U.S. softens warning for Cuban Americans traveling to the island

Men load suitcases on the top of a car after travelers arrived to the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.
Men load suitcases on the top of a car after travelers arrived to the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba. AP

The U.S. Embassy in Havana has pulled some wording from a previous travel warning posted on its website, which cautioned Cuban American travelers to beware because they could be treated as Cuban nationals, have their U.S. passports seized or even be drafted or have their children drafted into the armed forces.

No explanation on the updated travel information was issued. A call on Tuesday to the embassy in Havana about the change in wording was referred to the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. Efforts to get an explanation on the change were not successful.

A statement issued by the State Department last week repeated the same wording contained in the previous travel information: “The Government of Cuba treats U.S. citizens born in Cuba, or those born in the United States to Cuban parents, as Cuban citizens, and may subject them to a number of restrictions and obligations, including military service.”

That warning made its rounds on social media platforms and triggered concern among Cuban Americans, especially at a time when U.S. travel to the island is growing quickly because of the Obama administration’s new policy of “engagement,” which promotes trips to the island as an essential part of improving bilateral relations.

The travel warning, which appeared on both the U.S. Embassy and State Department websites, was updated sometime between Friday and Tuesday. It now states: “The Government of Cuba does not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born,” and that “these individuals will be treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations. The Cuban government may require these individuals to enter and depart Cuba using a Cuban passport.”

The spokesperson said that the State Department provides information to U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad on its website. The previous travel information on the embassy’s website dates back to at least 2004, according to a web archive .

According to Miami-based immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen, confusion in the travel information could be because, according to Cuba’s Constitution, children of Cuban nationals have the right to obtain Cuban citizenship if they request it. But that does not mean they can be forced to obtain it, he said.

“With this clarification of the embassy, ​​I don’t think there is any danger,” Allen said. “The children of Cubans born in the United States have the same protection as any American citizen in Cuba.”

Allen also said he has never heard of any case of a Cuba-born U.S. citizen of military age having been forced to serve in the Cuban armed forces after traveling to the island. Cuba has a mandatory military service system, in which everyone is supposed to serve 14 to 24 months when they turn 16.

According to Allen, the U.S. embassy in Havana is “somehow warning Cuban Americans traveling to the island to be well behaved.”

Giancarlo Sopo, a founder of CubaOne Foundation — which provides free trips to the island for second-generation Cuban Americans — said that his organization had contacted the embassy in Havana following widespread concern about the previously posted travel information. An official told them that it was "inaccurate information" that would be "corrected soon."

The number of Cuban Americans traveling to the island has increased significantly. About 390,000 U.S. citizens of Cuban background visited the island in 2015. In just the first four months of this year, some 116,000 Cuban Americans and 94,000 U.S. citizens visited, Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism reported.

Twitter: @abelfglez