President’s Interpreter in Fight on Cuba Ban

Times Staff Writer

Two months ago, Fred Burks sat at the side of George W. Bush, serving as the president’s trusted interpreter during a whirlwind visit to the Indonesian island of Bali.

Today, he’s locked in a testy fight with the Bush administration over a trip he took four years ago to Cuba.

Blame it on the “Buena Vista Social Club.”

The Grammy Award-winning album and 1999 documentary film put Cuba’s moribund music scene back on the map. Enticed by the venerable Latin melodies, Burks and his girlfriend managed a 10-day vacation that same year in the communist nation, 90 miles off the Florida coast.

He’s been wrangling with federal authorities ever since. Upon his return to the U.S., Burks was told his visit had violated travel restrictions to Cuba, which has been off-limits to the average American tourist since the Kennedy administration. After months of jockeying, Burks was hit with a $7,590 fine. He refused to pay.

Now this simmering fight has begun to boil.

In October, the president pledged in a Rose Garden address to redouble the nation’s enforcement of Cuban travel restrictions because of ongoing oppression by the regime of Fidel Castro. With that presidential declaration, U.S. authorities clamped down on travel to and from Cuba. They also pressed forward with more than 100 unresolved penalty cases against tourists who had visited Cuba without proper federal permission.


The first person snagged in the tighter net was Fred Burks, presidential interpreter, a man who speaks four languages and has worked on contract for the State Department for more than a dozen years.

“They’re trying to make an example of me,” said Burks, 45. “I never intended to make a big deal out of this. But I’m going to do what it takes to establish a precedent. I just don’t agree with this policy.”

Officials at the Treasury Department, which enforces the longtime U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, say Burks’ employment status is irrelevant to the case.

Follow the Money

Administration officials say tourist dollars spent in Cuba ultimately flow into government-run hotels, travel destinations, transportation and other businesses, helping prop Castro up. In his October announcement, Bush concluded that a tougher stance was needed because Castro had responded to calls for fair elections and free enterprise with “a new round of brutal oppression.”

“Much of the hard currency spent in Cuba ends up with Castro and his cronies,” said Tara Bradshaw, a Treasury Department spokeswoman. “So when U.S. tourists go, they’re not helping the Cuban people, they’re lining the pockets of the Castro regime.”

The administration has increased inspections of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba.

In the 30 days after Bush’s announcement, at the prime U.S. hubs for air travel to Cuba -- Los Angeles, Miami and New York -- more than 22,500 outbound and returning travelers were subjected to extensive questioning by U.S. agents.

The increased scrutiny led to 188 seizures, mostly for unlicensed importation of Cuban goods. Authorities denied more than 50 tourists the right to board flights to Cuba because the travelers had failed to meet the qualifications for traveling to the communist country.

Under U.S. rules, visits to Cuba are limited to a narrow band of educators, working journalists, government employees on official business, athletes competing in Cuba and licensed humanitarian workers. In addition, Cuban-Americans can return once a year to visit close relatives. Visitors can reenter the U.S. with $100 in Cuban goods such as cigars and rum.

Civil penalties against unauthorized travel to Cuba have been in effect since 1992, but enforcement has often been loose. Many travelers dodged problems by flying to Cuba from third countries, such as the Bahamas or Mexico, and then not mentioning the side trip to U.S. customs officials upon their return.

Even those who admitted that they had entered Cuba without proper permission usually ended up settling the government’s grievance by paying fines. Under the law, they had the right to hearings, but judges were never assigned and some cases were never resolved.

Federal Crackdown

The president’s get-tough stand in October prompted the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to hire three administrative law judges and to begin aggressively pursuing scofflaws.

So far, action has been initiated in 106 cases that pre-dated September 2003, Bradshaw said. Faced with the prospect of having to travel to Washington for hearings as well as to pay for attorneys and still possibly pay big fines, 39 of the wayward Cuban visitors agreed to settle. Of those remaining, 15 cases have moved forward toward hearings in 2004.

Burks is first in line.

He calls himself an unlikely rabble-rouser. Burks’ father, a Methodist minister, didn’t shy away from civil disobedience. Arrested three different times, he once rowed a canoe into the path of a hulking nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in an anti-nuke gesture.

The son, despite his Berkeley address and beard, said he rebelled against his left-leaning father by steering clear of the protest movement. Instead, Burks parlayed his knack for foreign languages and love of travel into stints as an English teacher in Indonesia and China during the 1980s. He later got a job as a contract employee at the State Department, working on call as an Indonesian interpreter for top U.S. officials.

His trip to Cuba in December 1999 was nothing short of a fluke, Burks recalled.

Burks’ girlfriend was fascinated by the “Buena Vista Social Club” and its depiction of Cuba and by the country’s rich music tradition. Inquiries to a few American airlines didn’t turn up any Cuba flights, so the couple decided to vacation on the Yucatan peninsula instead.

But south of the border they spotted ads for cheap flights to Cuba. They jumped at the opportunity, hopping aboard a Cubana Airlines flight. “I didn’t know if it was legal to go to Cuba or not,” Burks said. “But we had a terrific time.”

They flew back through Mexico to the U.S. with a few Cuban cigars and several musical instruments. Asked by U.S. customs agents whether they had visited a third country, they gave an honest answer: Cuba.

The result was what Burks describes as a two-hour interrogation. But when it ended, they were released with all their possessions.

Not much happened until May 2001, when they each got hit with a $7,590 fine.

Settlement Declined

Over the next few years, Burks and the government jostled back and forth (he never has mentioned the case to Bush). His girlfriend recently chose to pay a $1,100 settlement and be done with her case. But the fine never got low enough to suit Burks. In 2001, he even declined a bargain-basement settlement offer of $250. Burks was willing to pay just $100.

Now both sides in this tempest appear headed toward a showdown before an administrative law judge in Washington. No court date has been set.

A network of attorneys has come to the aid of Burks and others jousting with the government over Cuba travel. They see political overtones in the tougher stance, among them an effort by Bush to assuage moneyed Cuban-American allies in Florida, again a likely election battleground next year.

The other reason is geopolitics. The administration “really doesn’t think our policy toward Cuba is tenable if lots of people can visit,” said Art Heitzer, head of the National Lawyers Guild’s Cuba subcommittee. “Under Clinton, people were traveling more freely to Cuba, coming back and saying an embargo doesn’t make sense.”

Congress has weighed in over the years with growing bipartisan support for easing travel restrictions to Cuba. No legislation, however, has made it to the president’s desk.

For administration officials who felt that they had offered an olive branch to Fidel Castro and that it had been tossed back in their faces, the time for leniency has ended.

“The administration believes it is vitally important to maintain these sanctions,” Bradshaw said. “Yes, we’re clamping down, but we want a fair process. We support fully licensed travel. We just don’t support travel that doesn’t benefit anyone but Castro.”