U.S. officials have charged two men with helping thousands of people travel to Cuba with fraudulent religious visas. Authorities say the suspects used bogus church names and other information to avoid travel restrictions to the Communist island. VOA's Brian Wagner reports from Miami.
U.S. officials announced the indictment following a months-long probe that involved local police, immigration officials and the Treasury Department.
They say Victor Vazquez and David Margolis are accused of helping some 4,500 travelers avoid Cuba-related travel regulations. The two men are accused of taking advantage of a Treasury Department program that grants permits to churches for religious and humanitarian missions to Cuba.
U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta says Vazquez and Margolis obtained scores of religious travel permits, using non-existent pastors and false church names, such as the First Church of Christ. He says the licenses were then offered to travel agents for sale in the Miami area.
"An individual could then go into a travel service provider, indicate a desire to travel to Cuba, pay a fee of $250 and then have the ability to travel as if they were a member of this non-existent church," said Alex Acosta.
Acosta says the alleged sale of the bogus licenses generated about $1 million in revenue during a nine-month period last year.
Authorities said the pair could face up to five years in prison, if convicted.
Officials expressed concern that the alleged incident could affect thousands of others who conduct legitimate religious missions to Cuba each year.
Adam Szubin is the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department, which oversees Cuba sanctions.
"The fact that we see fraud as being exposed today with made-up ministers, made-up churches, will mean very sadly that we have to pay increasing scrutiny to church organizations, religious organizations that come in and apply," said Adam Szubin. "I think it's a second tragedy of this activity, aside from the criminal conduct itself."
For more than four decades, the United States has barred American companies from doing business in Cuba. In recent years, Washington has allowed limited cash sales of food and medicine intended to aid the Cuban people. U.S. officials say the sanctions are needed to create pressure on the Cuban government and hasten a transition to democracy on the island.