BY MARY ELLEN KLAS
About 120 Cuban families and their travel agents urged Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday to veto a bill that would impose tough new regulations and penalties on companies that arrange travel to Cuba. The bill, sponsored by Miami Rep. David Rivera and Eustis Sen. Carey Baker, would require companies licensed by the U.S. State Department to provide travel services to Cuba and ”any other terrorist nation” to pay a $2,500 annual registration fee — up from $300 — and post a bond of up to $300,000.
Travel companies complain that the measure will increase their costs, force them to defend against unfounded allegations by people with political motives, and make it nearly impossible for many financially strapped families with relatives in Cuba to afford the trips home.
”There is nothing in this bill that protects you as a consumer. It is basically a witchhunt from people who have their own political agenda,” said Tessie Aral of ABC Charters Travel in Miami, who organized the protest in the state capital. Her company flies 20,000 visitors to Cuba a year on flights that operate five days a week.
Sylvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, believes the bill is another election-year attempt to look tough on Cuba, similar to the tightened travel restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2004. But she said the measure could backfire this year because she believes most people in the Cuban American community want to see the tight travel restrictions lifted.
”No government has the right to separate families,” she said. “The only thing [the Bush restrictions] have done is create havoc in the Cuban family. Our group is going to be actively campaigning against any candidate who supports regulations that separate families.”