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What U.S. law says about travel to Cuba

You can go there legally, but you have to jump through a few hoops to do it. Some Americans go illegally, but they risk a fine and even jail.

You are an American. Should you go to Cuba?

U.S. law says no, except under certain circumstances. Actually, it says you are not allowed to spend money there.

The law in question is the Trading With the Enemies Act of 1963. In fact, you cannot really just fly into a Cuban airport and return without breaking the law, since you must pay a departure tax of $20 U.S. in order to leave.

If convicted, you could be subject to a fine of $250,000 and 10 years in jail.

That said, however, U.S. government officials say they know of only a few cases in which an American has been fined, and none has been jailed.

And lots of Americans do go to Cuba.

Last year, the Cuban government has variously reported, between 140,000 and 180,000 Americans visited the island. About 100,000 were naturalized U.S. residents born in Cuba, still considered Cuban citizens by Cuba.

The others were Americans who traveled there "legally" according to U.S. law _ certain students, scholars, teachers, journalists and business people investigating prospects. Also, people who visit as part of a people-to-people program that might be cultural, educational or religious.

And Americans do go illegally, often making connections through Canada, the Bahamas or Mexico.

Cubans in Havana say they see Americans less frequently than they see Canadians or Germans. Of course, Canadians, Germans and people of just about every other nationality can go legally.

Sunquest Tours of Toronto runs flights every Thursday to Varadero International Airport from Windsor (a three-hour non-stop on Skyservice Airlines). Cubana and Lacsa and several charter lines each have twice-weekly flights from Toronto.

If you'd like to go legally, here's how to do it:

You need to persuade the Treasury Department that you have a pretty good reason to go and that your visit will contribute to religious, cultural, professional or civic activities.

To get a license to visit, contact the Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20220. Call (202) 622-2480 or fax (202) 622-1657.

Some companies in the U.S. run legal trips to Cuba. Here are a few.

+ Gainesville's Holbrook Travel, with a cultural tourism program. Holbrook is at 3540 NW 13th St., Gainesville, FL 32609; call toll-free 1-800-451-7111; or visit the Web site at

+ Center for Cuban Studies, (212) 242-0559 or

+ Global Exchange, toll-free 1-800-497-1994 or

+ Cuban Research and Education Programs, (502) 479-3666 or

+ Cross-Cultural Solutions, toll-free 1-800-380-4777 or http://www.

Is the U.S. government likely to normalize relations with Cuba?

Probably not any time soon, even though lots of people, including many business interests, can hardly wait. Cruise and tour operators estimate $5-billion in business within the first five years. But little policy change is expected under the Bush administration.

Some believe that once Fidel Castro dies, Cuba and the United States will hug and make up. Don't bet on it. Castro's brother, Raul, is his likely successor, and he is more conservative than Fidel.