One Year On: The Semi-opening of Cuba Travel


                                                                                     Photo by David Garten


On the first anniversary of President Obama's announcement of new provisions for purposeful travel (1/17/11), the picture is hopeful but murky. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) led by Adam Szubin, a career civil servant appointed during the Bush Administration, does not publish a monthly updated list of licensees on its web site as it does of Travel Service Providers, nor does it even furnish periodic statistical data.

Based on a data base provided by OFAC to blogger Tracey Eaton under the Freedom of Information Act, it appears that in 2011 OFAC approved 440 applications from 289 organizations, about 1/3 of the total submitted or resubmitted. Good governance or an overly restrictive mind-set? (The data base is here and a list of licensed organizations here. )

Some are not for profits with decades of involvement like the Center for Cuban Studies. Others, like National Geographic, are broad based tour operators reincorporating Cuba in their portfolio. A few offer frequent open enrollment trips, most notably Insight Cuba. More take only their own members like university alumni associations and chambers of commerce. Not even OFAC knows how many universities and religious organizations have taken advantage of the general license as these groups have no obligation to request its approval or report their trips.  The result is that every American can, with diligence, find a legal albeit costly way for purposeful travel to Cuba.

The President’s announcement permitted any US airport that handles international flights to serve as a gateway to Cuba for charter flights. About a dozen have been approved by US and Cuban authorities. Tampa has proven most successful and its officials are proactive, in contrast to Miami which grudgingly profits from its primacy. However, charter flights from Atlanta, Chicago and a second one from JFK have been suspended and those from other cities without a large Cuban American population have never begun. The weekly Baltimore-Havana flight that starts March 21 will find it challenging to sustain itself unless the White House further liberalizes travel for the rest of us. (Full schedule of flights prepared by Marazul here.)

A major error by the White House was to leave too much discretion in the hands of OFAC, the understaffed inherently distrustful embargo enforcement arm of the Treasury Department. OFAC is proving to be a choke point rather than a facilitator, perhaps made ever more cautious by rising complaints from hard line opponents of travel in Congress.

Based just on our organization's sequential numbering, OFAC received between our first attempt of February 24 (CT-17448) and our sixth revision of January 11 (CT-18987) a total of 1539 applications in less than eleven months. We don't know how many have been rejected, or are in the limbo of “pending”.

As one attorney wrote:

it's a bureaucratic black hole. it requires persistence. For instance, the regs state clearly one can apply "by letter", and I did, following carefully the instructions. When, months after submitting it, OFAC said it was waiting for my application form, I pointed out that the regs state the application can be by letter. No response yet. With another applicant they said the sample itinerary did not show enough "intimate people contact", which is a mystery because there was clearly all sorts of people contact daily.

After an application was rejected, its proponent wrote:

OFAC felt the environmental study program, where we met with Cuban professionals and other Cubans every day on mornings, afternoons and evenings, did not have enough intimate contact with Cubans.

A common experience is to be "denied without prejudice" because of a subjective judgment that

“substantial portions of the proposed activities set forth in the itineraries do not appear to include arrangements for educational exchanges that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba”

This happens despite provision of full itineraries to the contrary, and in marked contrast to programs already publicized by licensees.  Bureaucratic inconsistency or deliberate bias?

The only solution is for the White House to limit the ways OFAC procedures frustrate the President’s goals.

1) The President could use his authority to give all people to people travelers a general license.

Their ability to rent cars, pick up omnipresent hitchhikers, use public buses and trains, and stay in casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) will foster greater spontaneous engagement with Cubans than is afforded by the group tours currently required by OFAC and available only through Cuban government sanctioned ground operators. Their dollars will also provide more direct support to the emerging private sector rather than to state enterprises.

Every American should be able to attest to a purpose of non-tourist people to people educational travel, just as every self-identified Cuban American simply attests to having relatives within three generations. Certainly some will take advantage, gaming the system, to just hang out at the beach. That happens already with the tens of thousand of Americans who feel morally justified to simply ignore travel restrictions--without OFAC fines since the last year of the Bush Administration.

Not every Cuban American who travels is doing so for family reunion and support reasons, but the Administration has decided that the control of cheating is less important than maximizing the volume and breadth of interaction. The same logic applies to the rest of us.

Real liberalization will far better implement the President's goals for purposeful travel, substantially increasing the number, diversity and spontaneity of American visits--and significantly reducing costs so travel by families and back-packers becomes feasible.

2) An even easier intermediate step is for the President to grant general licenses to all IRS registered non-profits and third party providers of educational exchange as he did to universities and religious organizations.

That would remove them from a time consuming, inconsistent, and potentially politicized bureaucratic log jam. 

The biggest organizers of study abroad programs are commercial and non-profit companies that bundle students from different schools. They have been totally shut out by OFAC and have lost a full academic year of business. (See October 11 Chronicle of Higher Education here.)

3) The President should allow all US travel agents and tour operators to book authorized travel.

Currently only 250 licensed Travel Service Providers that are mostly Cuban American and mostly located in Florida, plus agents located in other countries, can carry out the business of selling flights, hotels and programs.  Opening the Cuba market to the whole industry will generate nationwide enthusiasm, outreach and employment.

4) All Americans should have a general license to attend and organize educational, professional, business and avocational conferences in Cuba.

Without a specific license US citizens and residents are not supposed to go to Cuba for the hundreds of conferences it organizes, or hold their own event and invite Cuban counterparts unless it is created by a university for its staff and students. Explicitly forbidden are meetings held for the purpose of promoting tourism in Cuba or fostering production of any biotechnological products, including presumably life saving pharmaceuticals.

The Cuban American caucus in Congress will oppose these steps as it vehemently has every single opening to date. Senator Marco Rubio attacked on the floor of the Senate the excellent programs of Insight Cuba and the Center for Cuban Studies. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart failed in his legislative effort to roll back Cuban American travel to the hyper-restrictive Bush era. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen went off the deep end about commercial trips offered by the Smithsonian Institution.

They are terrified that too many Americans will draw their own conclusions about the complicated and evolving reality in Cuba. The hard liners' argument that travel provides economic support for Cuba's “evil regime” is nonsensical and disingenuous. Even 100,000 non-tourist travelers in the context of over 2.7 million foreign tourists plus 400,000 Cuban Americans will have marginal financial impact. Were their objections actually based on principle, they would similarly oppose travel to China, Vietnam, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and many other countries.

In addition to increasing the impact of exchanges on the people of both countries, a stronger initiative by the President will create thousands of jobs in the US travel industry and support services.

He must end the immoral Jim Crow system which gives unequal access to the right of non-tourist travel by Cuban Americans and denigrates the rights of everyone else.

He can even gain politically if he responds to the freedom of travel sentiment of two thirds of Americans, including 57% of Cuban Americans, rather than accommodates to bullying by a special interest that is committed to his defeat.

John McAuliff

Fund for Reconciliation and Development

(revised 1/22/12)


Links and Resources


Agricultural reform deepens with longer leases and inheritance


The special perspective of a South African visitor


Jeff Franks roundup and new year projection for Reuters


Jeffrey Goldberg on removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism


Conservative publisher Mort Zuckerman: Time for U.S. to Review Its Cuba Policy