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Travel Ban Update

Gregory Mottola
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

If you're thinking about sneaking off to Cuba for a few days of sunbathing and cultured cigar smoking, then you should probably know how the travel laws work and how they've changed since the beginning of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

In July 1963, the American government issued the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, which prohibited most travel to Cuba in hopes of asphyxiating Fidel Castro's economy through the deprivation of tourist dollars. Travel to Cuba was discouraged and highly regulated, but not altogether illegal. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, authorized travel to Cuba under a general license to qualified visitors. The list of approved visitors was not terribly stringent, as it ranged from accredited journalists and academics to athletes and humanitarians. In addition, Cuban expatriates were permitted to visit family members in Cuba once a year.

Many American citizens fascinated with the allure of an essentially forbidden island could find easy loopholes in the law. Fully hosted travel packages, for example, were an option, whereby all expenses were either absorbed by a third party that was not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, or waived entirely by Cuba. If legal pathways to Cuba weren't available, it wasn't difficult for American tourists to fly to another country and pick up a connecting flight to Havana. Some travel companies even specialized in facilitating such arrangements. And it wasn't unheard of for unauthorized passengers to jump on charter planes from Miami to Cuba, often with no consequences.

But in mid-2004, the Bush administration severely tightened the regulations regarding travel to Cuba. Many travelers once eligible to go to Cuba under a general license now have to apply for a specific license, which is carefully reviewed by OFAC and granted on a case-by-case basis.

"A general license means you already have permission to go and do not have to apply to OFAC for a license," says Molly Millerwise, director of public affairs for the Treasury Department. "A specific license asserts the need to apply to OFAC for permission to travel. An example of travelers who fall under the specific license are groups seeking to participate in religious activities in Cuba."

Since the rule revisions, religious groups, humanitarian providers, freelance journalists, competitive athletes, and private and educational researchers are no longer granted a general license, but are now required to apply for a specific license, as the Bush administration has mandated that OFAC more closely scrutinize all applicants.

Family visitation rights have also been severely scaled back. Cuban defectors can visit immediate family members only once every three years and for no more than two weeks at a time.

Assuming you go through all the proper channels and make it down to Cuba legally, you'll have to do all your cigar smoking while you're there. Remember the law that allowed U.S. citizens to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban merchandise? That has been eliminated. Only items classified as informational materials such as books, tapes and CDs may be brought back. Sadly, OFAC does not classify Cohiba, Montecristo or Partagas cigars as being informational. Cuban cigars can be seized at the discretion of a Customs officer. Even if Castro himself were to present you a box of Trinidads, you couldn't bring it back, or even legally accept it. Goods received free of charge are prohibited unless expressly licensed by OFAC beforehand. As for getting your rich uncle in Switzerland to make all the transactions and pay your way in his name, you can forget about that too. The previous allowance for fully hosted travel has also been eliminated.

Still, it is not impossible to operate under the radar screen. Thousands do it every year. It seems the easiest way to get to Cuba would be to fly to Mexico or Haiti and then hop on a puddle jumper to Havana. If you decide to take your chances, be forewarned that the penalties can be tens of thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time if you're caught. OFAC has recently cracked down by penalizing small airlines willing to whisk unlicensed U.S. citizens away to Cuba.

Since 2004, both Democrats and Republicans have sponsored bills proposing to lift the travel ban. The idea has been around almost as long as the ban itself. In a December 1963 memo (declassified in 2005) from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Kennedy advocated removing the travel ban. He believed that there would actually be less travel to Cuba should the ban be lifted as opposed to the increased travel that could result from the taboos surrounding an embargoed state. Although Kennedy thought some regulation to be wise, he wrote in his memo: "Removing present restrictions in travel to Cuba is more consistent with our views of a free society."

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