Notes from Behind the Embargo: Legal and Illegal Travel to Cuba
Columbia Journalism School, Master's Project, March 2012
At the March 2012 New York Times travel show in Manhattan’s Javits Center, past the smiling girls in Uzbek national costumes, around the corner from the Mexico’s free samples of mezcal, a large crowd is forming at a small booth. And for good reason: it promises to deliver something the others can’t—travel to a country that has been de facto off-limits for 50 years—Cuba.
“It is the first time we have exhibited here,” says Jennifer Cippollone from Insight Cuba, standing in front of a clapboard screen depicting an old square in Havana. “We’re getting a huge response. It s a real to-do.” The first question many of the gathering visitors ask: is it legal to travel to Cuba?
The answer is yes, conditionally. In January 2011, President Obama announced the biggest liberalization of the Cuba travel rules in a decade, allowing US citizens to travel to Cuba under so-called ‘people-to-people’ licenses. These licenses allow organizations to bring groups of ordinary U.S. citizens to Cuba, but only under certain rules and specified purposes. The license regime is a minefield of restrictions, reflecting the difficult and often contradictory policy on how the US engages with the Communist-ruled island.
The announcement was great news for the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies, (‘CCS’) a non-profit organization and art gallery that, after 40 years of trying promote contact between the US and Cuba, is more invested than most in any travel-related concessions from Washington. The CCS got their people-to-people license in September 2011, but it operates in the knowledge that it could find itself on the wrong side of policy again in the future. This may be just another chapter in decades of negotiation, and even legal confrontations, it has faced under different administrations in their quest to provide a line of communication between the two countries. Is this only a temporary respite, which will be refrozen with a new administration that is less Cuba-friendly?
While these licenses may not be around forever, there are promising signs of incremental thaws in U.S.-Cuba relations. This year Cuban tourism officials were able to attend the travel show for the first time ever, thanks to the approval of business purpose visas for Luis Sotolongo and Eloy Govea, representatives from Cuban travel agencies that US license holders like Insight Cuba and the Center for Cuban Studies must work with to organize tours. Two hundred people were packed into the seminar room and watched the video presentations of a hastily restored old Havana, cigar fields, schools, and hospitals. “This is my first time in the US,” said Eloy Govea, commercial director of Havanatur. “We are very excited about being here, and to have Americans come to Cuba.”
In February 2012, the Cuban embargo turned 50. President Kennedy implemented the comprehensive embargo as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis and other hostile Cuban actions, in 1962. (But not before he sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, out to buy a personal stash of Cuban cigars). The embargo prohibits American citizens and businesses from any trade or transactions with Cuba. Travel is a casualty of this embargo: It is not technically illegal to travel to Cuba, but because US citizens are barred from spending money there, it might as well be. For the moment, Cuba also remains the only country in the world that is off-limits to US citizens; this includes states that are both more repressive and more hostile to American interests, like North Korean and Iran.
The terms of the economic embargo have changed little since 1962, but the attendant travel ban has been more porous, with flexibility in travel restrictions signifying small exceptions to the ban on spending money in Cuba. President Jimmy Carter lifted travel restrictions to Cuba in 1977 (or rather, did not renew them). Ronald Reagan reinstated the ban in 1982. It wasn’t long before he bumped heads with the Center for Cuban Studies.
“During the Carter years, we set up a Spanish language school in Havana for US citizens,” says Sandra Levinson, the Center’s founder and director. The school had only been up and running a couple of years when Reagan ordered it to be shut down. “So, we sued the Treasury Department for the right to re-open it,” says Levinson. Justice Stephen Breyer (now a Supreme Court justice) upheld this right in Appellate court, but the Government challenged the decision and the Supreme Court eventually found 5-4 to shut down the school.
The travel door remained more or less shut under President HW Bush, and President Clinton went back and forth, tightening the sanctions and travel under the controversial Helms-Burton Act in 1996, and then trying to encourage ‘people-to-people’ contact in the late 1990s. President George W Bush tightened travel restrictions steadily over his eight-year term, and by the time he left office Cuban Americans were only allowed back once every three years to see relatives, and U.S. students only permitted to go there if they stayed in Cuba for a whole semester.
The rationale for the travel ban is to stop any chance of money spent in Cuba or from remittances finding its way to the Cuban government. “Either President Obama doesn’t agree on this way of thinking, or he thinks that if this happens, it is too small to matter,” says Mirta Ojito, a Cuban-American journalist and author.
When Obama announced the people-to-people licenses, a senior official who briefed the press said: “We see these changes as increasing people-to-people contact, helping strengthen Cuban civil society and, frankly, making Cuban people less dependent on the Cuban state.”
