Staying in casas particulares will especially bring you more in contact with locals. This is an important principal which is emphasized by OFAC—people-to-people programs. OFAC is in the difficult position of enforcing Cuba travel regulations pieced together by Congress. OFAC is in roughly the same position as IRS, which has likewise been tasked by Congress to enforce extensive, complex, irrational, and sometimes bizarre rules and regulations. Guidelines for Specific License travel are fairly clear. Organizations must fill out applications that can be 50 pages or more, and pay extensive fees. If an application is approved, it usually must be renewed every year or two.
In contrast, the General License is—more general. Contact with local Cubans in emphasized, as well as a “structured full-time program” of activities. (In other words, a minimum of 8 hours a day of research.) Research is not limited to health care or culture, for example. I have come across Americans traveling on General Licenses who were in Cuba researching such topics as cartoon illustration, vintage American automobiles, salsa dancing, and cigar aficionado programs. (I’m sure the last group didn’t actually smoke Cuban cigars—that activity is prohibited by OFAC regulations created by Congress. They were in Cuba apparently only to research the process of tobacco growing and cigar rolling.) We’ve also come across Americans whose research focused on “Two-wheeled transportations systems in rural western Cuba.” (It was a group of long-haired, heavily-tatooed bikers on their Harleys riding through the mountains of Viñales National Park.) Note: The Cubans don’t care what you look like. They just want you to have fun, spend money, and not try to overthrow the government. Sounds reasonable!
According to OFAC, you cannot specifically visit Cuba as a tourist. If you visit museums, Hemingway’s homes, Revolutionary Square, and arts & crafts markets, for example, you have to be researching them. “Research” includes seeing the sights and interacting with locals. With a General License, you can structure your own program of research. Another guideline is that your research is likely to be “submitted for dissemination,” so you can consider writing an article for publication. According to a recently-published article: “General Licenses constitute blanket authorization for those transactions set forth in relevant regulations. No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions covered by a General License.”
I have been traveling on General Licenses for about 10 years with no problems. During that period I telephoned, emailed, and texted (from the U.S.) friends in Cuba. I’ve also called back and emailed the U.S. many times from Cuba. I assume OFAC and NSA, as well as Cuba’s various security agencies, have checked me out and found me to be boring and harmless. In 2010 I returned through U.S. customs stating I had been in Cuba, but did not have a license. Predictably, I was sent to a higher level of security. My bags were searched, then I was handed a three-page form to fill out, describing where I went and how I spent my money. I turned it in, and I was sent on my way. That was my total penalty. Since then, I’ve been back 7-8 times with a General License, and I’ve had no problems. I’ve been a group facilitator for others traveling on General Licenses, and nobody has even had any bags opened. It makes no sense to try to “sneak in and sneak back.” Just download your license, decide what you want to research, and keep in mind that YOU are the authority of the General License you are traveling on.
To download the necessary documents, you can go to www.LegalCubaTravel.com/research.php. There is good information on this website. Go down to “Preparing your license documentation in two easy steps.” You can download two documents, print them out, fill out the blanks, and you are good to go. It is up to you to determine if you are qualified. For you word-parsing legal types—the first definition of “professional” at Bing Dictionary is: relating to or belonging to a profession. Personally, I relate to a lot of professions—health care, health policy, the travel industry, home remodeling, sports activities, senior interests, and a bunch of others. You can also be “self-employed,” which might be interpreted as somebody in the research phase of his/her business. Notice that the guidelines say “regularly employed or actively engaged in an art, craft, technical, or scholarly pursuit. You can be actively engaged by reading about Cuba or one aspect of it. Another word you’ll see a lot in articles about licenses is “academic.” The first definition of “academic” in Bing Dictionary is: “educational; relating to education, educational studies, an educational institution, or the educational system.” It’s pretty easy to travel around Cuba and “relate” to education and learning about the country and its people.
Apparently the General License guidelines were drawn up to be vague, subject to personalized interpretation. The main thing is to research an area of interest in Cuba, and get involved in “people-to-people” meetings with the locals. Americans traveling on this license seem to have no problems liberally interpreting the terminology under this category. Focus on your research topic (health care, travel industry, cartoon illustration, etc.), and meet the locals. They love interacting with Americans. I believe it is up to us adults to help bring our countries together, since government officials haven’t been able to figure it out for over 50 years. (Note: The license designation 515.564 is the same as A5-564.)
If you are not flying through Miami or another U.S. city, you won’t need these documents until you return to the first U.S. city you land in. If you are flying through Miami, they will probably be provided by the charter airline. The charter will also probably ask you to submit a 1-2 page document that outlines your interest in your focus topic. If you haven’t worked in your field of interest, just describe why you are interested and describe what your activities will be in Cuba. A simple itinerary will be fine. This document is for the airline—it will be filed away and not sent to any government agency. Its purpose is to help the charter airline fulfill its obligation.
When you return to the first U.S. city on your on your return trip, have these documents in your hand when you come through customs. They are rarely looked at. The customs agent simply wants to know that you have a license. On your customs form, under “Countries Visited,” write “Mexico (if appropriate); Cuba with License #515.564.” If the agent asks to see it, show him/her. Rarely, you could be asked to report to the next level of security, where you may be asked a general question about your trip, but no worries. Be confident that you (and everybody else) qualifies. Remember that those of us who said we’d been to Cuba without a license (and those who got caught) were only penalized by being forced to fill out that dreaded three-page form. Also, remember that under OFAC guidelines, you can legally bring back Cuban artwork, sculptures, music CD’s, etc. Many of the customs agents (outside of Miami) don’t know this, so you can respectfully inform/remind them of this provision.
With future postings I’ll discuss how you can find clean, safe, well-located, fun, and economical places to stay and eat.