Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spanish Fair Declares Cuba "Safest Country"

Cuba awarded with "safest country" title at Madrid's tourism fair

Madrid just celebrated its famous annual International Tourism Fair (FITUR 2018) this month and in the midst of it all, Cuba was bestowed the Excelencia Award for “Safest Country”, a title that was handed to Cuba’s Tourism Minister, Manuel Marrero, who also heads the island’s delegation in the fair this year.
The award was received with a round of applause by those present, which included major tour operators and hoteliers with a big presence in Cuba, such as the Spanish hotel chains Melia Hotels International and Iberostar, as well Canadian group Blue Diamond. The latter has grown at an incredible pace over the past few years in Cuba, with a portfolio of 17 properties islandwide (namely in Havana, Varadero, Cayo Coco, Cayo Santa Maria, Jibacoa and Holguin).
But Spain has the strongest presence in Cuba when it comes to the number of hotels operated by Spanish hotel chains. The biggest Spanish hotel operator in Cuba (and also the oldest) is Melia, with a total of 31 properties scattered throughout the island (Havana, Varadero, Cayo Santa Maria, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba) and plans for further expansion.
Iberostar has also been increasing its presence in Cuba over the last couple of years, with a total of 13 properties in cities and beach resorts (Havana, Trinidad, Varadero, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cayo Ensenachos and Cayo Guillermo) and the 50s legend Habana Riviera being its latest acquisition.
Celebrated from 17th to 21st January and inaugurated by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain, FITUR is Spain’s biggest, most important tourism fair, having received this year as many as 251, 000 visitors, a new all-time record. International participation also grew by 13 per cent in respect to the previous year.
Spain is an important source of incoming tourists for Cuba and last year the Spanish market grew by 10.5 per cent in the island according to a report released by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR). During the celebration of FITUR 2018 it was revealed that Cuba would continue workings towards improving the diversification of its tourism product in 2018 while Spanish companies confirmed they would solidify and strengthen their presence in the island over the course of this new year.

Travel to Cuba Still Very Open Despite the Noise (sic)