President Obama’s policy reflects a different philosophy in engagement with Cuba; to work around the regime rather than freeze out Cuba completely. His strategy is to promote the exchange of ideas, but without removing the economic blockade. From 2009, President Obama has allowed Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba freely, and has US citizens to send up to $2000 dollars to Cubans with small businesses.
This coincides with minor changes Raul Castro has implemented since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. Small innovations have allowed some private enterprise, like renting real estate, and licensing private restaurants. While this might not be a huge change for people in Cuba, U.S. supporters of a more open policy say it could help Cubans develop private businesses. Senator John Kerry wrote in an open letter to Hillary Clinton that the U.S. had an “opportunity to be relevant” at a time of more economic freedom.
Obama had drawn up the regulations in the summer of 2010, but fearing a political backlash, held back the announcement until after the November elections. A measure to restrict Cuba travel was tacked onto the budget bill in December 2011, and until it was dropped had it been one of the issues holding up the bill’s passage Opponents, of whom there are plenty, say relaxing travel rules will not help Cubans and only strengthen the regime.
“I think increased travel is good for both countries,” says an official from Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. “When people go to Cuba and experience the culture, and the people, it will change their mentality. They will see they don’t have to be afraid, that while our systems may be different, Americans and Cubans have a lot of common ground. It will promote respect.”
The Center for Cuban Studies
Celebrating its 40th year, the Center for Cuban Studies is nearly as old as the embargo itself, and has been a pioneer in forging U.S.-Cuba relations through cultural exchange and travel. It first started organizing trips in 1973, and while is a smaller outfit than Insight Cuba, which focuses only on travel, it has been doing it the longest. The Center’s funding is split evenly between donations and income from art events and sales.
Sandra Levinson has dedicated most of her working life to the Center. Originally from Iowa, she got her BA from the University of Iowa before going to Manchester, U.K. on a Fulbright scholarship. As editor of Ramparts magazine, she travelled to Cuba for six weeks in 1969 to cover the Venceremos Brigades—a group of U.S. activists who challenged the travel ban to go to Cuba and help with the sugar harvest. She, along with friends in journalism and academia, set up the center to combat the dearth of information flowing between Cuba and the US.
“Only journalists could go legally back then—but everyone who had gone there had decided Cuba is not what it looks like in the establishment US media. We wanted to create a library of resources and materials for journalists and academics to counterbalance what was written in the press,” Levinson says.
The Center, located on 29th Street in the Western reaches of the garment district, is a collection of small offices that bring to mind a ramshackle academic department, with books and artefacts overflowing from shelves. The largest room, all wooden floors and white walls, is the Cuban Art Space, which opened in 1999.
“I had no intention of running the Center at first,” says Levinson. “It was going to be run by a Latin American literature professor, but she quit suddenly. She decided she was going to Puerto Rico to be a revolutionary instead, even though she was a Jewish intellectual!” she says, laughing.
The Center was bombed by Cuban exiles nine months after it opened, in March 1973, presumably to protest its Cuba programs and the screening of a documentary about Fidel Castro. Levinson was alone at the Center’s East Village offices and managed to escape through a blasted window and down a fire escape. A Spanish language class had just left for the night, narrowly avoiding disaster. Several rooms and their library were destroyed.
“Right after that, I sat down and wrote my first fundraising letter,” she says. Published in the New York Review of Books, the letter appealed for help replacing their resources.
Naturally, after the bombing nobody wanted to work there, so Levinson took over in what was supposed to be a temporary capacity. “I gave a press conference right there in the rubble, and they asked me if we were going to shut down the Center. I told them absolutely not. I’m going to stay until we have normal relations with Cuba!”
Levinson couldn’t have realized that she had locked herself in to that mission for 40 years (and counting). “The goal of the Center was to try and attract opinion leaders, and make a difference in thought, and we quickly realized that travel was the best way to do this,” she says.
When travel was restricted, the Center focused on developing its art and music programs. “On a personal level, I felt it was important to push the envelope and challenge the embargo, but for the Center’s activities, I wanted everything to be within the legal limits,” she explains.
License to travel and ‘meaningful interaction’
The licensing regime for Cuban Americans and Americans travelling to Cuba is administered by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (‘OFAC’), the body that also deals with sanctions to Iran. An OFAC spokesman says it has granted about 100 people-to-people licenses in 2012. Such license holders include the Smithsonian Institute, National Geographic, and various American Chambers of Commerce.
