Cuba Cruisers Subpoenaed to Grand Jury
From the Feb. 12, 2004 Key West Citizen
Grand jury summons Cuba boaters
BY TRAVIS JAMES TRITTEN
KEY WEST -- A federal grand jury subpoenaed at least three sailors who traveled from Key West to Cuba in a regatta and humanitarian aid mission in May, and some race participants suspect U.S. attorneys are seeking criminal indictments for alleged travel violations to the communist country.
A Feb. 9 subpoena obtained by The Citizen commanded a local boat captain who sailed in the Conch Republic Cup to appear before the Key West jury Feb. 18.
The captain and two other sailors who were subpoenaed asked to remain anonymous out of fear identifying them would affect possible cases against them. They said agents with the U.S. Department of Commerce interviewed them Tuesday about the trip to Cuba and then handed them the subpoena.
In May, agents with the U.S Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Commerce Department searched boats when they returned from the annual event and confiscated property such as global positioning system records, cameras and event paperwork.
Regatta participants were licensed to carry medicine and medical supplies to hospitals in Cuba.
"I got the impression from others I talked to that É it was likely that everyone [in the regatta] was being subpoenaed," one boat captain said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami said it could neither confirm nor deny the grand jury subpoenas, which were signed by Karen Gilbert, Assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami. A spokesman with Customs Enforcement was not immediately available.
The boat captain said he believes the grand jury activity is politically motivated and part of a wider push to clamp down on travel to Cuba.
"Our sailing organization is being singled out to become an example of the Bush administration's stance on the [Cuban] embargo," he said.
Bush recently called for more stringent enforcement of laws that bar most travel to Cuba. Spending money for Cuban travel is restricted to licensed government officials, journalists, family members and a few other select groups, according to the U.S. Department of State.
On May 21, the day before sailors departed Key West, Customs Enforcement officers warned regatta participants not to take their boats into Cuban waters. Zachary Mann, spokesman for the federal agency, told The Citizen in May that the vessels were not approved by the Commerce Department to travel to Cuba.
The federal Bureau of Export Administration sent a letter in late May to Geslin Sailmakers, the organizer of the regatta, stating that the sailors were required to get approval from the Commerce Department for exporting to Cuba or Cuban waters "any vessel and its contents." The letter also said unauthorized exports are subject to criminal prosecution and administrative proceedings that could result in fines, imprisonment, vessel forfeiture and denial of future export privileges.
The Conch Republic Cup boaters sailed under the humanitarian aid license of Concord Cayo Hueso, a Key West humanitarian group headed by John Young that has been shipping food and medicine to Cuba since 1992.
"This year, being able to take humanitarian aid enabled us to, one, legitimize our travels going under a license, but also to enhance the purpose of it," a subpoenaed captain said. "We believed that we were in compliance sailing under [Young's] license."
Young said regatta boaters were allowed to use the license on the condition that they became members of his group.
"I know we had some members carrying food, and medicine primarily," Young said. "I don't know if [the grand jury activity] has anything to do with Concord Cayo Hueso."
Young's humanitarian license was revoked following the May trip.
He said federal agents "bullied" the boaters at the docks when they returned.
"There must have been 50 agents on those vessels coming back from that race," Young said. "They took all kinds of stuff off those boats that should not have been confiscated."
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