Sunday, July 27, 2008

Florida Travel Agents Fight Higher Bond on Cuba Trips

Florida Travel Agents Fight Higher Bond on Cuba Trips
Published: July 27, 2008

MIAMI — Teresa Aral, a travel agent in South Florida, was greatly
relieved after learning she did not have to pay the state a quarter of a
million dollars to keep booking trips to Cuba. For now, at least.

Ms. Aral, along with 15 other agents providing charter flights to Cuba,
filed a lawsuit in Miami against the State of Florida, challenging a new
law requiring them to post a one-time $250,000 bond and disclose the
names of clients in order to continue their business with Cuba. But
earlier this month, a federal judge temporarily lifted the measure while
he considered its legality.

"I'm very grateful that at least the judicial branch of government here
is still working," Ms. Aral said after the ruling.

Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit the island every three years and
must obtain visas through the federal government.

Despite the recent ruling, the legal battle between the travel agents
and Florida lawmakers over the cost of doing business with the Raúl
Castro-run government, which controls all aspects of commercial air
travel into Cuba, is far from over.

Before the measure was signed into law in June by Gov. Charlie Crist, a
Republican, all travel agencies were required to pay the state a
one-time $25,000 bond.

State Representative David Rivera, a Republican from Miami and a
Cuban-American, who sponsored the bill, said the travel agents providing
Cuba trips should post a larger bond to cover the cost of "reasonable
oversight" of those doing business with a "terrorist government."

Mr. Rivera said the law was an "antiterrorism bill" that requires any
Florida travel agent who provides direct flights to any country on the
State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism to pay the bond.
Since there are no direct flights from Miami to any other countries on
the list critics say the law was intended to regulate travel to Cuba.

Mr. Rivera said the bond would be used to investigate any agency accused
of violating the law regulating travel to Cuba, though the legislation
does not specify what constitutes a violation.

Mr. Rivera said the law was designed to protect customers from price
gouging and "unscrupulous travel agents."

"Every business in Florida is regulated," Mr. Rivera said after the July
1 decision by the judge, Alan S. Gold of Federal District Court. "So
travel agents that deal with terrorist governments don't deserve an
exemption from the regulations." The case is to return to court in

Ira Kurzban, a lawyer for the travel agents who brought the suit, said
the law was more about Florida politicking rather than protecting consumers.

"This law was conceived for no reason other than to placate a small
group of Cuban-Americans out of step with the Cuban community," said Mr.
Kurzban, who also said it was unconstitutional and "attempts to embroil
the State of Florida in foreign policy."

Some legal experts agree, saying the law oversteps the bounds of state

"States simply can't decide they want to have their own foreign policy,"
said Bernard H. Oxman, an international law professor at the University
of Miami.

Erik Miller, the lawyer for the Florida Department of Agriculture and
Consumer Services, which regulates the state's travel agencies, said at
the court hearing that the law "does not invade the province of federal

"There's not interference with foreign affairs," Mr. Miller said. "It
only regulates in-state transactions."

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