OFAC declined to comment on how many people work on Cuba issues specifically, but said that they “shift resources as needed to meet national security demands.” Under OFAC guidelines, ‘general’ licenses are available for Cuban Americans, academics, doctors, religious organizations and journalists—but not freelance journalists. Further ‘specific’ licenses exist for certain educational trips and freelance journalists. ‘Ordinary’ citizens are only allowed to go on people-to-people licenses, when they are available.
All licenses are a special exemption to the embargo’s spending ban, and are only granted when strict criteria are met. People-to-people licensed are authorized to organizations on the basis of scrutinizing the itineraries for proposed trips, and on the following standard:
OFAC only licenses People-to-People Groups that certify that all participants will have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.
In addition, OFAC is prohibited from approving any transactions related to tourism—and organizations have to explain how the activities result in ‘meaningful interaction’ --an arbitrary concept over which OFAC has final say.
As part of their application, the Center for Cuban Studies submitted a sample of ten itineraries. “There was definitely a back and forth,” says David Harvell, a trip planner at the Center. “They told us what we needed to change before resubmitting. Usually they ask you to be more specific on your itineraries.”
The Center for Cuban Studies has about ten different trips available, organized around themes like Art and Architecture, Cuba in Transition, and Sexual Identity in Cuba. The Art and Architecture itinerary from December, 2011, had scheduled on a single day: “Visit to La Maqueta, the Model of the City of Havana, with a discussion with architect Miguel Coyual, followed by an all-day guided tour, including the Colon Cemetery, the National Arts Schools, Vedado and Miramar.” Another day included “visit a number of artists and writers in their homes,” and lunch at the Bodeguita del Medio.
The itinerary is packed to get OFAC approval, and often there is not enough time for everything. “I think we did about half of what was on the itinerary,” says Pamela Lichty, a health professional from Hawaii who went on the trip with her husband and some friends. “It was really ambitious.”
Organizations have to write an authorization letter that includes the names of each person on each trip, and each traveler must carry a copy of this letter. All trips must have a ‘minder’ from the organization, who must write a report detailing all people to people activities during the trip.
Kevin Johnston, a graduate student in journalism at San Francisco State University, went in January, 2012 on a specific license given to educational trips, where students have to complete work towards academic credit. His group was not permitted to leave Havana, and he had a full schedule of assignments. ““It was really intense,” says Johnston. “In addition to our own class activities, there were a few things on our schedule that were mandatory, like tours and museums.”
An aspiring photojournalist, Johnston created a portrait series. He trudged around Havana with his equipment for ten hours a day and then had to edit in the evenings. There wasn’t a lot of downtime.
Licenses are granted on a case-by-case basis, so there is little guidance on how to prepare a successful application. The Fund for Reconciliation and Development, (FFRD) a non-profit which had a license under President Clinton, is still waiting for its approval.
“We’ve been denied six times, without prejudice, which means we are free to re-apply,” says John McAuliff, who founded the FFRD in 1960s with the goal of normalizing relations between Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. McAuliff was active in the civil rights movement and spent time in the Peace Corps.
McAuliff points out that OFAC’s enforcement seems arbitrary, for example, when they denied a license to a youth soccer team from Key West to compete in the Cuban National School Sports Games, and a license for Irish American musicians to perform in a Celtic Festival. Tracy Eaton, who writes a Cuba issues blog called Along the Malecon, made a Freedom of Information Act request to OFAC to see who applied for licenses. There were over 400 applications since January 2011, about half of which have been granted.
“OFAC’s explanation for not granting us the license is that we didn’t provide enough detail about our trips—that there is not enough ‘meaningful interaction,” says McAuliff. “Which is ridiculous, because on some of the other trips that have been granted licenses, the interaction is much shallower.”
McAuliff says because people-to-people trips feature controlled and schedules activities, and sometimes, contact with officials in Cuba, the OFAC regime creates an odd paradox of cooperation with Cuba that would be removed if U.S. citizens could travel there on a general license.
“People should be able to travel freely within Cuba, he says. “Not to demean what they are doing with this travel program, but the U.S. government is funneling people into that model, this restricted version of Cuba. People who go on these trips are forced into these controlled channels with which the Cuban state is happy to cooperate.”
Once in Cuba, US citizens are also prohibited from a catalogue of activities other travelers take for granted on a trip, like withdrawing money from ATMs. They are not allowed rent a car, pick up hitchhikers, or take public transport. They can’t bring goods back to the U.S, only informational materials and documents, and some trinkets. They can’t take rum or cigars, and there is a per diem spending limit of US$84. They also cannot stay in casa particulares (private homes), an increasingly popular form of accommodation. “Allowing US citizens to do these things would remove the element of control that Cuban government has. It is totally absurd,” says McAuliff.
