Individuals who choose to circumvent U.S. law do so at their own risk and the author and publisher accept no responsibility for any consequences that may result from such travel.
Every year, thousands (20,100 in 2007, according to Cuba, down from 84,500 in 2003) of U.S. citizens slip into Cuba through Canada, Mexico, and other third countries to savor the frisson of the forbidden. Cubans play their part by abstaining from stamping passports (however, many travelers report receiving a small stamp, such as a purple square, on page 16 of their passports, familiar to U.S. authorities).
Persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction who travel to Cuba without a license bear a “presumption of guilt” and may be required to show documentation that all expenses incurred were paid by a third party not subject to U.S. law. Very few people ever have trouble coming back. Nonetheless, if Uncle Sam decides to go after perceived offenders, the latter will first receive a questionnaire and, if OFAC believes the law has been broken, a “pre-penalty notice” listing the amount of the proposed fine. (Trading with Cuba illegally is good for up to a US$55,000 fine under provisions of the Helms-Burton Bill, plus up to US$250,000 under the Trading with the Enemy Act, but most demands for fines have been US$7,500.)
If issued a penalty notice, you have 30 days to appeal. If the case is not settled out of court, it ostensibly goes before an administrative law judge, who can uphold or dismiss the penalty, but no judges are in place to adjudicate! Thus, anyone receiving a pre-penalty notice can effectively kill the action dead by requesting a hearing. (Only two people have ever been prosecuted: In January 2005 a judge slapped the first-ever such fine—for US$5,250—on a Michigan couple who had traveled in 2001 on a religious mission; the second penalty was for US$780.) If you choose to pay the fine requested in the pre-penalty notice, as many people do, you can negotiate the amount.
How to Defend the Right to Travel: The National Lawyers Guild (132 Nassau St., Suite 922, New York, NY 10038, tel. 212/679-5100, www.nlg.org/cuba/#Travel ) has a Cuba subcommittee that can aid in defending against enforcement actions.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (666 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, tel. 212/614-6464, www.ccrjustice.org ) is the primary institutional clearinghouse for legal information about the Cuba travel regulations and represents those who have been accused of violating the ban.