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Crackdown on Cuba

U.S. tightens embargo, banning travelers from coming home with Cuban cigars and rum, and making Cuban hotels off-limits to Americans
By Peter Kornbluh | From David Harbour, September/October 2020
Crackdown on Cuba
Photo/Mendel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion watch President Donald Trump announce a new ban on Cuban cigars and rum.

The cigar party is over. Americans are once again prohibited from coming back to the U.S. with Cuban cigars and rum, and can no longer stay in Cuban hotels, President Donald Trump announced in a speech on September 23. New U.S. sanctions leveled against Cuba have removed the permission for Americans traveling abroad to return home with Cuba’s most famous exports, and also ban future U.S. travelers from staying at any government-owned hotels on the island.

The latter restriction essentially forces all future U.S. visitors to stay in Airbnb-style lodgings in private homes, since the Cuban state holds full or majority ownership in all Cuban hotels. Trump’s announcement was specifically aimed at businesses operated by the Cuban government.

“Today, as part of our continuing fight against communist oppression, I am announcing that the Treasury Department will prohibit U.S. travelers from staying at properties owned by the Cuban government,” President Trump said during his speech, which was attended by veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. “We’re also further restricting the importation of Cuban alcohol and Cuban tobacco.”

The regulations issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) amends authorizations, issued during the Obama administration, allowing American travelers to purchase Cuban rum and cigars and bring them back into the country in “accompanied baggage” for personal use.

The new laws took effect on September 24, when they were entered into the federal register.

This move by President Trump reverses another part of the Obama administration’s policy of “positive engagement” with Cuba, which brought the two nations closer than they had been in decades. Among many changes, the restrictions on buying Cuban cigars were eased considerably. Under Obama-era policies, Americans could bring back up to 100 cigars (or four boxes) duty-free, no questions asked, from almost any country in the world, as long as they were not for commercial resale. Travelers with more than 100 cigars were subject to taxation, and excessively large amounts were deemed to be “commercial quantities,” although the exact number of cigars that constituted a commercial quantity was never specified by OFAC.

The new regulations affect more than just Americans who travel to Cuba (around 1 million per year made the trip prior to the pandemic). This change also removes the
allowance for U.S. travelers to bring back Cuban cigars and rum after visiting such countries as Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Mexico, which maintain free trade with Cuba and do a brisk business with Cuban cigar sales. (The purchase of either of these products via mail order or the Internet by Americans has long been banned and remains illegal.)

As part of the new package of sanctions, the  State Department also created a “Cuba Prohibited Accommodations List” that has the names and
addresses of Cuban hotel properties where U.S. citizens can no longer legally book a room. The new regulations state that “no person subject to U.S. jurisdiction may lodge, pay for lodging, or otherwise make any reservation for or on behalf of a third party to lodge, at any property in Cuba that the Secretary of State has identified as a property that is owned or controlled by the Cuban government, [or] a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba,” or close relatives of such prohibited officials.

Since the Cuban state holds at least a majority stake in all hotels on the island, the regulations effectively render them off-limits to U.S. travelers. State Department officials had already identified 433 hotels and lodging properties for its list of prohibited accommodations in late September, with such famous names as the Hotel Nacional, the Meliá Cohiba and Saratoga included. 

The new sanctions will also eliminate a category of travel that has allowed U.S. citizens to go to the island for professional meetings and conferences, as well as the general authorization of travel to attend public performances, workshops, clinics, exhibitions and events. The new restrictions will curtail U.S. citizens from attending annual gatherings such as the famed Habanos Festival and the popular Havana Jazz Festival. Future travel to the island for the purpose of attending meetings or events will now require an OFAC license.

Travel providers to Cuba were quick to denounce the Trump administration’s new restrictions. “The Cuban people are facing a tough economic situation due to a drop in tourism as a result of Trump administration policies and the Covid-19 pandemic,” stated Collin Laverty, who runs Cuba Educational Travel. “There are still a number of ways for Americans to travel to Cuba legally, but these prohibitions will create more confusion and complications, resulting in less travel and more hardship for Cuban families.”

The new regulations went into effect during a sharp downturn in Cuban tourism. As this issue went to press, travel to the island remained severely restricted and the Cuban tourism industry was essentially shut down due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

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