An Obama administration “revision” of the regulations on “people-to-people” trips to Cuba, after months of complaints about too much salsa dancing and too many mojitos, has begun to disrupt the tours for American travelers.
The U.S. Treasury Department this summer has renewed only a handful of the one-year licenses required for the tours, and dozens more renewals are pending, said Pedro Gonzalez Munne, a Miami businessman who monitors travel to Cuba.
Several of the entities awaiting renewals already have cancelled or delayed planned people-to-people tours. And Cuba Insight, the New Rochelle, N.Y., agency that drew some of the complaints, says it laid off 22 employees after its license lapsed.
Other licensees may have to delay tours planned for the coming winter tourist season, Cuba travel industry officials noted, although some of the people-to-people licenses issued over the past year remain valid until this spring.
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An estimated 10,000 Americans visited Cuba in the past year under the 140 licenses for people-to-people travel issued by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in charge of enforcing U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba and other nations. Cuban-Americans travel under separate family reunification licenses
The people-to-people trips, akin to cultural or educational travel, are required by law to foster “meaningful interactions” between the visitors and Cubans. The term is not clearly defined, although OFAC says it clearly rules out tourism.
Jeff Braunger, OFAC program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing, said his agency “revised” its criteria for granting people-to-people licenses in May in part “because of reports we received concerning travel under the licenses.”
“These changes provide clarity to applicants and licensees seeking renewals, facilitate OFAC’s review of license applications, and help to deter abuses by licensees,” Braunger wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald. He gave no details on the abuses.
OFAC spokesman John Sullivan added that his agency is working to quickly resolve renewal applications that were returned for additional information “but not necessarily rejected.” He declined to detail how many were approved, returned or rejected.
Agency officials also have privately told some licensees that staff and budget shortages are adding to the delays in processing the renewals.
Supporters of people-to-people trips to Cuba say they improve understanding between the two nations and put money in the pockets of private citizens on the island, allowing them to break any dependency on the government.
Opponents say they fill the coffers of the communist government, which controls the overwhelming majority of the island’s tourism industry, and amount to guided tours for Cuban government propaganda.
The Detroit Free Press reported last year that visitors on one Insight Cuba tour attended a music show celebrating Fidel Castro’s 85th birthday in Havana’s Karl Marx Theater. Insight Cuba President Tom Popper was unavailable to comment on this story, aides said.
Approved by the U.S. Congress in 1992, the people-to-people trips to Cuba were broadly allowed by President Bill Clinton, halted by George W. Bush because of alleged abuses and then reopened by Barack Obama in January 2011.
Obama’s decision unleashed a stampede to arrange and promote trips that raised concerns even among strong supporters of the people-to-people travel who feared that blatant abuses might kill the entire program.
The luxury travel firm Abercrombie & Kent quickly sold out 13 tours, at about $6,000 per person per week, after it advertised salsa dancing and rum-laced mojitos. It had to postpone the offerings after running into license problems.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., complained the visitors were meeting with government officials and even the daughter of ruler Raúl Castro, sexologist Mariela Castro, and branded the trips as an “indoctrination of Americans.”
Rubio blocked Obama’s nominee as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, until March, after what his office described in a statement as “months of negotiations with the administration in the hopes of cracking down on abuses of the people-to-people Cuba travel policy.”
Two months later, OFAC unveiled what it called “revisions” of the regulations for the people-to-people travel that effectively tightened the license application procedure and made it lengthier and more complex.
U.S. residents on people-to-people trips to Cuba were always required to travel in groups, not individually, to stick to itineraries arranged by the license holders that leave little time for tourist activities, such as visits to the island’s beaches.
The revised guidelines for license applications now require minutely detailed itineraries, and explanations of how each and every planned activity or meeting will result in “meaningful interactions” with Cubans. Even more details and justifications are required when the meetings are with government officials.
Joe Scarpaci, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and executive director of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and Economy, said his 17,000-word application for renewal of his people-to-people license was returned with a request for more details.
He re-filed it at 25,000 words, Scarpaci added, and became one of the four licensees known to have been renewed this summer.