I was disappointed to see the way my presentation at the recent Cuban Americans for Engagement conference was presented in the March 16 story Groups gather to push for stronger ties between Cuba, U.S.
The story said that people-to-people exchanges “have not worked out.” However, I argued that the results have been positive, and offered solutions for improving interactions between Americans and Cubans.
The highly bureaucratic process of obtaining permission from the U.S. government leads to significant investments from license holders.
Securing a license often takes more than a year and thousands of dollars in lawyer fees. Once authorized, approved entities must send a representative to accompany groups and abide by a strict schedule while on the ground. As the closure of the Cuban consulate in Washington, D.C. demonstrates, there is a substantial political risk that the program could end at any moment.
Intense bureaucracy, high costs and political uncertainty continue four years after the initiation of the program, despite the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have referred to these exchanges as crucial to U.S. policy toward Cuba. These factors lead to elevated prices, out of the reach of lower and middle-class Americans. This has resulted in a demographic of older, wealthy and white Americans making up the majority of the 100,000 Americans visiting the island.
Moreover, tour operators that have been kept out of Cuba for decades are just getting their feet wet, often running the same program over and over, minimizing the number of Cubans benefiting from the visits. Much of this has to do with U.S. restrictions that prevent them from traveling to Cuba to develop programs beforehand. They are just now enriching their itineraries.
These are shortcomings of the program, a result of its highly regulated nature and aggressive scrutiny by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Still, these people-to-people exchanges are life-changing for both the Cubans and Americans involved. What we need to do is find ways to allow more people on both sides to participate.
Cuba lives at a critical moment. The growing private sector has benefited greatly from visiting Americans. Abiel San Miguel, manager of the paladar Dona Eutimia, revealed at the conference that 20 percent of his customers are from the United States. Many visiting Americans have business experience they share with Cuban owners, leading to innovation.
The groups meet with Cubans from all walks of life, see the good and the bad and develop professional relationships and long-lasting friendships that build bridges between our two countries.
The Treasury Department should expedite the processing of licenses. Tour operators should offer affordable packages to diversify the clientele. More than anything, the Obama administration should use its executive authority to broaden the categories of people traveling to Cuba on general licenses, which will eliminate bureaucratic obstacles, reduce the cost, broaden the scope of programs and make those visiting Cuba more representative of our diverse nation.
founder and president,
Cuba Educational Travel,