Concern grows that legal US travel to Cuba could be in jeopardy

Streets of Havana.

Streets of Havana.  (iStock )

Over the last five decades, U.S. travel to Cuba has been anything but easy, with a longstanding trade embargo that has all but eliminated most Americans from visiting the island country legally.

But in 2011, when the U.S. government eased travel restrictions to include “people-to-people” exchanges, which focuses on cultural and educational travel, thousands of people took advantage and went to Cuba with government-licensed tour operators.

Now, however, the future of those trips is unclear. As originally reported in the Detroit Free Press, hundreds of tour operators and travel service providers, or TSPs, applied for tour permits or renewals in 2012, but only a handful has been approved so far by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which enforces sanctions on Cuba.

Without those permits, many operators have been forced to cancel trips, refund customers’ money and lay off staff, raising the question of what will happen when – or if – their licenses are eventually approved.

One leading operator, New Rochelle, N.Y.-based nonprofit Insight Cuba, which brought approximately 3,000 travelers on 140 trips to Cuba since August 2011, has had to cancel about 150 trips and let 22 newly hired staff members go as a result of the delay. The organization has filed an online petition to the White House and U.S. Treasury through the popular website, though president Tom Popper said he’s hopeful the renewal will be issued soon.

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“The detractors say [Americans traveling to Cuba] props up the Cuban government, but what people infrequently talk about is the profound economic benefit that people-to-people travel has on the local Cuban people,” Popper said. “When you take that away, it’s the Cuban people that suffer the most.”

That frustration is echoed by many tour operators and travel organizations that are in a holding pattern for their upcoming Cuba trips. Along with Insight Cuba, National Geographic Expeditions, Harvard Alumni, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are among other big-name organizations and nonprofits whose licenses or renewals are pending – and upcoming trips are in limbo.

OFAC is traditionally tight-lipped about its operations, and it has been even more so following guideline revisions it announced in May that further tightened restrictions on operating tours in Cuba.

Noting a backlog of applications, OFAC spokesperson John Sullivan told that “all I can say is that we have a number of these license renewals and we’re working as quickly as we can on getting them out. I’ve seen some stories that say the program is stalled. But it remains.”

Sullivan declined further questions about the delays and timetable for renewals, instead sending an e-mail with comments from Jeff Braunger, program manager for Treasury Department Cuba Travel Licensing, that the office has “issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses,” and that OFAC strives to respond in a timely manner” to its numerous application requests. Braunger also said the changes were partly in result to “reports we received concerning travel under the licenses.”

But many in the travel industry who are well-versed in U.S./Cuban relations are suspicious.

“They don’t want people going, period,” said John McAuliff, executive director for the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-governmental organization that worked to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and now Cuba. “The argument that it’s a huge national support to the nasty Communists would only make sense if they took the same view about Vietnam or China.”

As is the case with American/Cuban relations in general, the issue of travel between the two countries is wrought with political jockeying. In December, Cuban-American Congress leaders, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., put pressure on OFAC to tighten restrictions again, following President Barack Obama’s decision in early 2011 to loosen regulations put in place by President George W. Bush. In May, OFAC responded with revised guidelines and a vastly more complex renewal process, increasing the application document from six pages to more than 100.

The new guidelines also required organizations to document virtually every hour of their itineraries in Cuba to prove they were operating under the strict “people-to-people” requirements and not engaging in general tourism -- i.e., lounging on the beach -- which is strictly forbidden. There have also been reports of OFAC staff cutbacks – all at a time when Americans are showing increased interest in traveling to Cuba.

“It’s just not credible that they don’t have enough people to review these, especially for the renewals,” Fulton Armstrong, a former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America and a senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, told “A renewal is something where people have performed and you’ve had a chance to watch their performance. What has changed so much that [tour operators] have to do another soup-to-nuts, time consuming, and very humiliating – almost un-American-ly humiliating – application process?”

Some industry experts also conclude that the election year politics are playing a big role. Adam Szubin, the director of OFAC, raises the question of whether the office is delaying renewals in the hopes that Republican Mitt Romney will take control of the White House and possibly end the people-to-people program for good.

Yet some in the Cuban-American community say that travel to Cuba supports the country’s government under longtime dictator Fidel Castro, and as a result all trips there should be closely documented.

“In Cuba, every single tourist attraction, every single resort, every single restaurant for tourists is owned by the government,” said Francisco Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. “As a matter of fact, most of the Cubans living on the island cannot visit those places. Why should the government of the United States add to the concentration of power of the Castro regime?”

Tour operators, however, are still keeping their fingers crossed that they won’t have to say adios to future trips. “We are looking forward to continuing what we’re doing, for all the right reasons,” Popper said. “People-to-people is a great program that does great things for Cubans and Americans. It will be very hard to convince me that traveling to Cuba is a bad thing.”