After loosening regulations that govern travel to Cuba by Americans in 2011, the Obama Administration is now indirectly causing many scheduled trips to be cancelled. The pendulum is now swinging backwards. A big factor is pressure from certain powerful congressmen and under-the-table deals. As with everything involving Cuba travel, this situation is hard to understand if you are not paying close attention, and it is complicated. Following is an up-to-date summary for potential American travelers.
The U.S. government requires travel on either a General License or a Specific License. A General License is essentially a declaration by an individual that he believes he is qualified to travel to Cuba under guidelines provided by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC is a division of the Treasury Department. There is no application process, and there is no need to renew. I have been traveling legally on General Licenses for many years and I’ve had no problems.
On the other hand, most large organizations apply to OFAC to travel on Specific Licenses. Once issued, they must be renewed (usually yearly) to continue to be in force. Applications, which were ten or twenty pages last year, are now reported to be hundreds of pages in length. The most common outcomes of applications for renewal this year: indefinite delays, resulting in many trips being cancelled and creating severe economic hardships for some travel providers.
This has devastated the fledgling Cuba travel industry in the U.S. One of the largest travel service providers, Insight Cuba (www.InsightCuba.com), has tours scheduled every week for the next year. Their website lists these tours, each with an asterisk: “Pending license renewal.” Their September 15th trip has been cancelled, as will all others, until their license is renewed. They have received no indication if that will be this month, next year, or if ever. Hundreds of potential travelers have already paid for flights to Miami, the tour departure point.
If you still want to visit Cuba, my suggestion is that you first check with travel providers to make sure their Specific Licenses will not expire prior to the return day of your scheduled tour. Another option is to consider traveling on groups who only use General Licenses. Most Canadian companies taking Americans do so using General Licenses, and you will not be able to fly directly from Miami. Global Exchange of San Francisco (www.GlobalExchange.org) has decades of experience taking travelers to Cuba with General Licenses. Many smaller, less formal groups led by facilitators, travel on General Licenses. Various conferences have been held in Cuba, with participants traveling there on General Licenses. You can also travel as an individual on a General License, but I suggest that you do some research before you depart.
There are two general theories about the cause of so many Specific Licenses not being renewed in a timely manner. One belief is that, with reported cutbacks in some government departments, OFAC simply does not have the manpower to stay on-schedule renewing licenses, but will renew all of them eventually. The other theory is that OFAC is purposely delaying renewal of the licenses as a way of re-asserting control over the process, and it is under political pressure to do so. The predictable results of this action have resulting in great harm to the travel industries in both Cuba and in the U.S.
In Cuba, travel service providers are trying to figure out if hundreds of hotel rooms reserved for Americans should now be made available to visitors from other countries. You may believe this whole situation is un-American and downright unfair, but don’t bother to write your congressman. It has nothing to do with rational foreign policy and American security interests. It has everything to do with Congressmen exchanging their votes with a small minority of anti-Cuba Congressmen. “If you vote to keep Cuba isolated, I’ll vote for your district’s bridge to nowhere or for a big tax break for that large company in your home town.” (These deals cross party lines, with both democrats and republicans participating.) What do the hardline Cuban-Americans in Miami expect to gain from continuing this policy? Many want to keep Cuba in a state of economic distress, so that one day they can return to Havana as conquering heroes that have come to rebuild the country. Oh—by the way, they also expect to claim tens of billions of dollars in beautiful mansions, vast ranches, and beachfront real estate that were left behind when their parents left Cuba for Miami over half a century ago. This would all be in jeopardy with a rational American foreign policy based on the security interests of the United States. If you follow the money, U.S.-Cuban relations are much easier to understand.