PHOTO PROVIDED BY DANIEL PERALES
By Toni Whitt
Published: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 6:52 a.m.
SARASOTA - Now that President Barack Obama has taken office, a group of sailing enthusiasts are hoping to reopen routes from Florida to Cuba through competitive sailing events.
Jay Meyer, a member of Sarasota Yacht Club's sailing team, has applied with the federal government for permission to compete in a sailing regatta off Cuba's coast -- something he last did 15 years ago, before the United States prohibited virtually all travel to the island nation.
While travel to Cuba is still heavily regulated, Meyer is hoping the new administration will allow him to take as many as 100 sailboats, yachts, powerboats and their crews to Cuba for a 15-mile race in June.
At least one expert in global trade relations believes Meyer might have a shot at it this year.
This month, the Obama administration relaxed some travel restrictions, allowing relatives to visit their family members in Cuba once a year, rather than once every three years, and expanding the definition of family members to include cousins, aunts and uncles.
Because the sailors would not be visiting relatives, they must apply for a specific license from the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which permits travel for competitive events under strict guidelines.
Cuba's sailing team and its Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba initiated the request after inviting the Sarasota Yacht Club to participate in an offshore race near Havana. It would restore a 70-year-old international tradition.
Several members of the Sarasota Yacht Club are hoping that if they can get the permit, their effort might reopen Cuba for regular regattas.
Don Payzant, the fleet captain for the Yacht Club, said Cuba and sailing clubs from the west coast of Florida regularly raced until Fidel Castro's coup in 1959. There were still occasional races in the ensuing years.
Cindy Clifton, who organizes regattas for the yacht club, said her husband has been to Cuba for racing events a dozen times. He made friends there whom he has not seen in years.
The Sarasota Sailing Squadron organized an 84-boat race to Cuba in 1994. Clifton said the group organized another regatta during President George W. Bush's first term in office, but their permits were rescinded days before the race.
"Nobody I know has gone to Cuba since 2002," Clifton said.
Sailors formerly had little trouble going to Cuba so long as they brought along their own provisions, did not pay docking fees and did not spend money in Cuba.
But in February 2004, as part of his Homeland Security initiatives, President Bush signed a presidential proclamation declaring that U.S. boats could be boarded and seized if federal agents believed the operators were going to Cuba, citing the terrorist threat posed by that country.
In June 2004, federal indictments were issued against two Florida regatta organizers who were charged with violating the federal "Trading With the Enemy Act."
Peter Goldsmith of the Key West Sailing Club, and Michele Geslin, a Key West sailmaker, were charged for promoting their regatta on the Internet and collecting fees from participants, without Treasury Department approval. While their race began and ended in Florida, U.S. sailboats that participated made two planned stopovers in Cuba.
In the end, the pair were fined $11,000 each and have been denied export privileges, such as organizing a regatta which apparently falls into that category, for three years.
"Clearly anybody at this point who want to travel to Cuba for any reason, wants to make sure they get the appropriate permits to travel," said Lawrence Friedman, a partner in the Chicago-based global trade law firm Barnes, Richardson & Colburn.
Friedman said it could be easier to get permits to travel to Cuba under the current administration given the changes already approved.
"It's not a slam dunk for them, but the fact that they are going through the process, it's an organized sporting event and they are being careful to avoid contributing to the Cuban economy, there is a chance," Friedman said.
"There is a history of making exceptions for actual competitions and opening trade through sports."
Meyer said he sees an opportunity to bring back "spirited competitions" in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
Friedman said a sporting event has worked before to thaw relations.