Johnston said that although his group was not allowed to leave Havana, some them had taken an illicit trip outside the city limits. “The next day, our professors got called away to the Immigration Department and were questioned about why some of the students had left Havana.”
How did the officials find out? “That’s what I want to know!” he says. Before they left, his professor got in touch with Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger and advocate, who has been denied exit visas from Cuba on at least 19 occasions. Johnston was one of a select group to be invited to her home.
“To be completely honest, it felt like our group was on close watch when some of us began meeting with Sanchez,” he says. Johnston produced a video piece on Sanchez with one of the broadcast students on his trip. “Maybe it was paranoia, or lack of sleep, but I started to see more and more police after my second visit to her home.”
Organizations like the CCS have to use OFAC-licensed travel service providers, or ‘TSPs’, that organize travel logistics between the US and Cuba. All air travel is by charter flight—there are still no commercial flights from the US to Cuba. One of these is Marazul Charters, based in North Bergen, New Jersey. Speaking at the Cuba travel seminar, Marazul head Bob Guild estimated that it brought 40,000 people to Cuba last year, three quarters of whom were Cuban Americans.
TSPs like Marazul, in turn, work with the three authorized Cuban ‘ground service operators’ to organize the trips. These are Havanatur, Amistur, and San Cristobal, affiliated with Cuba’s Office of the Historian—which uses money from foreign travel to fund the restoration of Havana’s historic old quarter.
There is a list of ‘prohibited persons’ in the Cuban Government and the Communist party whom travellers are actually allowed to meet—they just can’t spend a “predominant portion” of activities with them. These include Ministers and Vice-ministers, members of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers; members and employees of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Communist means members of the Politburo, the Central Committee, or Department Heads of the Central Committee.
Still, many trips include meeting officials and ministries: “We met with a Senator who gave a lecture on the history of Cuba, putting the Revolution in perspective,” says Elizabeth Cara, an occupational therapist at San Jose State University in California who went with the CCS’s ‘Art and Architecture’ trip. Cara wishes she had brought more cash: “I would have spent more money on art,” said Cara. “I loved the art and wanted to take back so much more.”
The right for US citizens to bring back original pieces of art is the result of protracted wrangling on the part of the Center for Cuban Studies, or rather, by Levinson. In 1989, Congress passed a bill exempting ‘informational materials’ from the blanket importation ban of all goods originating in Cuba. Everything in the Center, she tells me, has been brought back from Cuba over decades: there several thousand pieces. There had been no regulatory status for the books, posters, tapes and artefacts, but the new bill made them all legal.
The only issue was that the Treasury Department decided that the exception to this exception was original works of art. “Of course, this was a huge problem for us,” says Levinson, because of their intention to open a gallery. “They said they didn’t want money going to Fidel Castro for the original art. And we said, well what the money going to the artists that is rightfully theirs?”
“Our lawyers said they would take the case if I did all the research, so I spent months speaking to artists and critics, taking down depositions about the importance of original artwork for galleries and for conveying meaning,” says Levinson. The case went to trial in 1991. In pre-trial, the Treasury Department lawyer had to surrender because the Judge said he would throw out the case. The Center had won the right to import and sell Cuban art in the US, But that was not the end of the battle. A year or so later, Levinson was bringing art back from Cuba when a Miami customs official asked her to show him the contents of a large box she was carrying.
“Ceramics,” she said—specifically, some pieces by Jose Fuster, one of Cuba’s best-known ceramicos, which she told the official was for an art show in New York City.
“This isn’t art,” said the official. “There are plates and dishes here.” Plates and dishes are goods, which are unconditionally banned from importation. “No, this is art. See, each one is different and they’re handmade. This is not meant for the kitchen,” she countered. The official was unconvinced and confiscated the box, but fortunately Levinson was travelling with two of the Center’s lawyers, Michael Krinsky and Victor Rabinowitz.
“Michael and Victor were staying in Miami for a meeting in the morning, so they said I should take their second hotel room and they would share. They called OFAC first thing in the morning, which then called Customs in Miami and explained to them that ceramics are in fact art—and then released my box. It was a real victory.”
Americans are steadily increasing support for more ties with Cuba. A Gallup poll from 2009 shows that while attitudes on the trade embargo differ along ideological lines, with Republicans generally opposed to removing it, there is greater convergence on the travel issue, with increasing support for unrestricted travel: 57 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Independents polled were in favor of removing travel restrictions.
