Michigan couple face thousands in fines for trip to Cuba

Campaign News | Saturday, 4 December 2004

They may have to pay $110,000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- When Michael and Angela McCarthy crossed the border from Ontario into Michigan in April 2001, an officer asked them where they'd been. The couple answered truthfully -- Cuba -- and mentioned they had brought back a couple of cigars.

Three years and thousands of dollars in legal fees later, the Port Huron, Mich., couple is driving to Washington this week to find out how much the U.S. government will fine them for their illegal trip. Administrative Law Judge Irwin Schroeder could make them pay up to $110,000 after considering their case during a hearing Monday.

The McCarthy case is one of about 20 now before judges of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control, according to the Center for International Policy, which advocates ending travel restrictions to Cuba. Many more cases get settled before they ever reach a judge.

OFAC has opened more than 10,000 enforcement investigations in the last decade for possible violations of the 40-year-old economic embargo against Fidel Castro's regime. The agency has collected more than $8 million in fines since 1994.

The McCarthys, an earnest and soft-spoken pair, are devout Catholics who considered their trip a missionary effort as well as a vacation. They brought medicine, as they had done on similar trips to Mexico and Haiti, and stayed with nuns in Havana. On a road trip across the island, they picked up more than 30 hitchhikers so they could learn about the country.

"In the Gospel we're called to make peace," Michael McCarthy said.

McCarthy, a physician's assistant, and his wife, a nurse, have three college-age children and a limited travel budget. The pair say they spent $1,400, including money for the cigars they bought to help a street person.

The McCarthys could have gotten a license from OFAC for humanitarian travel to Cuba, treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said. Millerwise said tens of thousands of those licenses are granted each year to families visiting Cuban relatives, researchers, religious groups, government officials and others.

But Kurt Berggren, the McCarthys' attorney, said the couple didn't understand the rules.

"At the time they went, this was kind of like sodomy statutes in states, where there's a law on the books but it's not enforced," Berggren said. "Lots of people were going. They knew people who were going."

Berggren said the case took years to work its way through the system because OFAC usually settles cases and has few judges available to hear them. The McCarthys were offered a settlement of $1,000 each but refused because they want to challenge the law in a hearing. Berggren expects the pair will pay around $7,500 each if Schroeder decides to fine them, since fines are partly based on how much violators spent in Cuba.

Michael McCarthy stressed that he and his wife respect the judicial process. But they feel strongest about their ability to practice the tenets of their faith.

"The United States is becoming more of a gated community, and we're not going to make it if we close ourselves in," he said.

On the Net:

Office of Foreign Assets Control: http://www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/

Center for International Policy's Freedom to Travel campaign: http://www.cubacentral.com/travelvictims.cfm

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