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Jerry Brown may have violated U.S. sanctions against Cuba

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October 5, 2010

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony


  • This article was originally published on October 5, 2010 at 2:41 PM and was updated on October 6, 2010 at 3:24 PM to reflect a request from the U.S. Treasury's Office of Public Affairs to clarify the legal requirements for travel to Cuba under the current sanctions.


SAN FRANCISCO, California: California's gubernatorial race has come to blows involving individuals within the Latino community. Nearly a week after Meg Whitman was dealt a political setback with allegations over her dismissal of a maid who was an illegal resident in the United States, State Attorney General Jerry Brown is now facing a scandal of his own.

According to allegations, a July 2000 political junket that Jerry Brown and staff took to Cuba was in violation of America's sanctions against the Communist dictatorship. Brown's trip came when his political ambitions were at a relative lull; years had passed since his failed Presidential bid and his tenure as California's Attorney General were still years off. In those days, he was just the Mayor of Oakland, officially making a trip to formalize Oakland's sister-city status with Santiago de Cuba.[1] Fidel Castro, Cuba's "Maximum Leader," on the other hand, was riding a PR high, having secured the return of six-year old Elian Gonzalez from Miami where the child had been staying with family; Brown, during the week in spent in the island, himself enjoyed a meal with Gonzalez and spent substantial time with Castro.

While Brown's trip has been a matter of public record for a decade, and was covered by The Weekly Standard in 2006[2] it has received fresh attention from an article, published in The Daily Beast and the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing Brown's movements on the island and reporting snippets of conversation.[2][3] The author, Ann Louise Bardach, an expert on Cuba, was in Havana at the time covering the Elian Gonzalez story; she met with Brown at the beginning of his week-long trip.

Now, reports are saying Brown's entire trip was set up by a former CIA agent who became a double agent for Cuba before defecting to the island. Phillip Agee, a CIA expert on Latin America in the 1960s, divulged the names of hundred of American agents before fleeing the United States in the mid-1970s; many in America's intelligence community believe information he divulged led to at least one murder.[4] MI6, Britain's intelligence agency, also connects the assassinations of two of their agents in Poland to Agee's leaked info.[5] After setting up in Havana, he reinvented himself as a travel agent, and eventually came to count Jerry Brown as a client.[6] Agee was candid about his ambitions for his "Cubalinda" travel agency: "Well, I would like to see people ignore the law, that is to the degree the law doesn't have any meaning anymore." Agee also admitted that he was instructing his American clients to make payments through European accounts to skirt regulations on U.S. travel to Cuba. Of Agee's services, Brown allegedly said, he's "a very good travel agent...got everything done...he’s quite a guy.”[2]

At the time of Brown's excursion, Agee's U.S. passport had long been revoked and his travel agency was not on the list of OFAC's approved businesses. OFAC, the Office of Foreign Asset Control, operates under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury, whose approval is legally required before American citizens may travel to Cuba. U.S. Sanctions against Cuba fall under the "Trading with the Enemy Act" and are specifically enumerated in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 CFR Part 515. According to OFAC guidelines for travel to Cuba, "Unless authorized by a general or specific license, any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who engages in any Cuba travel-related transaction violates the Regulations."[7]

Any traveler to Cuba who is subject to U.S. jurisdiction is also legally required to comply with Treasury regulations on travel providers: "Any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who provides services akin to those of a travel agent...must be specifically licensed as a Travel Service Provider prior to providing any of these services (see section 515.572(a)(1) of the Regulations). A traveler should not use any travel agent or tour operator in the United States that is not a Travel Service Provider."[8]

Ultimately, Brown would travel to the Gonzalez family home with Castro, take lunch with the dictator twice, join Communist officials in the VIP box at a Castro speech, and make his way back to the Havana airport the night he left in the Cuban presidential limousine, chatting with Fidel Castro all the while.[9]

Back in California, Brown penned an L.A. Times op-ed against the embargo and talked to the San Francisco Chronicle about his island idyll.[10] At the time, the Chronicle noted the excursions with Castro were, "not part of the itinerary approved by the U.S. State Department, which prohibits meetings between U.S. and Cuban government officials."[11] However, as Oakland's mayor, Brown was a public official and thus subject to less stringent regulations than a U.S. government official would normally have faced. At the time, Brown told the SF Chronicle he has not heard anything from the U.S. State Department.

In the summer of 2000, Bill Clinton's administration was unlikely to pursue such a case against Americans visiting Cuba. Five months later, when George W. Bush assumed office, Washington turned renewed attention to enforcing sanctions and prosecutions became more common. President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, once the director of the CIA, numbers among the intelligence officials who believe that Phillip's Agree leaked information led to the murder of at least one of the agents he compromised.

Jerry Brown's office and campaign spokesmen declined to respond to questions about the trip all those years ago.

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