“The number of US citizens traveling to Cuba in general is growing,” says Malcolm Sacks, of Marazul Charters. Most of that increase is reflected by Cuban-Americans, but the numbers of non-Cuban Americans travelers have swelled too. Around 63,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba in 2010, up from 52,500 the previous year and 41,900 in 2008, according to a report by Cuba’s National Statistics Office.
These 2010 numbers do not include 350,000 Cuban Americans estimated by travel providers and U.S. diplomats to have traveled to Cuba that year. The combined figures of U.S. travelers and Cuban Americans made the United States Cuba's second-largest tourism source after Canada.
“The demand for people-to-people travel is definitely growing too,” says Sacks. “Though to me, this is not so easily distinguished from the increased accessibility to people-to-people travel, as more and more organizations receive licenses from OFAC.” The internet has also raised awareness that Cuba is now available, and license holders are permitted to advertise their services.
Some people do travel to Cuba illegally. Cuba ‘helpfully’ issues paper Visas so Americans don’t get stamps in their passports, and many arrive there via third countries, mainly Canada or Mexico. The growing statistics suggest more people are getting there, somehow.
“A lot of people I know go through Canada, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to wait until it was legal,” says Lois Nixon, who went on a medical trip organized by the Center for Cuban Studies in December 2011. “I used to hear about people getting fined as soon as they hit the tarmac coming back from Cuba.”
OFAC guidelines state that punishment for violating the travel ban is a fine of up to US$100,000, but in fact the Government has virtually abandoned the practice of fining people for Cuba travel. The penalty for breaking the travel ban is a civil matter, not a criminal one. In 2003, the US Treasury fined 240 individuals, most of them for attempting to import Cuban cigars. A Congressional Research Service report of January 7, 2011 noted that in 2008, OFAC reported that 32 individuals were penalized, most of them for buying cigars online. In 2009, three people were penalized, and just one in 2010.
Pamela Lichty went on the Center’s ‘Art and Architecture’ trip with her husband and some friends, but she had no qualms about going ‘illegally’ through a third country. “We wanted to go to the Havana Book festival and were looking at going through Canada or Mexico, but it seemed like too much of a hassle to travel through one of those airports. A lot of what we were interested in was offered on the Center’s trip, and they also flew direct from JFK.”
Have license, will travel
The trips offered at the Center for Cuban Studies cost around US$2800-US$6000 per person, for about two weeks. The reasons for going on such a trip vary, but most travelers tend to be well-educated, many working in academia, well-traveled, and curious about new countries in general. Others have a professional connection, for example in the case of medicine or education-themed trips.
Quite a few are older travelers who remember Cuba before the Revolution and the travel ban. Unsurprisingly, many tend to be liberal, even left-leaning. Popular motives for going to Cuba is that people feel it is about to change, that they should be able to travel where they want, and that Cuba is less touristy. For better or worse, the embargo and the socialist system have ensured that it is not as overrun by tourists as many other parts of the Caribbean.
“I wanted to get to Cuba before it is overrun by more modernization,” says Joan Santos, a visual artist and painter based in the New York area. “We got to meet Cuban artists and see their studios. Cuba must have really been something back in the day! The country is beautiful and the people we met were friendly and welcoming. I loved the colors, the music, the art and the food, and seeing all the children coming from school in their red uniforms.”
There is a Cuba in the popular imagination, which Cuba’s government has been capitalizing on in recent years. Facets of Cuba have been easily packaged: there is the Cuba as a historical curiosity, Cuba as a sportsman’s paradise, the decadent Cuba, Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba, the rum, cigars, and the music—son—and the arts, with the Biennale and Havana art markets.
Lichty’s mother was Cuban and moved to US in the 1930s. She remembers going to Cuba as a child, but as an American citizen she has not been able to go back since 1959.
“We had a strong curiosity because we had heard so much about life there and wanted to see for ourselves what was going on,” says Lichty. A highlight for her was the Eastern city of Trinidad—like Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site. “There are colonial cities all over the world with Coke machines all over the place, but there are none there yet.”
One of the curious effects of the embargo, along with the politics of Cuba itself, is the oft-reported sensation among visitors that somebody pressed the ‘Pause’ button on Cuba when the Revolution happened in 1959, and this quality has been become a central part of Cuban travel experience. An increasing number of Americans go to see baseball the way it was played in the 1950s, and to see Cadillacs from that era on the street.
