US Homeland Security Distracted by Focus on Cuba
Photo from Don Gurewitz Photography.
Catching Americans who travel illegally to Cuba or who purchase cigars, rum or other products from the island may be distracting some American government agencies from higher-priority missions like fighting terrorism and combating narcotics trafficking, a government audit to be released Wednesday says.
December 19, 2007
By MARC LACEY
The report, from the Government Accountability Office, says that Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, conducts secondary inspections on 20 percent of charter passengers arriving from Cuba at Miami International Airport, more than six times the inspection rate for other international arrivals, even from countries considered shipment points for narcotics.
That high rate of inspections and the numerous seizures of relatively benign contraband “have strained C.B.P.’s capacity to carry out its primary mission of keeping terrorists, criminals and inadmissible aliens from entering the country at Miami International Airport,” says the audit, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.
The audit also called on the Treasury Department to scrutinize the priorities of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces more than 20 economic and trade sanctions programs, including those aimed at freezing terrorists’ assets and restricting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but has long focused on Cuba.
Between 2000 and 2006, 61 percent of the agency’s investigation and penalty caseload involved Cuba embargo cases. Over that period, the office opened 10,823 investigations into possible violations involving Cuba and just 6,791 investigations on all other cases, the audit found.
Critics of the American embargo on Cuba seized on the report as evidence that Washington’s policy, which began in the Kennedy administration and has grown more stringent ever since, was outdated.
“This is not good policy,” said Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, who requested the report a year ago with Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. “It’s vindictive. It’s stupid. It’s costly. And now we find out it’s a threat to our national security.”
The Bush administration’s tightening of the Cuba sanctions in 2004 appears to have discouraged many Americans from visiting the island. Manuel Marrero, Cuba’s tourism minister, acknowledged as much in a recent interview in Havana, blaming the “blockade,” as Cubans call the embargo, for scaring Americans away.
“Sooner or later, there will be justice for the people of the United States, and they will be allowed to visit and share with our people,” Mr. Marrero said.
Most of the Americans who visit Cuba each year do not go directly from Miami but use third countries like Canada, Mexico, Jamaica or the Bahamas. Catching them is difficult but not impossible. In some cases, American immigration officials simply observe them getting off flights from Havana at foreign airports where the United States has a presence, officials say.
Labels: cuba security