American visitors aren’t flying in droves to Cuba now. Tour operators: Please come back
January 30, 2018
When Tom Popper flew to Havana over the weekend, his flight from New York's JFK airport was only 27 percent full. For the president of InsightCuba, a Cuba tour operator, that was a sure sign that travel to the island is in trouble this winter.
Even though Cuba reported a record of almost 4.7 million international visitors, including nearly 620,000 Americans in 2017, in the last few months U.S. travel to the island has cooled. [Cuban-American travel is excluded from those totals].
After the Obama administration made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, releasing decades of pent-up demand, it was hard to find an empty hotel room in Havana.
But in the past six months, the Cuba travel industry has been hit by a triple whammy of adverse events: U.S warnings and advisories against traveling to Cuba stemming from mysterious health episodes affecting diplomats, a Category 5 hurricane that battered tourism facilities, and confusing statements and restrictions from the Trump administration on travel to the island.
Every time a new headline pops up, it takes a toll, Popper said. The phones at his company go silent.
So this week, InsightCuba and a cross-section of those involved in Cuba travel organized an outing in Havana with the singular purpose of showing that it is safe and legal to travel to Cuba.
Despite the new rules under Trump, it's not that complicated to visit Cuba either, said Popper, who organized the CubaMediaDay on Monday in Havana.
Melia, the Spanish hotel company, donated space at its Melia Cohiba hotel, for the Havana meeting. It operates 27 hotels in Cuba with 12,570 rooms. By 2020, it hopes to be running 38 hotels on the island with 15,548 rooms.
During December and January, American guests at the Melia Cohiba decreased 25 percent but they still represented the top market at the hotel, said Francisco Camps, deputy director of Melia Cuba.
“We're here today to change course,” said Terry Dale, president and chief executive of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. While Cuba won accolades as top emerging market and hottest market in 2015 and 2016, Dale said Cuba wasn't on either list in 2017 and it was viewed as the destination most at risk.
While most international destinations are the subject of travel advisories because of crime waves, terrorism or conditions of war, Cuba has always been considered a relatively safe destination. At the Madrid International Tourism Fair this month, Cuba received an excellence award for the “safest country in the world.”
But the latest Department of State advisory, issued on Jan. 10, urges U.S. travelers to “reconsider travel to Cuba due to health attacks directed at U.S. Embassy Havana employees.”
Twenty-four employees have suffered symptoms ranging from hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue to headaches, cognitive issues and visual problems. Because the United States said Cuba failed to protect its diplomats while they were on the island, all but a skeletal staff has been withdrawn from the embassy in Havana and the U.S. expelled 17 diplomats from the Cuban embassy in Washington.
Nineteen U.S. travelers to Cuba also have reported similar symptoms to the State department, but State wouldn't confirm where the incidents took place or whether U.S. investigators had confirmed them.
Some of the diplomats reported hearing a shrill buzzing sound, but not all. What's caused the symptoms is still unknown. Because “we are unable to identify the source of the attacks (at diplomatic residences and the Hotel Nacional and Capri hotel in Cuba), we believe U.S. citizens also may be at risk,” the advisory said.
Cuban tourism officials also joined the Havana media day, distributing guidebooks and promotional materials with the slogan “la vives, la amas” (you live it, you love it), and took American journalists on a tour of Old Havana and Central Havana.
To allay fears that travelers will find hurricane-battered hotels unable to receive guests, Jose Bisbe York, president of Viajes Cuba, a tourism enterprise within the Ministry of Tourism, said repairs had been completed on 40,000 hotel rooms and all major tourism facilities were back on line by Nov. 1.
 “Cuba is one of the safest destinations all over the world,” said Bisbe. Nearly 40 percent of Cuba travelers are repeaters, 29 percent of travelers come with their families and 96 percent of travelers say they would recommend Cuba as a destination, he said.
“You wouldn't recommend a destination if there is some kind of risk,” Bisbe said. “We are a very, very safe country.”
Marc Gaudet, a tourist from Ottawa who had been sitting in a cafe, was on his ninth trip to Cuba since 2007. “It's like every city in the world,” he said of Havana. “There are good places and there are some bad places. But I would say this is about the safest I've seen Havana in the past 10 years.”
He'd heard about the health incidents, which also involved several Canadian diplomats, but was skeptical. “Who in the world would want to attack Canadian diplomats?” he asked. Canada continues to investigate but hasn't issued a travel advisory for Cuba.
“I think someone is trying to spoil the soup,” Gaudet said.
None of the news has scared away Marie Kahn, a retiree from San Francisco, either.
She just figured she needed to get to Cuba in a hurry. “I wanted to come now because I fear that maybe in a year or two it will no longer be possible,” said Kahn who had been in Cuba for the past 10 days and paused as her tour group crossed Old Havana's Plaza de Armas.
“We began in Holguín and then went east to Guantánamo and Santiago and then rural areas between there and here, so we're all agog at how urbanized Havana is. It's really a beautiful city. I would recommend it,” she said.
The landmark 439-room Hotel Nacional, which has hosted world leaders, celebrities and the 1946 meeting of American mafia families who came together to divvy up business in Havana, also was on the media day itinerary.
Now it also has the infamy of being one of the hotels where the United States says some of the attacks on diplomats occurred.
For the past five years, the main market at the hotel, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the sea, has been Americans. Of the 65,000 travelers who slept at the hotel last year, more than 50 percent were Americans, said Antonio Martínez, the general manager.
There were some cancellations and bookings were down last month, he said, but the hotel still hasn't closed the books on the last season.
Martínez said bookings may be down around 20 percent, but he doesn't know whether to attribute the drop to the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, being named by the United States in connection with the health incidents, or other factors.
Asked what he thought when he first heard the United States had named the hotel as the scene of some of the “attacks,” he responded: “When you're 70 years old like I am, nothing.” With 20 years at the Nacional, he said he's pretty much seen and heard it all.
“Look around. We still have American guests here,” said Martínez. “Please send all of your friends here and they will be well taken care of.”
Also speaking at the meeting were airline and cruise line representatives.
Although it has downsized planes on some routes and flew its last flight to Cienfuegos on Jan. 8, American Airlines remains “committed to the market,” said Martha Pantin, AA's senior manager for corporate communications in Miami.
American still flies 63 flights a week to five Cuban cities and has applied to the Department of Transportation for 17 additional weekly flight frequencies from Miami to Havana, said Pantin,
Cruise ships continue to arrive, too. On Monday, two were in port in Havana as a third sailed out to sea.
When Trump announced in Miami in June that he was shifting toward a new Cuba policy, he said he was reversing all of President Barack Obama's Cuba policies.
He didn't, but that led to more confusion on the part of American travelers. The rhetoric “created a lot of misunderstanding,” said Lindsey Frank, a lawyer who spoke at the event.
But the president did make some important changes: requiring all people-to-people trips to be made as part of groups and listing 180 Cuban hotels, tour companies and stores controlled by the Cuban military as off limits for American travelers.
No American citizen, firm, green-card holder or person otherwise under U.S. jurisdiction is allowed to carry out any direct financial transaction with any entity on the list.
However, Americans still can travel as individuals under other categories of permissible travel to Cuba such as support for the Cuban people and family visits. Many hotels aren't on the list nor are private bed and breakfasts. But travel whose sole purpose is tourism remains prohibited.
Americans can still book at the restricted hotels as long as they book through a Cuban travel agency (Havanatur, San Cristobal, Amistur) not on the list or a third-country agency, said Frank. What is prohibited is direct transactions with entities on the list.
Americans are required to keep detailed records of their Cuba travels, including receipts, for five years, and the administration has suggested there could be spot checks for compliance when Americans arrive back home. But so far that doesn't seem to have happened.
“I'm not aware of any stepped-up enforcement, stepped up budget, or stepped-up personnel for enforcement at OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control),” said Frank.
“Cuba,” he said, “very much does remain a legal destination for U.S. travelers — even under current OFAC regulations.”