When Lois Nixon was a little girl, she would stand on Key West and look South, trying to catch a glimpse of Cuba, only 90 miles away. She couldn’t quite see it. “I remember when the Revolution happened, Miami was changing a lot. Cubans were arriving, and I thought it was very exciting. I knew so many people who had gone to Cuba on holiday, and when US citizens stopped being able to go, I found it very frustrating that it was so close, but so inaccessible to me.”
When she finally got to go last December, “I felt like I was in a time warp.” Nixon has spent time in Togo, Africa for the Peace Corps in the 1970s, then in Jordan. She has been to Vietnam and China. “Cuba is different from all of those places. It is different from anywhere else. You can see where other countries are going when you visit them, with Cuba it feels like they have a foot stuck in a mudpile and the other foot is trying to go somewhere else.”
Nixon, who remembers images of a pre-Revolution Havana, was taken aback by how run-down parts of Cuba were. “The classic cars were held together with scotch tape and glue! The cars to me represent the relationship Americans had with Cuba back then—that it was beautiful, but corrupt in strange ways. But it operated as a different space where people could do things they couldn’t in the US. To some extent Miami was exciting in this way too but Havana just seemed to have that extra measure of naughtiness.”
“I was 12 years old when the embargo was put up,” said Elizabeth Cara. “People might not know or even remember this, but Castro was actually pretty popular in the US at first. Lots of people were supporting him. He was a guest on the Jack Parr show! It was really quite exciting to go and step off the plane. We could see from the airport building the old 1950s cars and old houses, And of course, a huge billboard with Che Guevara on it.”
As a San Francisco Giants fan, seeing a Cuban baseball game was also a highlight—the standard of play is high; baseball is Cuba’s national sport. “That was really fun—the game is much faster-paced, with faster running. It was nice to see no advertisements, just like it used to be. And there was a live band in the stands,” Cara recalls.
Savina Perez, marketing manager at Insight Cuba, also went on a people-to people license. She has Cuban heritage but as an American citizen had never had the right to travel there. Unlike CCS, Insight Cuba does not have a general license. She went on an August 2011 Insight Cuba trip, taking in Havana and colonial Trinidad. One of the activities was visiting a community center for the blind, which made the largest impression on her. “They were so excited to see us. I remember watching a game of chess, and it was fascinating because they had learned how to play in a special way.”
“Being there wasn’t really a shock to me because I’d seen documentaries and research on what to expect,” said Johnston. “But I was shocked at how open they were, and how interested. They were shocked to see me.” On assignment, Johnston explored parts of Havana away from the tourist areas. “People would start talking to me left right and center. They thought I was Canadian or European and when they realized I was American, they were so excited. They would invite me into their homes.”
Johnston’s experience, on a different kind of specific license, offered more flexibility than the people-to-people licenses. “We were told to expect people not to want to talk about politics, but that wasn’t the experience I had. Often, it would be the first thing they mentioned. They are happy to see us, and they love Americans. In the eyes of Cubans, the relationship between US and Cuba is not about politics.”
While Johnston was shooting photographs on the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront corniche, a young man approached him. His name was Arnoldo, and he was a history student at the University of Havana. “We were chatting and he said he wanted to talk to me some more about politics, so he asked if I wanted to come to a Mojito bar.”
Johnston agreed, but because Arnoldo didn’t want to be seen with an American, especially if there were police around, he told Kevin to follow him at a distance of 20 ft. “In the bar, he told me that his wife recently found out she had un uncle in the US, so she left with their newborn. He had to make the decision to stay behind.”
Arnoldo’s desire to talk may signal a new willingness to reach out to travelers and talk to them about topics that, until a few years ago, were still taboo.
A Cuban joke: a man walks into a bar (or a bodeguito) and says he will buy all the customers a drink, but then his wife runs in and tells the bartender to stop, shouting: “I m sorry! My husband is suffering from delusions. He thinks he is a taxi driver, but he is only a neurosurgeon.” The punchline is that taxi drivers take home far more cash per month than doctors do.
This joke was popular shortly after US dollars were introduced into Cuba in the 1990s—as a way to inject the economy with hard currency. Tourism is a big source of income for the country. The Cuban monthly salary—around $35 per month—does not stretch far. Now there is also a convertible, a tourist currency. There is now a two-tier economy, where people working in the tourism industry with access to hard currency are far better off than those who don’t. There are also areas Cubans can’t go to unless they work in the hotels, for example the resort peninsula of Varadero.
Johnston, on his photography travels, spent a lot of time in parts of Havana not usually bursting with tourists. He saw people lining up for rations, was invited for meals in private homes and in one of the few licensed Cuban restaurants, and had more experience with what people told him was the ‘real’ Cuba.
