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Dancing with the Enemy?

The New U.S. Cuba Travel Regulations Not a License to Party

Opponents of current U.S. policy to Cuba are constantly looking for legal wiggle room to exploit the travel restrictions to the island. As I advise our clients, and potential clients, while the Obama Administration has significantly relaxed the travel rules, it is not a blanket license to vacation or, as one anonymous travel operator said in a recent Miami Herald story said: “Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba – legally!” For the record, it has never been illegal to dance in Cuba, if you can be there legally that is.

Travel is to Cuba what oil is to Iran – money and political survival. With no viable exports to speak of, travel of any kind is what keeps the regime afloat. And Cuba needs it. Bad. The Obama Administration believes, wrongly, that increasing categories of travel is a good thing. Notwithstanding that it goes against U.S. law (we’ll leave that for another post, but let’s just say that a plain reading of the law has them on wrong side of the ledger), it is bad politics to put greenbacks in the Cuban regime’s coffers.

So how does it all work today? The new regulations just expanded the categories of people that will no longer have to complete applications with the Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The new groups of travel that allow you to travel to the island without a specific license includes travel falling in the following categories:

(1) Family travel consisting of visits to “close relatives”;

(2) Official travel by U.S. government officials;

(3) Journalists;

(4) Professional research;

(5) Educational activities by accredited and degree-granting institutions;

(6) Religious activities;

(7) Commercial marketing trips for telecommunications products; and

(8) Commercial marketing trips for medical products.

It is quite a list, but not a ticket to party. Far from it. Each one of these categories of general license travel comes with a series of guidelines. If you are going to do it, familiarize yourself with them and be sure to read the regulations as well.

If you happen to fall in to any of these categories there remain many restrictions and conditions on travel that these travel agencies rarely go out of their way to tell you about. There are limits, for example, on the amount of money you can spend per day in Cuba. You cannot use credits cards. You also cannot engage in unauthorized transactions with Cuban officials listed on the specially designated nationals (SDN) watch list.

Former political prisoner and opposition leader, Dr. Biscet has said that the U.S. sanctions have helped the Cuban people both politically and morally." He wishes that all "free and civilized countries would boycott Cuba, the way they did racist South Africa." The world made South Africa a pariah state. The American embargo should be lifted, says Biscet, "when the embargo against the Cuban people's human rights," imposed by the dictatorship, "is lifted."

The two categories that I think are going to cause major problems involve are the marketing trips for telecommunications and medical supply companies. The Cuban government is very corrupt. Entertaining in Cuba will be challenging as the regime has its own rules for business. If you’re a U.S. company, be mindful that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is always a factor, no matter where in the world you do business.

I have never supported any form of U.S. travel to Cuba – not even by close relatives. The only exception that I can reconcile on humanitarian grounds is extreme humanitarian need such as family illness or imminent death of a loved one. Beyond that, forget about it. Harsh?  If you had asked my two grandparents that passed away recently, they would tell you, not really. They did not need a government policy to tell them that nothing good comes from travel to Cuba so long as the regime is in place.  They left Cuba in the early 1960s and never ever went back, not even when loved ones fell ill or passed on.

Republicans and Democrats have really bungled U.S.-Cuba policy for decades. Despite what opponents of U.S. policy say, there has never really been a fulsome sanctions regime enforced on the Cuban government as required by U.S. law. Frankly, the previous Bush Administration was a disaster on this front and the Obama team is, largely, following their approach. Nothing good will come from increased travel or remittances to Cuba. Nothing. Want change? Lock down all travel and remittances – the regime will not survive and in four to six months you will see the Cuban people demanding reform.

While Cuba sorts all this out, for those of you that want to travel to the Caribbean, may I recommend some of the more than 20 islands there are to visit, including the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. They are all safe and politically free. Besides political voyeurism, there is nothing of value to see in Cuba these days.


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