Monday, January 29, 2018

Travel Basics Flyer for New York Times Travel Show

Yes, you can still go to Cuba!

1) President Trump made a hard-line speech in June in Miami, but did not change much.
2) All types of purposeful travel authorized by the Obama Administration remain legal.
3) Travel with groups or on cruises is completely unchanged.
4) Hotel restrictions largely do not impact American used facilities and may have a legal work-around.
5) Independent travel by individuals, families and friends is also largely unchanged but now falls under the rewritten license category of “Support for the Cuban People” instead of “People to People”.
6) The withdrawal of 60% of US diplomats in October was connected to mysterious medical problems that affected only them and Canadian counterparts.  It is totally unknown what happened and who is responsible, but the goal of cooling relations succeeded.  Canada did not withdraw its diplomats! 
7) The State Department was required by internal rules to issue a Travel Warning only because it could not provide the normal level of citizen services.
8) There has not been a single confirmed case of similar health symptoms from the 4 million visitors to Cuba last year including 650,000 Americans. No other country has issued any kind of health advisory.  The International Tourism Fair in Madrid last week judged Cuba the “Safest Destination in the World”.
9) Withdrawal of diplomats frustrated demands by Sen. Rubio to close both countries’ embassies.

How do I go on my own?

1) Book a ticket non-stop on Jet Blue or Delta from JFK or United from Newark (about $350 r.t.)
2) Select “Support for the Cuban People” as the type of travel you are undertaking
3) Use AirBnB, etc. to reserve a room or an apartment (casa particular) from a private owner
4) Eat in a private restaurant (paladar)
5) Buy handicrafts, etc. from self-employed shop keepers (cuenta propistas)
6) If you need a guide, hire her or him privately
7) As much as possible, use private taxis (They are also available between cities.)
8) Whatever you do, wherever you go, be intentional and responsible that your goal is “a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people … and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.”  (The conscientious judgement of what qualifies is yours.)
9) Apportion recreational activities like concerts, dancing and the beach as in a normal work week
10) Keep a journal or list of your “meaningful interactions” for five years.

