What's Up With OFAC? "No Irish (Americans) Need Apply"

04/20/2011 11:59 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011
  • John McAuliff Founder and Executive Director, Fund for Reconciliation and Development

The Second Annual Celtic Festival in Cuba Will Take Place Without Irish American Musicians

"Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity!"

That snarky characterization used to be directed at the Cubans by American critics. Looks like the Obama Administration wants to take on that dubious honor for itself.

It has been more than three months since the President announced new regulations on purposeful travel to Cuba. He moved to restore, and in important ways to improve upon, the policies of the Clinton Administration that had been gutted in the Bush era.

For students and religious organizations, the path is now clear. They have general licenses which require no application or report to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department. All that is required is authorization within the institution.

Two schools have already announced end of semester trips, Dominican University and Appalachian State University.

However, the broader opening of people-to-people travel faces a predicted bottleneck. OFAC has yet to issue new guidelines and has not acted on numerous applications from groups (including ours) which organized legal trips prior to 2004.

Paradoxically it has used the infamous 2004 Bush guidelines to deny an application within the performance category included in the new regulations.

My organization applied in February for a license for Irish American traditional musicians to participate in a second annual Celtic Festival in Havana that began at the end of last week. Its artistic director is Killian Kennedy from County Meath, Ireland. With the support of his government's Culture Ireland, he brought musicians from Ireland and Canada to collaborate with counterparts from the Gaelic provinces of Spain.

We were turned down twice by OFAC, as reported by the influential Irish Central blog and in the Miami Herald's Cuban Colada blog (links below).

A journalist who covers US-Cuba relations speculated personally that OFAC's action, and inaction, is...

another example of how Obama has never taken control of the government. Wonder too if it is tied to the ascension of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Also maybe a way of showing displeasure over Alan Gross?

Another knowledgeable source argues for the Gross theory. He told me the guidelines were actually finished weeks ago.

If the Obama Administration believes an early release of Alan Gross from his 15 year sentence can be achieved by holding back purposeful travel, it is sorely misjudging Cuba.

The number of new US visitors through the purposeful channel, perhaps 100,000 in an annual flow of 2.7 million foreigners, will be economically insignificant. In addition Cuba must expend more human resources to provide opportunities for substantive people to people contact than for conventional tourism.

Havana noted that the principal official US justification for the new policy was to separate the population from the government. Nevertheless, it will make the investment confident that visitors will have more impact on US public opinion than on the Cuban people. However, doing so is not a high priority.

I believe that Mr. Gross cannot win early release unless the US acknowledges privately, if not publicly, that he violated Cuban law by distributing USAID funded satellite communications equipment and gives a commitment that such counterproductive system change programs are finished.

I am uncertain whether a larger gesture is also required. A good way for the President and Secretary of State to find out what must happen if they really want Gross released is by meeting with former President Jimmy Carter and former Governor Bill Richardson about their Cuba trips.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself in Cuba before April 25th, check out the Celtic sounds in Habana Vieja and blame the limited imagination of OFAC, the State Department and the White House that no Irish Americans are among the performers.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Links and Resources

Reports on OFAC's license denial to 52:15 mins)

Press reports on CeltFest Cuba 2011

Slide show and videos from CeltFest Cuba 2010


Julia Sweig's comments previewing Cuba's Party Congress for the Council on Foreign Relations offer a timely summary of US-Cuba relations