CubaNews / May 2011
By Larry Luxner
Four months after President Barack Obama announced dramatic changes in the regulations that had long restricted religious, cultural and educational travel to Cuba, those rules were finally published by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
This comes as a U.S. consumer survey released Apr. 26 found that 75% of respondents would visit or at least consider a trip to Cuba, if Americans were allowed to travel freely there.
Another 1.7% said they’d already traveled to Cuba, according to a poll of 953 people conducted by the Travel Leaders travel agency network Mar. 10 to Apr. 10 across the United States.
“Culturally and historically, Cuba fascinates a large number of Americans,” stated Roger E. Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, which sponsored the poll. “Physically, Cuba is amazingly close to the Florida coast, yet so far away because of continued restrictions for most citizens.”
Treasury’s Apr. 21 publication of the OFAC rules contain few surprises, though lawyers are now going over the text of the new rules carefully to determine what they actually mean.
“The release of the guidelines, while a hopeful sign, does not necessarily mean people-to-people licenses will be forthcoming soon,” Wash-ington attorney Robert Muse told CubaNews.
“Nor does it tell us how expansive the U.S. government intends to be in its implementation of this promising category of authorized travel to Cuba,” he said. “In the end, that will depend to a considerable degree on the institutional bona fides of the applicants and the strength of the application they file.”
Muse said the OFAC guidelines indicate for the first time that “a non-Cuban, pre-existing involvement in educational activities with a people-to-people component will be required.” This means that a startup organization — with no domestic or overseas experience conducting such programs — may not necessarily qualify for a people-to-people license.
Secondly, one-year, multi-trip licenses will now be issued. Therefore, a separate application with a specific itinerary will not have to be filed for each trip to Cuba.
In addition, applications must now contain examples of activities that will result in “meaningful interaction between U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
That excludes individuals or entities “acting for or on behalf of a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party.”
John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development found much to criticize in the new OFAC rules, noting that “unfortunately, the far lengthier sections on specific license reflects a control rather than a facilitation attitude inconsistent with the goals of purposeful travel.”
He added that Obama’s Jan. 14 announcement created the problem by unnecessarily requiring specific licenses for many categories of travel — and then leaving in charge an agency whose primary mission is protecting the financial side of national security.”
“Bottom line, the guidelines are a step forward to implement the new regulations,” said McAuliff, “but an oddly overcautious and out-of-sync response to a neighbor that has launched itself on a path of major social and economic reform.”
Miami attorney Tim Ashby, who follows U.S. policy on Cuba closely, says the OFAC regulations come as no surprise at all.
“They haven’t gone as far as I would like, but they’re pretty much par for the course. It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see any more loosening of the travel regulations until after next year’s elections, unless something dramatic happens in Cuba.”
Ashby says that “something” would have to be pretty dramatic — like Raúl Castro stepping down.
“I don’t think even if Alan Gross is released, it would make a big difference in the near term. The Obama administration is still so wary about losing New Jersey and Florida that they’ve done as much as they’re going to do” [with regard to relaxing travel rules].
Howard Farber, CEO of Fundación Avant-Garde — a Florida-based private, nonprofit group that promotes Cuban art — agrees that the new rules are nice, but not enough.
“I try not to be political, but my whole interest in Cuban contemporary art and culture is affected by politics,” he told us. “I want to be able to buy a ticket in Miami, get on a plane and go to Cuba — and there are no guidelines now that say I can do that.”