Politics of Travel

Forbidden Country

The Bush administration has just made it much harder for most Americans to travel to Cuba, but much easier for Cuban Americans.

The U.S. embargo for 40 years has forbidden Americans to spend money in Cuba, with exceptions for certain travel for religious, humanitarian and educational purposes. But last month, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) eliminated an entire category from the list of exceptions.

The now-banned category of "educational exchanges" had been used in the past for tours led by groups like the Smithsonian, the Corcoran and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. All tours organized by the Center for Cuban Studies were licensed under the category. "The most recent polls show 75 percent of Americans against the travel ban," said center spokeswoman Sandra Levenson. "It's appalling; the trips enrich people's lives on both sides of the Florida Straits."

At the same time, new rules now allow visits to family members three generations removed, rather than two. The administration also cut the requirement for a "demonstrated humanitarian need" for a family visit. And while most Americans may spend only $166 max a day, people visiting family can spend more, and can carry up to $12,000 a year to give to relatives.

The changes represent "ethnic politics at its worst," complained Robert Muse, an attorney who advises clients on the embargo. An OFAC spokesman replied that the rules that were relaxed apply not just to Cuban Americans but to any American with relatives in Cuba.

Public comments will be considered if mailed by May 23 to Chief of Records, OFAC, 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20220.

WALLET WATCH

Spain Minus

"It's no good; your reservations have been canceled," the Rome hotel clerk told Ilze Mohseni of Potomac last month when she handed over the hotel voucher from Spain Plus Europe in Arlington.

Same thing happened to Loretta Kaczorowski of Alexandria in September when she approached her Madrid hotel desk with a voucher that was part of an air/land package bought from Spain Plus, also known as Bargain Travel and Bargain Airfares.

Both women said they called Spain Plus and were told to pay for their rooms and be reimbursed by Spain Plus later. But the refunds have not come. Both complained to CoGo and to Arlington County Consumer Affairs (ACCA).

Their complaints are among 11 ACCA has received in the past two years. Four cases are still in dispute; Spain Plus rectified one problem. In the six other cases, the company made no response to the complaint, said ACCA's Mary Alice Gray.

Spain Plus manager Giovanni Ingrao said he is unaware of any outstanding complaints with ACCA. He said he had no record of Kaczorowski. Mohseni, he said, wasn't reimbursed because she had failed to send him receipts for her hotel expenses. Mohseni said she sent the receipts by registered mail weeks ago and received confirmation that her letter was delivered.

The Virginia Better Business Bureau lists the company as having "an unsatisfactory record due to unanswered complaints." Ingrao said he didn't receive any complaints from the BBB.

Spain Plus agent Evelyn Irivas said the hotel voucher problem arose because a supplier failed to pass on the payments Spain Plus made for the hotel rooms. The supplier contends that Spain Plus failed to pay him.

Mohseni is hoping ACCA can broker a resolution. Kaczorowski went to small claims court and won a judgment when Spain Plus failed to show. However, she has yet to see the money.

CoGo's longstanding advice remains: Pay travel suppliers with a credit card, so that you can withhold payment if services aren't delivered as promised.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

London Calling

Sales to London for spring travel are popping up like crocuses. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are offering fares below $500; for details on these and other bargains, check out our expanded What's the Deal? column on E3.Reporting: Cindy Loose.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to: cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-912-3609. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.