaware of what may be waiting for them when they return home.

• U.S. Consular Information Sheet: Cuba
• CDC Health Information for Travelers to the Caribbean

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