  • Current US government regulations
  • Cruise from Havana to Cienfuegos & Santiago with a Cuban crew February 10 – 19
  • Explore Holguin, Santiago (during Carnival), Guantanamo, and Baracoa in July
  • Call for the end of the travel warning and all restrictions here

Fund for Reconciliation and Development   917-859-9027

Distributed at the New York Times Travel Show, 1/26-28/2018

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Travel Pulse Reports on Independent Travel

Independent Travel to Cuba Still Possible for Americans

Havana, Cuba
There remains a great deal of misinformation about travel to Cuba for Americans. (photo via Pixabay/Walkerssk)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Trip Advisor Summary of New License for Independent Travel

Independent Travel Under "Support for the Cuban People"

There is considerable misinformation and disinformation in mainstream and travel media about whether one can still travel independently to Cuba.

In effect, "Support for the Cuban People" was expanded to replace the individual People to People License.  The only difference is that travelers are expected to patronize the private sector as much as possible for housing, meals and transportation.

The political language surrounding Support is virtually identical to both prior and current People to People licenses.  To appease Sen. Rubio, intrusive, if not hostile, purposes are listed as alternatives to a personal commitment to full time engagement with the Cuban people.  The crucial word for both licenses is "or".

For group travel the organizer is responsible for content and keeping records; for independent travel alone, or with family or with friends, the traveler(s) are responsible.

Full texts of revised regulations with annotation are here

Our last newsletter covers the topic here

The bottom line is that independent travel is most supportive of the growing private sector in Cuba.  It is at least as engaging with the Cuban people as prestructured group tours, especially if a local guide is hired.  It certainly does more for the participant and for Cuba than cruises, a fully authorized mode of travel.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Cuba/US People to People Partnership

Travel as a Salient Issue in US-Cuba Relations

"Travel:  Symbol of and Vehicle for Change"

XVI edición de la Serie de Conversaciones Cuba en la Política Exterior de los Estados Unidos de América, Centro de Investigación de Política Internacional (CIPI) y Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales (ISRI)  13 - 15 de Diciembre 2017

When I proposed this topic, I expected to be able to describe an uneven progression towards near normalcy for travel between our countries.    However, events of the past six months have muddied the waters and the future is harder to chart—unless you are a cruise line, the least people to people but a completely authorized mode of travel.

Before the revolution in 1959, Cuba was the primary Caribbean destination for Americans and we provided 80% of its visitors.

Being able to drink legally during prohibition was certainly an early attraction, but Mafia investments in hotels, gambling, drugs and prostitution transformed the destination in the 1950s.  At least as important were the same attractions that bring millions of visitors today: history, culture, baseball, beaches and the engaging people of Cuba—plus the ease of arrival whether by air, cruise line or by ferry.

Symbolically the ninth convention of ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents, took place at the former Havana Hilton from October 17 to 24, 1959.  According to a post by FIT Cuba 
More than two thousand travel agents from 82 countries, accompanied by their families, visited the Cuban capital. These were unprecedented figures when compared to the previous eight conventions.”

Fidel Castro was a special guest, warmly received when he declared,

we in Cuba are very happy and grateful to you for honoring us all with your presence … please put all your political ideas aside. You and your friends are professionals, not politicians, and your mission is to help your friends find the happiness our world may provide.

We don’t have many things; we are not an industrialized country and lack a number of things, but in the field of tourism we have many advantages, like our sea, bays, beaches, all kinds of medicinal waters, mountains, game and fishing preserves, and the best temperature in the world.  ”

He went on to say,

“we are determined to develop tourism as much as possible, with a good service and, especially, fair prices, because rather than having 100,000 people paying for expensive hotel rooms and items we would like many hundreds of thousands to come, not only the wealthy but also those who are not rich and those who have no other fortune than their job… our ambition, which is a well-intended ambition, is to turn our Island into the best vacation resort and the most important destination worldwide.”

Presciently he noted

“We’re aware of the fact that many U.S. citizens come here with wrong ideas and then they find exactly the opposite of what they believed. That’s why we think that regardless of all the propaganda against Cuba we will make headway and have more tourists every year. Who is telling the truth, those who lie or those who open the doors of the nation for everyone to come and see for themselves what is truly going on in Cuba”

For just that reason, the threat of reality overcoming propaganda, the end of US tourism was a major and, for many years, a successful goal of the embargo. 

