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Charges dismissed in sailraces to Cuba

Federal prosecutors’ crackdown on Cuba travel suffered a setback in an October court ruling that dismisses charges that organizers of three sailboat races to Cuba violated the Trading With The Enemy Act.

Peter Goldsmith and Key West sailmaker Michele Geslin were charged with operating an unlicensed travel service to Cuba for organizing the May 2003 Conch Republic Cup, a race from Key West to Varadero and Havana, and two earlier races to the island (Soundings, September 2004).

U.S. Judge James Lawrence King, of the Miami district, wrote in his Oct. 29 decision that the indictment against the pair alleges that they sent entries information packets listing Cuban ports where they could dock their boats. The organizers also collected registration fees and spent them on T-shirts, trophies, and a pre-race party in Key West, but the indictment does not allege that the pair spent any of the fees they received in Cuba, or to arrange travel or lodging there, King said.

“The indictment fails to allege that Defendants’ actions resulted in money being spent in Cuba or that Cuba was in any way benefited financially,” King wrote. He characterized Geslin and Goldsmith’s organizing efforts as “noncommercial activities” and said the illegal travel service provision under which they were charged does not bar “coordinated travel by independent participants in a sailboat race.”

King dismissed the charges “without prejudice,” which means prosecutors can seek another indictment, or they can appeal the decision. “The government is continuing to explore its options under the law,” said Carlos Castillo, the U.S. attorney’s spokesman in Miami.

Geslin and Goldsmith faced up to 15 years in prison and a $350,000 fine, if convicted of the trading with the enemy charges.

Art Heitzer, a Milwaukee, Wis., attorney and chairman of the National Lawyers Guild Cuba subcommittee, said King’s ruling curtails what he sees as an attempt by the government to “overreach” and prosecute U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba without alleging that they’ve spent any money there. The economic embargo on Cuba does not prohibit travel to Cuba but does prohibit spending money there without a license.

Heitzer doesn’t see the ruling making it any easier for Americans to visit the island by boat without putting themselves in legal jeopardy.