Traveling to Cuba – myth, reality and resolution

(First of three parts)

I participated in a group tour to Cuba in January of this year courtesy of Canadian-based ITN advertiser ElderTreks (Toronto, Ont.; 800/741-7956). This inspiring journey indeed answered scores of long-held questions I had concerning the Cuban equation. It also left many questions unanswered and, predictably, posed additional ones.

In this three-part treatise on Cuba, I will discuss not only the amazing experience of traveling around Cuba but, specifically in this month’s article, the current although possibly changing realities surrounding travel to Cuba by American citizens.

Our group of 16 included 12 Americans. The personal opinions I express concerning visiting Cuba are fully my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions or philosophies of any other entity, including ITN management.

Cuba: it’s complicated

Street ball erupts with no warning in the streets of Trinidad, Cuba. Photos: Keck

Prior to the trip and most particularly upon my return from Cuba, I was asked scores of questions by friends and acquaintances seemingly with a thirst for knowledge and understanding about our mysterious, forbidden southern neighbor whose eastern tip is a mere 90 miles across the Caribbean from Key West, Florida. Many of the questions pertained to the current travel restrictions for Americans wishing to visit Cuba.

The general American travel public has not found easy access to Cuba for many decades due to various travel bans and restrictions imposed by the US government for political purposes. Unfortunately for freedom-loving citizens, these travel restrictions seem to be in violation of our own government’s policy of not correlating Americans’ freedom of travel access to a particular country with the politics of that country. In that respect, Cuba remains unique.

Travel to Cuba — the convoluted options

Many American providers of travel have obtained a US government-issued license to operate specific types of travel programs to Cuba. These companies are listed on the US Department of the Treasury website under the heading “Office of Foreign Assets Control.”

There are also various types of licenses that individual Americans can obtain to travel “legally” to Cuba although not officially as tourists. Googling “legal travel to Cuba” will reveal a plethora of sites and information.

American-based travel and tour operators are not allowed to advertise their Cuba-licensed offerings, so you will not find them listed in publications such as ITN. Many of these license-permitted travel programs have educational and research components and are connected with schools, other educational entities and myriad other institutions.

Cuba through the back door

A large, growing percentage of Americans visiting Cuba today do so in opposition to the formal US policies outlined above regarding travel to that Caribbean destination. This is done by traveling either independently or — as an individual traveler or a member of a group tour (usually all-inclusive) — with arrangements made by a foreign-based tour operator.

Much of that travel is via Mexico or Canada. The carrier from that country to Cuba provides each American citizen with a travel card, which is kept with the passport. When arriving and departing Cuba, the travel card is stamped instead of the passport.

It is estimated by Canadian travel industry sources that more than 25,000 Americans traveled to Cuba in this manner in 2008, with estimates for 2009 and 2010 spiking up dramatically.

It would be beyond naive to surmise that the US government is not fully aware of this fact. Currently, aside from the occasional warning, the policy appears to be to not hassle such travelers returning to the USA.

A 2010 returnee to the USA reported to me being told by a Customs official, upon revealing he had been to Cuba, that Americans really are not supposed to go to Cuba without a travel license and next time he should get one. None of his Cuban purchases were confiscated.

The authorities also are clearly not interfering with our neighboring North American countries to the immediate north and south, which are providing most of the access to Cuba for Americans. My research, which included travel industry sources, indicates that in 2009 and thus far in 2010, there are no reports of Americans being fined who traveled to Cuba strictly as tourists.

The travel industry speaks

Beautiful Plaza Marti is the jewel of Cienfuegos.

Peter Greenberg, the AARP Travel Ambassador and CBS News Travel Editor, recently commented, “If you read the law, it doesn’t specifically bar US tourists from going to Cuba but from spending money there. To help prevent violations of the law, many American travelers book all-inclusive travel through a third country, paying local tour operators in this third country, and you’re not officially spending US dollars.”

This was the situation on my tour. Additionally, US credit cards are not accepted in Cuba.

One question remains omnipresent, in my opinion. In free and democratic countries, is it not the responsibility of the citizenry to bring about changes concerning outmoded regulations and laws? And, sometimes, is this not best accomplished by having enough citizens simply demonstrate the law’s or regulation’s obsolescence?

Freedom to travel — sanity on the horizon?

It appears there is the possibility of change on the horizon regarding Americans contemplating future travel to Cuba. Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts has sponsored legislation: H.R. 874, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.

