Image: Havana
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Cubans ride in an old car on Havana's coastal "Malecon". Traveling to Cuba is not illegal for Americans, but the Trading with the Enemy Act prohibits spending money on the island. If caught, unauthorized U.S. tourists can face civil fines of up to $55,000. Even Michael Moore is now being investigated for filming "Sicko" without permission in Cuba.
updated 9/10/2007 3:31:00 PM ET 2007-09-10T19:31:00

Barack Obama would lift restrictions on visits by Cuban Americans to the hemisphere's only communist country if elected president. A growing chorus of Democratic and Republican lawmakers would go even farther, loosening the U.S. embargo enough to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

But thousands of U.S. tourists already travel to Cuba behind Washington's back, and many say being sneaky is part of the fun. Some are scrambling to get to the island while Fidel Castro is still alive, fearing the U.S. government could scrap the travel ban once he's gone and bring profound change to Cuba.

"The fact that you're not supposed to be there, that was the top for me," said Amit, 29, a New York City native who visited Cuba in September 2006, shortly after the 81-year-old Castro fell ill and ceded power to his younger brother.

"I was like, 'It's time to go,'" said Amit, who asked that his full name not be published to avoid U.S. fines. "You just don't know what Cuba will be like after Castro's gone."

Traveling to Cuba is not illegal for Americans, but provisions of the Trading With the Enemy Act prohibit spending money here without authorization." If caught, unauthorized U.S. tourists can face civil fines of up to $55,000, though many settle for smaller amounts.

Since January 2006, 19 Americans have paid fines for sneaking to Cuba, including four people involved in making Oliver Stone's documentary about Castro, "Comandante." Fellow filmmaker Michael Moore is now being investigated for filming "Sicko" without permission in Cuba.

Obama would like to do away with tighter restrictions imposed by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004 that limited educational and religious travel and reduced trips by Americans with family on the island to one every three years.

The U.S. Treasury Department issued 40,308 licenses for family travel last year, almost all to Cuban Americans, and the Cuban government counts these travelers as Cubans, not Americans.

Separately, Cuba said 20,100 Americans visited the country through June of this year, almost all presumably without U.S. permission.

Other than family members, the U.S. government granted permission 491 times for people involved in religious, educational and humanitarian projects. Some other Americans — including journalists and politicians — can come without licenses, though few do.

Cuba said about 37,000 Americans not of Cuban origin came in 2006 — down from the more than 84,500 it reported in 2003, before the latest restrictions.

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The American Society of Travel Agents recently estimated that nearly 1.8 million Americans would visit in the first three years following an end to the travel ban.

"We wanted to get here before all the other Americans come and ruin it all," said Bridget, a 20-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who wandered Old Havana's colonial streets with her friend Erik in August. They wouldn't give their last names.

"It's forbidden treasure," said Erik, also from the Twin Cities. "It will be so Americanized in a few years. Just like Cancun," where U.S. franchises from Hard Rock Cafe to Hooters tend to drown out Mexican culture.

Some Americans sail to Cuba, but most fly through Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or Jamaica. Cuban tourist cards can be purchased at third-country airports and customs officials usually stamp only these loose-leaf visas, not the permanent pages of U.S. passports.

Bridget and Erik sent money orders to a U.S. travel agent recommended by a friend who had visited Cuba, and flew from Detroit to Cancun. A man at the Cubana Airlines ticket counter then gave them their Cuban tourist cards, hotel vouchers and tickets for a connecting flight to Havana.

Traveling to Cuba is not as easy as punching dates into an Internet site, however. Travelocity recently agreed to pay $182,750 in fines for booking nearly 1,500 flights between the United States and Cuba from 1998 to 2004. The company says it fixed technical glitches and no longer lets such trips go through.

Danielle Drobot, who spent a legal semester in Cuba while pursuing an International Studies degree at the University of North Carolina, predicted that "it will be the end of the U.S.-Cuba blockade, not necessarily the end of Castro, that forces the economic and political systems to change in Cuba."

"As sad as it is," Drobot said, "money talks."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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