There Are New Restrictions For Traveling to Cuba – Here’s What They Mean

This past Friday there was a formal announcement regarding some of the regulations for Americans’ travel to Cuba that could potentially affect many people who were

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Riding in an antique car in Old Havana

considering visiting there in the future. Although the regulations will not go into effect for at least a few more months, the changes still bring up basic questions about Cuba-bound travel that originates in the U.S.

Here’s a brief history of Americans’ more recent ability to once again visit the country just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and what the new rules will mean, both in the shorter and longer terms.


In 2009, President Obama, fulfilling a campaign promise, eased travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives in Cuba. In 2011 his administration announced new “people-to-people” travel rules, which further expanded the reasons some Americans were able to travel to the island nation (i.e. academics, religious groups, students, do-gooders, etc). Finally, in early 2015, the Obama administration greatly relaxed the rules on travel to Cuba – Americans were able to visit Cuba without a license as long as the trip fell into one of twelve broadly-defined categories. President Obama said, “the belief that if you are interested in promoting freedom, independence, civic space inside of Cuba, then the power of things like remittances to give individual Cubans some cash, even if the government was taking a cut, that then allowed them to start a barbershop, or a cab service, was going to be the engine whereby individual Cubans—not directed by the United States, not directed by the C.I.A., not through some grand conspiracy—can now have their own little shop and have a little bit of savings and start expecting more.”

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The town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Central Cuba

Whereas only about 63,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2010 (mainly Cuban-Americans visiting family, although sometimes Americans worked the system and traveled there illegally by going through other countries), hundreds of thousands of Americans and Cuban-Americans were said to have visited the island in 2016 (including me and Joe!). Just as President Obama said, his change of diplomacy allowed more travelers’ money to go directly into the hands of the Cuban people and, besides helping to increase the quality of life with cash (most Cubans only make about $1 per day in wages) indirectly showed the residents of the country what it was like to live in a more “free” nation, through this “people-to-people” interaction and trade. This, in turn, might make the Cubans more willing to fight harder for more freedoms from their own government.

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The Tropicana, in Havana – entertaining tourists since 1939

Unfortunately, on June 16, 2017, the new Presidential administration closed some of the gates for Americans in terms of Cuba. As reported in The New Yorker, “In essence, it reintroduces restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba and places new curbs on U.S. investments there. Its stated aim is to deny the Castro government, which controls a majority of business on the island, through a military holding company, easy access to American funds. The move will also likely curtail the numbers of Americans travelling to the island as well, by obliging them to provide proof that they are following the new rules. (Under the U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by an act of Congress, travel to Cuba for tourism is officially banned, but the Obama Administration had relaxed the rules to permit American travellers to come and go under a “report yourself” honor system.) The new orders may well hurt the Castro government’s cash flow, but they seem equally likely to dent the forward momentum of Cuba’s nascent private sector.”

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Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs)

The biggest change for those going to Cuba is for those who would say they were visiting for “individual people-to-people” travel (as per the Office of Foreign Asset Control, or OFAC, “‘individual people-to-people’ travel is educational travel that (i) does not involve academic study pursuant to a degree program; and (ii) does not take place under the auspices of an organization that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact” [Read: approved tour groups]). That option will be eliminated under the new regulations. Group people-to-people (as opposed to individual people-to-people) travel will still be allowed but travelers must go, “under the auspices of an organization subject to U.S. jurisdiction and travels must maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are intended contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban peoples independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba. An employee, consultant, or agent group must accompany each group to ensure that each travels maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”

OFAC still need to, essentially, rewrite the regulations and make them official, which they expect will happen sometime in the coming months. As of this writing, OFAC plans on beginning the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days and it is unknown exactly long it will take for the full process to go into place. Until then, the changes announced on 6/16/17 won’t go into effect until these new regulations are issued.

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Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indians), in the town of Viñales, in Western Cuba

Until the regulations go into effect, Americans can travel to Cuba as they’ve been doing since President Obama relaxed the rules on traveling there.

But once the new regulations go into effect, what does this mean for Americans who want to travel to Cuba?

Well, it depends.

The 6/16/17 announcement focused on “individual people-to-people” travel so one would assume that those traveling for the other categories of allowed travel, such as family visits, journalistic activity, public performances, religious activities, etc. will remain unaffected. To date, there is no mention of the “what ifs,” i.e. can those involved in a public performance eat at a military-run restaurant in Cuba? Can a journalist stay at a hotel run by the Cuban government while on assignment in that country? The answers to questions such as those are not yet clear, although one would assume that transactions with any military-run businesses would not be allowed for any American visitor.

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Tobacco plantation in Viñales 

We do know that if you already had solid plans to visit Cuba before the 6/9/17 announcement and money has been exchanged (i.e. you’ve already paid for a flight, and/or have a hotel and/or B&B reservation, etc.), you will be able to go to Cuba as planned, regardless of when, what and where your plans are.

We also know that once the new regulations are in officially put into place, if you want to travel to Cuba, you will no longer be able to go for “individual people-to-people” reasons. You will have to be in a tour group (either via an approved American tour company or, if you arrived via cruise ship, via an approved excursion) and follow a full-time set itinerary. Said itinerary would ensure you were not staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, using a tour bus, visiting a destination or purchasing any items at an establishment that was run by the Cuban military. You would also be expected to keep all of your receipts from your trip to Cuba for five years, so you could prove you did not give money to any business owned by the Cuban military (technically we’re supposed to save our receipts now as well, but with the understanding that the chances of being asked to show them were slim).

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Viñales Valley

Cuba’s military’s Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (“Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A” or GAESA for short) doesn’t run the country’s airports or cruise terminals, so U.S. airlines and cruise operators might not be directly impacted (they do own the marina, so privately-owned vessels from the U.S. could soon be out of luck). However GAESA own (or at least run) the vast majority of tourism development projects in Havana and other choice locations. So even if you can go to Cuba, you may be very limited in where you can visit, what you can purchase and where you can purchase it.

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Marti Park in Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast of Cuba

Right now potential travelers probably have many more questions than answers, and they’re questions that won’t be answered until OFAC formally writes the regulations. So for now, future intended visitors to Cuba will have to sit tight and see what happens next. Or maybe go right now if you can, before the regulations are in place!

For some reference:
Fact sheet on Cuba policy from whitehouse.gov
FAQ about OFAC implementation from treasury.gov
FAQ about the 6/16/16 announcement from transportation.gov

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El Malecón with Morro Castle in background, Havana

 

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