Can I go to Cuba without breaking the law?

Our travel expert offers advice on making your way to Cuba, lost traveler's checks, pricing a Disney/Universal Studios trip and finding that Florida healing center

By Donald D. Groff
Published August 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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I'm a U.S. citizen who has traveled to Cuba twice (each time through a
third country). At the end of both trips I admitted this at Customs
because I feel there's no reason why I shouldn't go wherever I want to
go! I got hassled by U.S. Customs and later by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. I may be going again soon. I'd very much appreciate any comments or suggestions you might have for me. I haven't found any new tactical information on the Internet. Also, any word on something called "rebuttable presumption?"

I admire your spirit, but this is a case where you should let common sense prevail as the better part of valor. Returning from Cuba with a chip on your shoulder at Customs isn't going to alter the long-standing trade embargo policies that an increasing number of Americans are ignoring to visit the island via third countries. If you want to effect change, better you should be talking up what you've seen there and support efforts to exert political pressure. Customs officers generally don't have a political agenda. They're just doing their sometimes monotonous jobs. Yes, you'll brighten their day if you make a quirky declaration of principle, giving them something to talk about at the pub. But as a political statement it's not going to go far.


While there isn't much evidence of the U.S. government coming down hard on citizens who have traveled there, I know of at least one green-card-carrying Canadian who reentered the United States after a trip to Cuba and spent the next two months fearing she was about to be booted out. Eventually she received a letter from the State Department clearing her, but it was a nerve-wracking experience. To recap, federal law prohibits U.S. tour operators from offering trips to Cuba, blocks flights to Cuba and prohibits U.S. residents from spending money there. An exception is made for study and professional tours and a limited number of other types for which people can be "licensed." Marazul Tours Inc. of Weehawken, N.J., books such programs in cooperation with the Center for Cuban Studies. Marazul Tours is at Tower Plaza, 4100 Park Ave., Weehawken, NJ 07087, phone (201) 319-9670 or (800) 223-5334. The Center for Cuban Studies is at 124 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10011; phone (212) 242-0559. About a dozen other interest organizations also arrange trips.

A listing of these groups can be found in the "Cuba" travel guide, by David Stanley (Lonely Planet Publications, 1997). That guide, as well as the "Cuba Handbook," by Christopher Baker (Moon Travel, 1997), offers extensive information on other ways to reach Cuba, notably by going through other countries. Many Americans use flights departing from Canada, Cancun and Nassau to reach Havana. Cuban airport officials provide a visa card rather than a visa stamp in your passport. Other locations from which there is regular or charter service to Cuba include Mexico City, Merida, Costa Rica, Grand Cayman, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Maarten, Guadeloupe and Barbados.


A description of federal rules on Cuba can be found through the State Department Web site. Look for the Office of Foreign Assets Control listing. It's also available by calling (202) 622-2480. There's also a U.S.-Cuba Policy home page with extensive information on official policy.

Cuba Travel operates regular packages, including flights, between Tijuana, Mexico and Havana. The site also provides a roundup of ways to reach Cuba. As for the "rebuttable presumption," an Office of Foreign Assets Control regulation from 1998 creates a rebuttable presumption that travelers subject to U.S. jurisdiction who traveled to Cuba without a general or specific license have engaged in prohibited transactions. According to the State Department site, travelers may rebut the presumption by presenting a signed explanatory statement, with supporting documents, showing they were able to travel without spending money in Cuba. "Appropriate enforcement action" will be taken in those cases where the traveler is unable to provide sufficient evidence that all expenses were paid for while in Cuba. Further information is available from OFAC by contacting (202) 622-2480 or in Miami (305) 530-7177.

Thomas Cook refuses to replace a friend's traveler's checks, which were stolen from her hotel room in Egypt while she was sightseeing. The company contends she did not take close enough care of them and has denied her claim for replacement. Is this typical behavior by traveler's check companies, does it seem reasonable, and what do you recommend about money on such trips?