As of February 2010, the year-old bill had 181 cosponsors in the House and 38 in the Senate. It is, however, currently buried in the Foreign Relations Committee, which has a member who has longstanding ties to remnants of Cuba’s previous dictatorship and who steadfastly remains opposed to lifting the ban.

The realities of the Washington political process mean that H.R. 874 may not even come to a vote without significant input and pressure from an American public currently largely unaware of the bill’s existence.

In a Jan. 29, 2010, letter to the editor in the Washington Post, Congressman Jeff Flake, a bill cosponsor, commented, “Fifty years of economic sanctions and a bureaucratic bonanza of ‘democracy’ programs in Cuba have failed to advance American goals. Our people and civil society institutions should be free to visit Cuba just as they visited the Soviet bloc — not because communist governments are nice but precisely because they are repressive. Their control over information, ideas and contacts would hardly be helped by an unrestricted flow of American visitors.”

Previous to that, he had commented, “Americans should be free to travel where they want. They don’t need our advice and shouldn’t have to seek our permission.”

Those who believe Americans should be free to travel where they wish, like Congressman Flake and the other H.R. 874 cosponsors, can make those feelings known to their elected representatives. Visit the website www.govtrack.us to view a list of the bill’s current cosponsors. (On the site’s homepage, click “Bills and Resolutions.” Under “Search,” input “HR874” and click. To the right of “Sponsor,” click on “Cosponsors.”)

LATE ADDITION — Just before going to press, a forum took place in Cancun, Mexico, March 24-26, with more than 100 high-level American travel industry executives and a delegation of more than 20 Cuban tour operators and Cuban ministry officials, all planning for future travel to Cuba. The forum was coorganized by the National Tour Association, which has long supported the freedom to travel to Cuba, and sponsored by the US Tour Operators Association.

Senator Byron Dorgon (D-ND), the lead sponsor of the Senate bill to lift travel restrictions to Cuba, wished the participants great success.

In my next column, I will begin reporting on my adventure in Cuba.

The grace of an elder Cuban’s persona caputured in rural Pinar del Rio.

Publisher’s note: It is a sad indictment of the American press that so few people are informed about and understand the real reason for the US embargo against Cuba. It has absolutely nothing to do with communism as such.

In 1959 when Castro seized power, he took over US companies: International Telephone & Telegraph, Sears and some others. Our State Department has told Cuba on many occasions that if they would pay for the seized properties, the embargo would end. The response has always been negative.

Our State Department has not asked for any interest to be paid nor for the value of the seized properties in today’s dollars but just for what it was worth in 1959, which comes to about five million dollars.

Actually, as many observers have stated, Castro needs the embargo to have something to blame for the miserable economy. A writer recently called Cuba “a land of fertile soil and no food, a country surrounded by ocean and no fish.”

Cuba trades with the rest of the world, and tourists flock there from Canada and Germany. And how much of an embargo is there, really? Food, medicine and agricultural implements are exempted from the US embargo.

Many say travel should be above politics. However, I personally have felt that people shouldn’t go to a country where a dictator pleaded with the USSR to launch nuclear missiles at the US. But now I have changed my mind. I’d like as many people as possible to see what such a political system can do to a country.

Old-car buffs will especially enjoy it. Incidentally, many US collectors have offered to buy those ’50s cars. Castro has forbidden the sales. Such transactions would have really enriched the ancient car owners. — AN

Editor’s note: Regarding travel to Cuba from the US, the OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) enforces sanctions on corporations and individuals. Most recently, enforcement has been against companies doing illegal business or money transfers (25 companies in 2009). The number of individuals receiving civil penalties (lately, primarily for bringing into the US any Cuban goods like cigars or liquor) has dropped dramatically in recent years, from a high of 582 in 2005 to a low of two people in 2009 (one for cigars, with a sanction of $1,175, and the other for a real estate transaction, with a lesser fine).

Currently, a traveler can be subjected to extensive baggage searches and the possible confiscation of Cuban goods plus, possibly, a letter of warning from the OFAC if it is determined that he or she is returning from Cuba.

For more on the US laws, visit www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/programs/cuba/ cuba.shtml. — DT

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝  When enough people are continuously exposed to what they do not have but desperately want, are they not even more motivated to do whatever is necessary to bring about desired changes? ❞
— Randy reflecting on the nature of change as applied to the human condition