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Getting to Cuba

How does an American travel to the forbidden island?
Our Man
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

So, you want to go to Cuba. Believe it or not, you have the blessing of the U.S. government -- as long as you don't spend any money while you're there. Confused? You're not alone.

"Something to clarify is that there is no restriction on traveling to Cuba," says Zach Mann, spokesman for U.S. Customs in Miami. "It's the expenditure of money that the restrictions are on. So we don't dissuade anyone from traveling. You're encouraged to go anywhere in the world that you want, as long as it's safe for you and your family, and if there are regulations that control spending, as is the case with Cuba, that you follow those regulations in accordance with the law."

You can go there, but you can't buy so much as a mojito unless you have a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. These licenses are usually restricted to journalists, religious, educational or cultural groups and Cuban-Americans with families still in Cuba. (Visit or for details.) For everyone else, you have to find another route.

Americans who go to Cuba with a license from the U.S. government have the added pleasure of being allowed to buy Cuban cigars and bring them back to the United States -- just not very many. The Treasury Department allows licensed U.S. travelers who go directly to and from Cuba to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban goods. In a Havana cigar shop, that's enough for a box of petit coronas, or maybe something a bit larger. (You can buy a few boxes on the street for that price, but odds are excellent that they'll be counterfeits.) The $100 rule applies only to direct travel between Cuba and the United States. If you stop in a third country, or purchase Cuban goods in a third country (say, Canada), you cannot bring any Cuban products into the United States.

The law prohibiting the importing of Cuban cigars has existed for decades, but many cigar smokers remain confused over its details; a common misperception is that it's legal to import up to 100 Cuban cigars, and that they can come from any source country. The answers are no, and no. Customs has a Cuban cigar update on its Web site restating how the U.S. embargo against Cuba affects the importation of Cuban cigars.

One of the more controversial, but legal, means of traveling to Cuba is on a "fully hosted" basis, which falls under the OFAC's general license provisions. A fully hosted trip is when a person goes to Cuba without spending any money there. An American's port charges, taxes, hotel bill and such must be paid entirely by an entity that is not subject to U.S. law, and no indirect payments are allowed, meaning that you can't send money to someone who then uses it to pay for your expenses in Cuba. Such visitors must travel to Cuba via a third country and cannot use their own funds for airline or cruise tickets if the plane or ship is controlled by a Cuban entity, such as Cubana de Aviacion. They are also prohibited from spending any of their own money while in Cuba, with one exception: they may buy and bring back to the United States an unlimited value of artwork and informational materials, such as books, magazines, music recordings, films and posters.

While fully hosted travel to Cuba is permitted, the U.S. government is taking a more skeptical view of such trips, according to John S. Kavulich II, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit group based in New York City. In the past, fully hosted travelers were assumed to be in compliance with the OFAC regulations. Today, such travelers are required by Customs to produce receipts showing that all expenses incurred in Cuba were paid by someone not subject to U.S. law, and to submit a signed letter confirming this fact upon their return to the United States.

More Americans go to Cuba than you might think. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the OFAC reported that about 82,000 individuals subject to U.S. law traveled from the United States to Cuba, legally, on charter flights originating in Miami and New York. At least 22,000 Americans went to Cuba without authorization in 1999, though some experts estimate the total was much higher. From 1994 to 1999, the number of illegal travelers rose sharply, from 19 percent to 21 percent per year; for 1999 to 2000, the increase was closer to 15 percent, according to Kavulich.

U.S. laws notwithstanding, many Americans who travel to Cuba on the sly "misplace" a lot of the cash that they had before they left for Cuba. "It's really amazing, but every time that I've gone to Cuba, the money is in my pocket one minute, and the next minute it's just gone and I haven't spent a nickel," chuckled, winked and nodded one frequent visitor whose unique definition of "spend" has not gotten him in trouble,yet.

His friend and sometimes travel companion provided more clarity: "You cannot ever say that you spent one penny." But keep in mind that the burden of proof is on you if U.S. Customs asks you to show that you did not spend money in Cuba.

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