Of course, there are still plenty who oppose travel to Cuba. Alex Nixon, the program coordinator at the Cuban Studies Center until February 2012, said his parents knew people who said it was “disgusting and unpatriotic” that he had gone to Cuba when he was a graduate student at Stanford. Lichty recalls a man on her trip who told his 80-year-old Cuban mother that he had gone to Mexico.
Cuba scores poorly on human rights and press freedom standards. There is only one political party allowed, which seeks to control most aspects of Cuban life. Information and the internet are tightly guarded, and due legal process is often denied to Cubans who are deemed political offenders. This is still a concern for travelers. Lichty says: “We had been invited to go to Cuba by non-profits, but the timing wasn’t right. Also, we were ambivalent about going there because of the human rights record.”
People-to-people licenses have attracted some opposition. Marco Rubio, a Republican Congressman of Cuban descent, stated in response to the travel loosening that he strongly opposes “any new changes that weaken U.S. policy towards Cuba…it is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people.”
Rubio, who has been discussed as a possible candidate for Vice President in the upcoming elections, singled out the Center for Cuban Studies and Insight Cuba in a December, 2011 speech. He read out an Insight Cuba itinerary for ‘Cuban Music and Art Experience’ featuring a trip to the Ministry of Culture, dancing to live music from local Cuban musicians, and several night-time visits to jazz bars. He argues that far from exchanging ideas and promoting democracy, these trips are nothing more than tourism that provides the Castro government with hard currency.
He fumed that another Insight Cuba trip, by meeting “Cuban hosts” and visiting monuments and museums dedicated to the Revolution, borders on “indoctrination ” of U.S. travelers. A Center for Cuban Studies trip called ‘Ethics of the Cuban Revolution,’ which includes a forum on US-Cuba relations and a visit to a literacy museum, had Rubio comment that it would only attract people who are “at best, curious about Cuba and at worst, sympathetic” to the Cuban government.
Of course, this aspect of Cuban propaganda on people-to-people trips would be moot if US citizens could travel freely—but there might be too much political opposition for this to happen.
Robert Menendez, a Democrat Congressman in New Jersey with Cuban heritage, has said that that increased travel “will serve only to enrich the regime…those who believe that increasing travel will magically breed democracy in Cuba are simply dead wrong. For years, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed.”
While this may be true, the embargo and the travel ban have also failed to achieve their foreign policy goals of promoting democratic reform or regime change. Because Cubans lack the democratic mechanisms to put pressure on their government to change policy, there is little hope of removing the embargo by internal forces. “That people support the embargo, I feel is unfair and ridiculous. That Cubans and Americans have been denied contact to each other, it’s just a lose-lose situation, for us and them,” says Lois Nixon.
In Kent v Douglas, the Supreme Court ruled that the freedom to travel is a right protected by the Fifth Amendment. One citizen, after several requests to travel to Cuba as a tourist were denied, challenged the Cuba travel ban. This was 1965, four years after the ban was put in place—and the Court ruled 6-3 that the ban was Constitutional. This view was upheld in 1984, saying travel bans were constitutional in cases of national security concerns.
“We should be thinking about the embargo in terms of US citizens’ rights to travel where they want,” says Levinson. “We’re being imposed upon too. I can’t believe that this is something the ACLU hasn’t thought of taking up.
The US policy on Cuba is likely to remain mired in these arguments for many years. The issue is still, 50 years later, a political hot potato. “Nobody wants to touch it,” says Levinson.
There are also issues in US-Cuba relations that are problematic for increasing ties: one of them is the plight of Alan Gross (whom McAuliff calls the “elephant in the room”). Gross was recently sentenced to 15 years in Cuba for importing illegal computer equipment as part of a pro-democracy program, one of the initiatives started by President Bush to promote democracy in Cuba—well-intentioned but misguided in its implementation. A 61-year old subcontractor travelling on a tourist visa, Gross was found guilty of working on a “subversive” US-sponsored project aimed at undermining the regime. His sentence was harsh and his detention without trial violates international human rights law. Negotiations are ongoing to release Gross on humanitarian grounds, but the incident has done no favors for those in support of increased ties.
Levinson concedes that a Republican president in 2012 would probably try to shut down people-to-people licenses, which would be “awful.” Mitt Romney has a ten-step Cuba paper, promising to reinstate the restrictions. Rick Santorum has said he would be tough on Latin America, and that Fidel Castro must “leave the planet.”
OFAC, when asked if the travel ban could be removed with the embargo still in place, said it could not speculate on future policy changes. Officially, the embargo won’t budge without Congressional approval, (and Obama’s travel regime emphatically does not include loosening the embargo itself) but there are promising signs, revealed through travel practices, that might reflect a broader sea change.
