Privacy & Security

Backroom Deal Leads to Stricter Cuba Travel Restrictions

The United States has maintained a near-total trade and economic blockade against the Republic of Cuba now for 50 years.  An obscure division of the Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) manages and enforces this embargo.

Since President Kennedy imposed the original embargo against Cuba, subsequent presidential administrations have adjusted the regulations in accordance with political realities. For instance, in the early 1980s, President Reagan issued an executive order restricting tourist travel to Cuba by persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction; e.g. U.S. citizens and green-card holders. While the regulations don't prohibit travel to Cuba outright, they forbid U.S. persons or tour groups from spending any money there unless OFAC first issues them a "license." Historically, these licenses have been very difficult to obtain.

However, in the 1990s, OFAC under President Clinton adjusted the regulations to allow "People to People" (P2P) contact between ordinary Americans and ordinary Cubans. Licenses became relatively easy to obtain for these purposes and many groups traveled to Cuba.  A decade later, the second Bush administration refused to renew those licenses. The administration also tightened the regulations allowing Americans with Cuban ancestry to visit their families in Cuba. OFAC dutifully brought civil and administrative cases against these "tourist lawbreakers."

By the time the Obama administration assumed office, the political winds had again shifted toward greater accommodation toward Cuba. OFAC began issuing one-year licenses for both P2P and family visits under the more relaxed standards.

Over the last few months, however, these licenses have become much more difficult to obtain. OFAC, while not refusing to renew licenses, has imposed new requirements for their issuance. OFAC recently shut down two commercial tour operators because they were using someone else's license and now requires all publicity be in the name of the license holder.  It also now prohibits unlicensed third parties from collecting payments for a group they are sending in cooperation with a licensed P2P.

According to John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, the reasons are highly political. Summarizing McCauliff's reasoning:

1)  The Miami Herald reports that the new guidelines issued in May 2012 are part of a deal with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to get him to lift a hold on confirmation of the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Click here for details.

2)  Those opposing travel to Cuba spin their arguments to the effect that "…some organizations had violated stipulations that program activities have to be of a cultural or educational nature in which participants interact with Cuban people." This is nonsense, because OFAC permits only highly programmed group travel. All American trips are organized by one of three Cuban state companies so their itineraries are fundamentally similar.

3)  OFAC operates behind an absurd veil of secrecy and non-disclosure. The names of P2P licensees are considered confidential, in contrast with its online and updated listing of Travel Service Providers. Visibility of the list would make it easier to find ways to go to Cuba legally and make more obvious OFAC's bureaucratic delay, arbitrariness, inconsistency, and probable politicization.

4) The head of OFAC, Adam Szubin, is a Bush appointee and has been responsible for aggressive and petty anti-Cuba actions in recent years. OFAC policy now forbids Cubans from staying in hotels owned and managed by US companies anywhere in the world. Perhaps Szubin is predisposed to listen to Sen. Rubio and has employing delaying tactics in the hope that Mitt Romney will be elected in November.

It's obvious that sanctions against Cuba or any other country have very little to do with actual events and are in reality politically motivated restrictions on travel, trade, and free markets. These types of restrictions led to the decision of my colleague P.T. Freeman to give up his U.S. citizenship more than a decade ago. P.T. now carries a passport from the Commonwealth of Dominica, a peaceful country with no embargos, travel restrictions, or bomb-laden drones aimed at anyone.

Incidentally, P.T. will be visiting Cuba in the coming days. I look forward to hearing his account of what's taking place there….Stay tuned!

Copyright (c) 2012 by Mark Nestmann

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