Will OFAC Pull the Plug on People to People Travel to Cuba?

In January 2011, The Obama administration finally rolled out long-awaiting regulations to re-open 'people to people' travel to Cuba. Such people to people engagement with the island had been pursued by the Clinton administration, only to be squeezed and finally prohibited altogether by the Bush administration in 2003. Countless relationships built across the Florida Straits withered, or rather, wintered, until 8 years later, President Obama's changes allowed them to connect anew. In less than a year and a half, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers Cuba sanctions, granted 140 licenses for such trips, and Americans are dizzingly eager to travel. But now it seems that few if any of those licenses are getting renewed. Ellen Creager writes:

"These are not fly-by-night groups. Typical groups that have -- or had -- Cuba “People to People” licenses include Harvard Alumni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Insight Cuba and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, all reputable groups that ran ethical and very good culturally-rich trips.

Now, a look at their websites tells the story. Harvard has one trip planned for Dec. 27 but with this caveat: “Pending ‘People to People” license renewal.” The Met wiped Cuba off its itinerary for now. National Geographic, which has run 29 trips taking 703 people total in the past year, is taking only preliminary waiting-list reservations for fall trips with no deposit. (A deposit, according to OFAC rules, is engaging in financial transaction with Cuba and illegal if you have no license) Insight Cuba has suspended all trips for the past two months and is on hold, waiting for its renewal that expired in June. National Trust has 4 Cuba trips still on its 2012 itinerary, but with an asterisk: "Pending People to People License Renewal.""

Why are none of these groups are getting their renewals? Is it a simple case of election year politics? Not likely; the Obama re-election campaign understands Cuban American dynamics better than that, especially considering that it was Obama who went after swing Cuban American voters in 2008 by offering a more pragmatic Cuba policy that would feature engagement - with families as the vanguard - over empty tough talk. Stepped up enforcement of travel rules that this administration itself opened up would only speak to the most hard-line segment of the Cuban American electorate who are overwhelmingly conservative voters and wouldn't vote for Obama anyway.

Is OFAC short-staffed? Drowning in license applications? You might think so given the high demand for people to people licenses since last year.  But if OFAC managed to issue 140 licenses in just over one year's time, I'm not sure it's short on personnel. (And here I must digress to note that it wasn't that long ago, during the Bush administration, when Congress learned that OFAC was using some 15% of its investigative resources on enforcing the Cuba travel ban, far more than it was dedicating to rooting out Osama bin Laden's funding networks, it turned out.) If OFAC is truly short on personnel now then perhaps it's time to provide a general license for people to people travel and spend resources on enforcement instead (if you must) of the worst offenders (offering day trips to the beach, and such). A general license would do away with all paperwork except for enforecment audits.

Perhaps pressure from interested - putting it mildly - Cuban American lawmakers oppose any travel to the island has intimidated OFAC? That pressure would certainly explain the May 2012 revision to its guidelines for people to people travel, including that prospective licensees demonstrate how their trips would engage non-government associated Cubans. Given that almost everyone still works for the state in Cuba, such a requirement seems to conflict with the purpose of these trips - to engage. Of course there is a difference between attending a lecture (which may or may not present a 'sanitized' point of view) or a briefing by a government official, and having conversation with students, or an impromptu exchange with a handful of Cubans in the neighborhood. But that doesn't mean that one encounter is valid and the other is not. I've had my fair share of discussions with officials, some of whom I felt were being open and honest, and others I believed were just giving me a party line.  But it never stopped me from sharing my perspective, which is useful for said officials to hear, nor from drawing conclusions of my own from the experience. These trips are for learning, and there should be no limit on the ways in which either party can learn from the other. I don't have to agree with you or even like you very much to learn from an encounter with you.

This is why OFAC's new guidelines are so problematic. Restricting contacts in the first place is a bad idea, but this sort of 'Big Brother is watching' approach to people to people engagement is counterproductive (and more than a little ironic). Providing a full itinerary, explaining how contacts with the government helps to make peope more independent of the government, and so on, is an odd way to try to open up what many consider a closed society. And therein lies the problem: the objective of such travel is to open up Cuba, instead of to foster mutual understanding, a principle that should stand on its own. In this way, the Obama administration has backed itself into a policy corner.

But if we must be so focused on changing Cuba, inspite of our repeated failed efforts to do, there's a smarter way to gain influence and access. The fact is, if you want to engage the people, government contacts are just as important as non-government contacts, not simply because of the sheer numbers of Cubans who are in government but because today's mid-level government functionary in Cuba may well be tomorrow's too (there aren't enough dissidents recognized by the people in Cuba to repopulate even the slimmest of governments if there were some sort of overnight change on the island). Whatever Cuba's path in the coming years, we're fools to write off large numbers of Cubans, many of whom will have a greater role than we to play in the future of their country.