Widespread speculation that the Obama administration will loosen restrictions on the ability of American citizens to visit Cuba has put travel to the island back in the spotlight. If you are hoping that the president's expected announcement will allow you to travel to Cuba, here are a few things to consider:
Ten years ago, Congress passed legislation which restricts the president from allowing "travel to, from, or within Cuba for tourist activities." The president may only license travel under a dozen categories of travel for a particular reason.
Under current law, American citizens may be able to travel to Cuba to visit family, to conduct professional or academic research, for educational or religious reasons, for public performances or exhibitions, to support the Cuban people, to conduct humanitarian projects, or to market or sell certain products. There are also exemptions for journalists, diplomats, and private foundations.
Within these limitations, the president has the ability to get many more Americans traveling to Cuba for activities that would benefit the United States and the Cuban people.
The administration has a great deal of room to expand the number of Americans who would qualify to travel to Cuba. For example, the Bush administration imposed a condition that, in order to travel to Cuba under an academic license, a student had to be enrolled in a degree program and engaged in a course of study that was no shorter than 10 weeks. President Bush also prohibited visits by individuals when a family member is in Cuba, except in "exigent" circumstances and only "in true emergent situations, such as serious illness accompanied by an inability to travel." Restoring flexibility to educational, religious and cultural programs would likely result in more access for U.S. citizens via programs by local churches, schools, museums and other groups.
President Obama could also improve the logistics of traveling to Cuba. Currently, travel to Cuba is limited to a few ports, with most travel originating in Miami via charter airlines. Expanding flights to other air and seaports, establishing regularly-scheduled commercial airline service, and loosening restrictions on travel service providers to book trips to Cuba would lower costs and facilitate the ability of Americans to get to Cuba to engage in the list of activities permitted under current law.
Finally, the president could make a simple administrative change that could have a significant impact on travel. The U.S. Government relies heavily on "specific licenses," which requires the Treasury Department to approve applications to travel to Cuba on a case-by-case basis. The White House has the option of permitting more travel to Cuba under what is known as general licenses, which provide blanket authorization for qualified Americans to declare themselves eligible to travel to Cuba rather than requiring a permission slip from the Treasury Department in advance.
Relying more heavily on general licenses would ease the burden on the Treasury Department. Instead of processing applications for travel to Cuba, the Department would be able to redeploy resources internally to focus on more urgent priorities of tracking terrorist financing.
Changing these rules could have a significant impact on travel to Cuba over time. An announcement from the White House would also be a welcome step in the right direction that would create additional momentum for Congress to end the absurd limits on travel that Washington places on its citizens.
Given that American citizens can get to China, Iran and Vietnam on a U.S. passport, it is a wonder Cuba is still largely off-limits.