Confused About Cuba Travel? A Policy Expert Breaks It Down

12/06/2017 02:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Havana Reverie clients enjoying themselves on the malecón.
Marla Recio
Havana Reverie clients enjoying themselves on the malecón.

On June 16, 2017, at the urging of Senator Marco Rubio, President Trump announced intended revisions to US Cuba policy, which didn’t take effect until November of this year. The intention? Limit American travel to Cuba without actually making it illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. How? Confusion as what exactly our policy is. It has worked. After the release of the new revised policies, even the experts are bien confundido. It’s hard to get a straight answer from anyone -- from State Department and immigration officials to academics and policy wonks.

To clarify what exactly is going on, I sat down with Collin Laverty, a leading expert in US-Cuba policy.

In terms of American travel to Cuba, what has changed?

On November 8, the Trump Administration published new regulations for trade with and travel to Cuba. In a nutshell, the State Department issued a list of 180 Cuban enterprises, ranging from hotels and ports to soft drinks and flower shops, that American companies and travelers are prohibited from engaging in business with. The categories of approved travel to Cuba (people to people, educational, etc.) were tweaked by the Treasury Department, resulting in small modifications to how Americans can legally visit the island.

Very little has actually changed. Travel to Cuba is still legal and easy. White House officials intentionally provided poor information about the new policy in order to confuse journalists and the general public, creating a fictitious narrative that travel to Cuba has been tightly curtailed, which is simply not the case.

How would you describe the policy making process that has resulted in these new regulations?

President Trump is clearly interested in business opportunities in Cuba, which is why many of his colleagues and employees traveled to Cuba over the last several years looking to build hotels and golf courses. We also know from his position on Saudi Arabia, China and other countries that he could care less about human rights. Essentially, he struck a deal with hardline Cuban Americans during the presidential campaign, receiving their electoral support in exchange for a reversal of policies implemented by the Obama Administration. After the election, Senator Marco Rubio, a fierce opponent during the campaign, swooped in to pressure Trump to make good on his campaign. Traditionally a hawk on Russia, Rubio took advantage of the President’s handling of the Russia investigation, trading support for the firing of FBI Director Comey in exchange for the keys to Cuba policy.

To make good on his campaign pledge and backdoor deal with Rubio, Trump announced his new policy in June. Surrounded by hardline Cuban exiles, he claimed to “cancel” the previous policy. In actuality, he left the majority of Obama’s policy in place and announced small tweaks, most notably on individual travel. The Treasury Department then had the task to interpret the president’s new directive and write it into law. The result, released in early November, reflects what Rubio angrily characterized as bureaucrats “undermining” the president’s true intentions. Bureaucrats felt it would be a complete waste of their resources to investigate and enforce travel to Cuba rather than focus on real national security threats, like North Korea. Moreover, they felt that severely limiting travel would crush the private sector in Cuba and limit real interaction between Americans and Cubans, something that has flourished over the last several years. They pushed back.

The result is a lot of rhetoric and confusion, but only small regulatory changes.

What does people to people travel mean and who is it for?

People-to-people is one of the permitted categories of travel. To meet this requirement travelers must have a full-time schedule of activities that involve meaningful interaction with the Cuban people. There is lots of flexibility in terms of what a people to people program can look like. It could be a family of four exploring Cuban history and culture, a couple spending a weekend learning to salsa-dance and cook Cuban food, a group of young techies hanging with Cuban startups, a couples’ trip to explore Cuban trails and sporting events or a guys’ trip to visit tobacco farms and cigar factories. There are unlimited opportunities for families, friends and social groups to travel under this category, including birthdays, bachelor parties, anniversaries, family vacations, school trips and much more. There is a wide variety of lodging options for groups of all sizes, ranging from homestays to 5-star hotels and luxury villas.

Do you need to travel in a large group?

