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Boaters charged over race to Cuba
By Jennifer Babson
KEY WEST - In the first case of its kind against pleasure boaters, federal prosecutors on Thursday charged the organizers of several Key West-Cuba sailboat races with violating the U.S. embargo.
Peter Goldsmith, 55, and Michele Geslin, 56, could each face up to 15 years in prison. They are accused of acting as ''travel service providers'' without first obtaining a license from the U.S. Department of Treasury, which regulates the 42-year embargo against Cuba.
While Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has levied a number of civil penalties upon tourists and other individuals who have illegally spent money in Cuba, criminal prosecutions are not common.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Goldsmith and Geslin promoted, organized, and administered a series of boat races between Key West and Cuba in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003, according to a two-count indictment released Thursday, providing dollars to Castro regime.
The federal government has prosecuted cases against alleged unauthorized Cuba travel service providers twice before -- in 1988, against a Texas man who touted bass fishing trips to the island, and in 1996, against a Naples travel company.
''National security laws like the Trading With The Enemy Act are in place to protect the people of the U.S., while hindering the endeavors of communist or oppressive regimes that threaten the freedom-starved people of those countries,'' Molly Millerwise, a Washington-based Treasury spokeswoman said Thursday.
U.S. Attorney Marcos Daniel Jimenez said Thursday's indictment was proof the embargo has teeth.
''The embargo against the Cuban regime cannot be ignored or flouted, as charged in the indictment,'' he said.
The indictment -- which has been in the works for months -- comes as President Bush has moved to shore up his anti-Castro credentials with Cuban Americans in South Florida.
Treasury officials alluded to the Key West case in February, saying that it was one of three referred to the U.S. attorney's office in Miami for possible prosecution. In October, Bush issued an executive order tightening restrictions already in place against Cuba, since the Kennedy Administration in 1961.
Also in February, the Bush administration instituted a new requirement that boaters must now get a Commerce Department 'sojourn license' to travel to Cuba. But those licenses are not typically issued for pleasure trips.
Prosecutors allege that Goldsmith and Geslin were repeatedly ordered in writing by Treasury to cease their arrangement and promotion of the U.S.-to-Cuba races. In October 2000 -- after receiving a Treasury warning -- Goldsmith wrote a letter to the Commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, operated by Castro's Government, telling him of the order and saying he was making ''the necessary adjustments to facilitate this event,'' according to the indictment.
Looking tired and rattled, Goldsmith and Geslin were released on $50,000 bond Thursday afternoon, hours after being taken into custody.
''I came in my pajamas,'' Geslin said, adding that she was ''in shock'' from the 9 a.m. arrest.
Goldsmith acknowledged that federal authorities did warn the pair, but said that ``we thought we were in compliance with their warnings. Turns out we didn't read the fine print.''
Both said they did not know whether they would plead guilty or fight the charges. Arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday in Key West.
Art Heitzer, a Milwaukee attorney and chairman of a National Lawyers Guild subcommittee that has a network of castroits lawyers who handle Cuba embargo cases, called the indictment ``outrageous.''
''I think it can best be explained by the current politics in southern Florida,'' Heitzer said. ``The Bush Administration is trying to rev up the extreme right-wing elements in the Cuban American community and they are now going to put some people on criminal trial to show how they tough they are.''
The most recent sailboat race cited in the indictment unfolded between May 23-31 of last year, and included ports of call in Havana and Varadero by about 15 boats. Among them was the Eu-Bett, sailed by Goldsmith, and the Kailuana, sailed by Geslin. Many of the boaters who participated in that race subsequently appeared before the grand jury that handed up Thursday's indictment.
Goldsmith and Geslin collected boat entry fees that ranged from $300 to $450 a boat, and an additional fee of $125 for each crew member, according to the indictment, and deposited the money in a joint bank account they maintained in the Keys. The money was used in part to pay for costs associated with the race, the indictment said.
Goldsmith also organized the departure dates and coordinated the boats' arrival date with a Castro officials, according to the indictment.
Sam Kaufman, a Key West attorney who represents three people who were on the trip, said they believed they were in compliance with U.S. law because they obtained a U.S. Commerce Department license from a local Key West group -- Conchord Cayo Hueso -- which has organized "humanitarian trips" to the island.
BY JENNIFER BABSON