“There is a huge disconnect between the rhetoric of Florida Republicans in Congress, especially Cuban-American ones like Marco Rubio and Ileana Gonzales, and what happens everyday in Miami International Airport. Hundreds of people are going to Cuba and coming back every day,” says Ojito.
Cuban Americans seem to want more open travel to Cuba and an increasing number of them are going. In 2008, Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban American vote in a traditionally Republican stronghold. The demographics in South Florida are changing too. The older Cubans who fled the island in 1959 are the most adamant that relations remain frosty, but their numbers are being diluted by a younger and more open generation of American-born Cubans.
“Not only are more operators going ahead and applying for people-to-people licenses,” says Savina Perez at Insight Cuba. “The political climate is definitely changing, and people are more open to it.”
This fact may be reflected most sharply in the fact that, as McAuliff pointed out at the travel show, officials at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. and the head of the State Department’s Cuba Desk, John Brennan, rushed through the visas for the Cuban travel officials so they could attend the travel fair.
There is also evidence between the official lines. “Things are changing so fast day-to-day, says Lichty. “The regulations are the same, but there is definitely a loosening. They try to scare us into not bringing rums or cigars but then U.S. customs just waved us right through without even looking at anything we had. My husband Don was so bummed—he would have loved to bring stuff back.”
When Lichty’s niece went to Cuba about nine years ago when she was writing a book about Cuba, customs officials asked her why she was traveling there, searched her bag, and read all her notes. They also quizzed her mother about why she had gone with her. They threatened to fine them UA$14,000—something that seems outlandish now.
Still, change will be slow in coming from official channels. “Nobody non-Cuban is going to fall on their sword over the travel issue,” says McAuliff. “It’s symbolic. But if the President used more authority on this, he could excite people, not just the left, but many independent voters who are fed up with the isolationist policy.”
“We receive US visitors with open arms,” says the official from the UN’s Cuban Mission. “There is no animosity in Cuba towards Americans, and we would like to have a better relationship with the U.S. We have said we are open to talking about any aspect of policy and our bilateral relations, but it must be without preconditions. That is something the US will have to decide.” But the U.S. will be unlikely to agree to talks without preconditions.
On the U.S. side, McAuliff and Levinson hope that a more open travel policy might spill over into a public desire to end the ban on Cuba travel. For now, something big has to change either in Cuba or the US—which one will it be?
John McAuliffe- FFRD
Malcolm Sacks – Marazul Charters
Luly Duke- Fundacion Amistad
Jessica Cippolone- group coordinator
Office of Foreign Asset Control (press office).
Eloy Govea, Commercial Director, Havanatur
Bob Guild—Marazul Charters
Permanent Mission of Cuba to United Nations
Cuba Travel/the Center for Cuban Studies.
The piece is really a look at how Americans go to Cuba legally – there are some strange requirements.
I found the Center for Cuban Studies online when I was researching my RW1 reporting beat- our beat was Midtown West. I had done quite a lot of work on Cuba in the past, academically and some writing, so I was curious. I then found out that the travel allowances for American citizens changes with each Administation, and that organizations like the Center for Cuban Studies have to deal with all these changes every time.
I made contact with them in October 2011 and started going to events, and speaking to the employees. I spoke to many of them at length but the final product has only the Director, and one of the trip planners. I knew I had to speak to people who had gone on these people to people trips, so I drafted an email that the Center could send to them. The yield was very low, and I only got a handful of very similar people to talk to me, so I asked people I know if they knew anyone who had gone on a trip. I also found people through attending Cuban Art Space events, like a reading from a new architecture book, and the screening of a movie.
I spoke to the other travel organizations, like Marazul Charters and Insight Cuba. I also reached out to a few non-profits but in the end there was nothing new they could tell me that I didn’t get from the Center.
I also did a lot of research on current Cuba policy and the opposition and how it ties in to electoral politics, but couldn’t really include a lot of it because the piece was about travel and not politics. I spoke to the UN Cuba office, I attended the New York Times travel show to meet with the reps from Cuba. I met with a few other organizations that do similar things to the Center but the Director, Sandra Levinson, had been doing this so long that she was really the best authority on it and there were some excellent anecdotes from them dealing with Reagan for example, not to mention the bombing of the Center in the 1970s.
I interviewed people mostly by phone, some by email if we couldn’t set up a time.
When I was writing out the piece, I went over by a couple of thousand words. Because it is a complex issue, I did have to spend some time explaining the history and the context.