There are no requirements in terms of group size for people-to-people or any other travel category. Two people or one hundred people can travel as long as the requirements of that category of travel are met. For example, under people to people, a fulltime schedule of activities that include meaningful interaction with Cubans must be met and a representative from the organization overseeing your program must accompany the travelers. Other than that, no additional requirements, so you can travel in the numbers you want and stay in bed and breakfasts, hotels or even come on your sailboat or yacht. For larger groups, it’s perfectly fine for the group to split into smaller groups at times and for part of the group to stay in bed and breakfasts and others in hotels.

Is individual American travel still allowed?

Yes, individual travel is permitted under various categories. The easiest way for individuals to travel to Cuba is under the Support for the Cuban People Category, in which the only requirements are that travelers have a full-time schedule that a) enhances contact with the Cuban people and b) results in meaningful interaction with the Cuban people. By spending all of your time at private restaurants, shops, b&bs and visiting community projects, art galleries and entrepreneurs for interactive discussions, travelers are in full compliance. These activities enhance contact and meaningful interaction with Cubans. Wandering aimlessly or taking part in touristic activities would be a violation, so it helps to do some planning in advance. Many travelers reach out to their Airbnb hosts or travel agencies for ideas and assistance.

What are other easy ways for Americans to travel to Cuba?

There are many ways Americans are visiting the island. We’ve had a number of sports teams at different levels – teens, high school and university – visit to play against Cubans, as well as cultural groups coming down to perform. We organized corporate retreats for both Netflix and Spotify, bringing hundreds of their company execs to Cuba for company meetings, and a number of businesses have followed in their footsteps with corporate events. We have hosted a number conferences for US medical, legal and trade associations. And, we’ve also seen a lot of schools of all levels coming down.

I have heard about airlines cancelling flights. What is the current airline situation and where can I fly from?

There was a mad dash by all major US carriers to enter Cuba in 2016, resulting in too many airlines and excessive routes. A handful of airlines have pulled out as the market has recovered from excessive capacity and normalized. American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United continue to offer flights from Atlanta, Charlotte, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston Orlando, Miami, New York and Newark, making it easy to get to and from Cuba. Prices for most routes are very competitive and priced under other destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean.

How do I get a visa to Cuba?

Most U.S. travelers travel on a tourist visa, which can either be purchased from the airline at check-in or prior to travel from an authorized travel company like Cuba Educational Travel. Government delegations, research trips, humanitarian visits and some others might require a different type of visa, and travelers should consult with an authorized travel company or the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC.

What's the best way to move forward with Cuba travel plans?

Because of U.S. government restrictions on travel and the fact Cuba can be a challenge to navigate, most travelers will want to do adequate reading beforehand and plan out significant portions of their itinerary before arrival. Once you have a handle, either move forward with securing flights, lodging, and planning an itinerary on your own, or reach out to an experienced provider to assist with your Cuba experience.

Is now a good time to visit Cuba?

It’s an incredibly interesting and important moment in Cuba. A political transition will occur in February 2018 and the country is changing rapidly as youth turn to entrepreneurship and the internet, creating a truly millennial movement on the island. Culturally, it could not be richer, with wonderful art, music and dance. A dynamic private sector offers fabulous villas and penthouse apartments, world class restaurants and top-notch nightlife options. Finally, following a boom in 2016, prices have started to stabilize, making it more affordable and slightly less crowded.

How can I help change our Cuba policy?

There are a few ways to make a difference in our Cuba policy. Traveling to Cuba is one of them. Calling your lawmakers is another, (we have a few hold-outs in the Senate standing in the way of your seaside mojito). Remember, we are the only country in the world who restricts our citizens from traveling to Cuba. Meanwhile, travel to China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Qatar, remains legal, as it should be. Americans should have the right to travel wherever they want to, despite the relationship between our two governments. Spreading the word about legal travel to Cuba and correcting misinformation might be most important. Most people don’t know it’s still legal and easy. Lead by example and come to Cuba!

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