It's like being robbed twice, isn't it? What you've described sounds like a raw deal, but companies that issue traveler's checks make and apply their own rules for when they'll provide refunds. And unlike drug advertisers who must publicize adverse side effects, travel check companies aren't required to post a disclaimer in their ads that says: "However, if you don't follow our rules explicitly, we might well refuse to cover your losses. And it's up to us -- there's no appeal." All companies that issue traveler's checks include fine print in the usage rules that gives them a way out of refunding the checks if some standard of reasonable care is not met. I don't know the details of your friend's case, but I suspect a refund might be denied if, for instance, the checks were taken from a bag left in a lodging that obviously had no security, or if the hotel had repeatedly been the site of such thefts.

But that also raises this question: Most hotels, even luxury ones, encourage guests to leave valuables in the front desk vault. This warning often arises even at hotels with in-room safes. Therefore, if you leave your traveler's checks in one of those rooms, you're violating the hotel policy, and might that also be excuse enough for the claim to be denied? Claims are decided on a case-by-case basis, and I doubt if any company is going to publicize how often it rejects claims. However, if readers have other accounts of traveler's check claims not being honored, send them to Travel Advisor and I'll provide an accounting in a later column. If there isn't some clearly questionable circumstance that's being cited by Thomas Cook, you should complain to your state attorney general's consumer office. Probably nothing will come of that, but sometimes when those offices spot an anti-consumer pattern -- even by large companies -- it can become the basis for pressure and sometimes action.


As for money recommendations, I haven't bought traveler's checks for years, partly because of my distaste for the scare tactics used by companies like American Express in their advertisements. (The old Karl Mauldin ads urgently warning of theft come to mind.) Still, I wouldn't rule them out for a long trip, but would employ them only as part of diversified approach that would include cash, traveler's checks and a bank debit card. If you do buy traveler's checks, try to do so through a source such as AAA's member service that does not charge the typical 1 percent service fee at time of purchase. Also, if cashing the checks, be mindful of how service charges can hurt you. You can usually avoid a cashing fee on an American Express check, for instance, by cashing them at an Amex office. Among Web sites that address travel money issues are those of American Express and Thomas Cook.

We would like to go to Disney World and Universal Studios in October. About how much should I expect to pay for these tickets?


In a virtually perennial event, the big Florida parks usually adjust their prices upward in spring, just in time for the summer crush of visitors. This year, Walt Disney World (click on "vacations") increased its gate prices by $2 per ticket for single-day, single-park admission, bringing the cost to $46.64 for visitors 10 and older and $37.10 for those 3 to 9. Disney also introduced a new type of multipark pass, the Park Hopper Plus. The Park Hopper Plus is available in five-, six- and seven-day versions and allows unlimited admission to the theme parks and other Disney attractions in the Orlando area. The five-day pass costs $242.76 for the older visitors and $193.99 for the younger; the six-day is $274.57/$219.43; and the seven-day is $306.37/$244.89. Other types of passes also are available. For specifics, contact a travel agent or visit the Disney site. Universal Studios also raised its prices for Universal Studios Florida and the new Universal's Islands of Adventure to match the Disney single-park, single-day admissions. Ticket details are available at the Web site. Florida-bound families should be aware that a number of Disney competitors -- Universal Studios, Sea World, Wet'n Wild, Busch Gardens -- offer a multipark pass that's also worth considering. It's available from any of the participating parks.

I would like to know the location, phone number and e-mail of the Cassadaga Healing Center in Florida.


You're apparently referring to the small northern Florida town of Cassadaga, founded as a retreat for a religious group called the Spiritualists, with origins in New York state. It was chartered as the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association in 1894. The members of the group practiced Spiritualism, which teaches that there is life on a spirit plane after death, that there is a brotherhood of man, and that the living can communicate with and receive wisdom from the dead through trained mediums. Over time, Cassadaga has attracted other types of practitioners not related to the Spiritualists.

I don't know about the group you're interested in -- I find no Web presence for it -- but you can try the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Bookstore & Information Center, located in the Davis Building. The address is P.O. Box 319, Cassadaga, FL 32706, phone (904) 228-2880. The center does not have a Web site or e-mail address. Cassadaga is located between Daytona Beach and Orlando. Visitors can get off Interstate 4 at Exit 54, turn right onto Country 4139 (Cassadaga Road) at the first traffic light, continue about two miles to Cassadaga. The Cassadaga Hotel, completed in 1928, is at 355 Cassadaga Rd., Cassadaga, FL 32706; phone (904) 228-2323.

Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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