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Trading With The Enemy

It May Sound Like a Heinous Crime, but Thousands of Americans Violate the Cuban Embargo Every Year
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

William White* had had his head over a toilet bowl for about an hour when a U. S. Customs agent knocked on the bathroom door. White was sick with a stomach virus--he'd been that way ever since he left Havana 24 hours earlier--but a nightlong "interview" with Customs and Treasury Department officials was now in its fifth hour, and there were more questions for White and his friend Jack. The Treasury official wanted to know about the 1,500 Cuban cigars that were sitting in the back of Jack's car when the two men drove across the U.S.-Mexican border.

A few days earlier, White had been in Havana visiting his fiancée. Jack, who is also engaged to a Cuban woman, came down at the last minute to join the party. Jack had always financed his trips to Cuba by reselling a few boxes of Havanas upon his return to the States, but this time he got carried away.

On the Mexican side of the border, where White and Jack deplaned and went in search of Jack's car, White weighed the risks involved with trucking across the border with cigars. "It was the middle of the night. I was sick and cold, and I told Jack, 'they're cigars for chrissake; what can they do to us anyway?'"

After an all-night interrogation session, which ended when both men signed federal court appearance affidavits, White and Jack knew that the Cuban embargo is serious business. "When we were being interrogated by Customs, one guy told us, 'You guys would have been better off bringing drugs across.' We were like, 'man, that's drugs; that stuff is illegal. These are just lousy cigars!'"

Two days later, White got a phone call from a Treasury agent telling him that the charges had been dropped against him. (Ironically, White doesn't even smoke cigars.) Jack, who admitted to purchasing the cigars, was fined $750 and given a one-year probation.

Still, considering their blatant attempt to defy the embargo, White and his friend got off relatively unscathed. (They could have been fined $10,000, according to federal law.) As do most offenders who are caught trying to walk through Customs at airports like Kennedy, Newark, LAX or Miami, or crossing the border by car at San Ysidro, California, or Detroit. They part company with their booty and walk away free--if bitter.

The laws that make up the embargo are quite explicit. Under the authority of the Trading With the Enemies Act, the Cuban Democracy Act, additional amendments to TWEA and the Cuban Assets Control regulations, it is unlawful for an American to purchase any product of Cuban origin in a third country or to bring any product of Cuban origin back to the United States. If an individual (mostly journalists and academics) is granted a visa for travel to Cuba, he is allowed to bring back $100 in merchandise, which may be up to 100 cigars, provided he can find any that cheap.

A 1984 U. S. Supreme Court ruling determined that it is within the right of the government and president to restrict travel. One wealthy jet-setter regularly defies the law, claiming that he travels to Cuba because "as an American I intend to exercise my constitutional right to travel wherever the fuck I want, when I want." If he (or any American) is caught violating travel restrictions, he may get only a slap on the wrist, but he'll be annoyed by Customs every time he travels or receives a gift from abroad.

An official at the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the arm of Treasury in charge of enforcing the embargo, confirms that Customs likes to keep records on violators. "If we convict you, your [name] will be in the record book a long time."

Even those who are not convicted, however, suffer because Customs keeps a record of all seizures, and the names of the carriers or recipients of seized parcels are kept on file.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Mike Chingon November 10, 2010 7:04pm ET


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