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US Forms Task Force to Crack Down on Cuban Sanctions Violators

The Bush administration has announced the creation of a new law enforcement task force to aggressively pursue violators of U.S. trade and travel sanctions against Cuba. A number of Cuban-American groups support the "get tough" policy.

The announcement of the stricter new approach to violators of the 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba comes at a time of political uncertainty on the island. In late July, Cuban President Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul, and some experts believe Fidel Castro's 47-year reign may already be over.

U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta told a news conference in Miami Tuesday that the task force will coordinate the efforts of officials from several agencies, including the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Acosta would not answer questions about the timing of the announcement, coming four weeks ahead of congressional elections, saying only. "We believe that this is an appropriate time to set this as a priority. These sanctions programs have an important purpose, to bring about a speedy transition to democracy in Cuba,"

Acosta promised to prosecute the import and export of goods to and from Cuba, transfers of hard currency, and unapproved visits to the Caribbean island. He said the purpose of the sanctions is to deprive the Castro regime of the U.S. dollars it needs, and to hasten the transition to democracy.

Camila Gallardo, of the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful Cuban-American lobbying group based in Miami, agrees. "Particularly now when the situation in Cuba is so volatile and changing day by day, we think it's important to maintain not only the current policy, but to enforce that policy, and to make sure people are not abusing the system, and contributing directly or indirectly to keeping Fidel Castro and his cronies in power," he said.

Gallardo said many Americans have found "creative" ways to circumvent strict regulations limiting their travel to Cuba. "People manage to get licenses to travel supposedly for education purposes and so forth, for humanitarian reasons, for religious reasons, and when you dig a little deeper, these people are actually engaging in tourist travel."

Cuban-Americans with family on the island may visit once every three years, and may remit money only to direct family members. Violators of the embargo can face up to ten years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

Some critics of the embargo say it has actually helped President Castro more than it has hurt him, by allowing him to blame Cuba's economic miseries on the United States.

Under U.S. law, the sanctions will remain in place until multi-party elections are planned, political prisoners are released and both Castro brothers are out of power.