It dovetailed with Cuba’s disinterest in tourism in the initial decades of the revolution.  As the country’s turn toward socialism faced growing threats from the US, Fidel’s early enthusiasm apparently cooled.   Tourism flourished domestically, but until the mid-1970s foreign visitors were largely welcomed from politically aligned countries or movements, either as vacation rewards or as demonstrations of solidarity.  Conventional tourism was seen as carrying the subversive seeds of social inequality.  Cruises received special denigration.

Entry to Cuba was also discouraged by obstacles created by neighbors who followed the US goal of isolating and undermining the revolution.  I remember that on my first trip to Cuba in 1971 even Mexico only allowed us to transit by air to Cuba but not to return.  As a result we went home via a freighter to Canada in the dead of winter.

From the beginning, there were people who ignored the travel embargo, either acting in solidarity with the revolution or simply because they resented US government infringement on their personal freedom.  The Office of Foreign Assets Control chased after violators, penalizing them with fines and intimidation, notably through constant repetition of overstated legal risks in newspaper articles.   Individual travelers were most vulnerable, often settling for payment of reduced fines rather than risk criminal prosecution.  Probably the first US NGO to send visitors was Sandy Levinson’s Center for Cuban Studies in 1973.  Its delegation of lawyers used the loophole of being fully hosted by Cuba.  The Venceremos Brigade and later Pastors for Peace famously defied the travel embargo with little consequence.

President John Kennedy imposed travel restrictions in 1963 and President Jimmy Carter let them lapse in 1977, the same year that Interest Sections were opened in both capitals.  However, the opportunity for a breakthrough was missed.  On the Cuban side there was not the political interest or capacity to open the door to commercial tourism from the US, nor did US companies take advantage of the opportunity.  President Ronald Reagan reimposed restrictions in 1982. 

The change of perspective on the Cuban side began in the mid 1970s, but dramatic change is linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to obtain new sources of national income during the Special Period. 
Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and Linda McGlynn of the Center for Urban Studies at SUNY Buffalo wrote in 1909:

“International tourist arrivals in Cuba fell from a peak of 272,000 in 1958 to less than 4000 annually from 1959 until 1973. By 1975, Cuba had begun to promote tourism reaching over 300,000 visitors annually by 1990. As the Special Period began, the industry exploded during the nineties and by 2000, the number of tourist arrivals to Cuba had doubled.”  [“International tourism in Cuba: Can capitalism be used to save socialism?”]

A growing stream of Americans illegally joined the stream, flying from Mexico, Canada or Jamaica and usually escaping sanction.  However, legal travel for a diverse clientele only began in the Clinton Administration.    Clinton did not believe he had the authority to unilaterally end the embargo with Cuba as he had with Vietnam, but he could provide categories of licensing to provide exceptions.  Thus began the process of applying to OFAC for approval of a specific license on a trip by trip basis.   Initially that was not so complicated and my organization was one of many to do so, even without using a lawyer.  Cuban Americans were allowed to visit once a year, plus for humanitarian reasons, but no effort was made to enforce that limit.

It was not lost on the hard line ultras among Cuban Americans that the negative propaganda about their homeland was losing effect as more and more mainstream Americans personally witnessed and even enjoyed a more complicated reality.  Regardless of whether visitors admired or despaired of Cuba’s political and economic system, they came home convinced that the Cuban people did not hate Americans and the embargo was dumb.

The tactic adopted by the ultras to challenge Clinton’s opening was Brothers to the Rescue.  It used a humanitarian mission of saving refugees at sea to mask deliberately provocative flights dropping political leaflets over Havana in blatant violation of national airspace.  One can argue that Cuba had no alternative in defense of its sovereignty, or that it swallowed the bait of Miami.  In any case the political reaction in the US to the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes led to Clinton’s support of the infamous Helms-Burton legislation and no greater opening of travel based on executive authority.   In 2000 the legal authorization of agricultural sales was paired with the codification of categories of permitted purposeful travel.

Although President George Bush took power with the help of Cuban American interference in the vote count in Florida, he initially made little change in Clinton’s travel regulations.  There was considerable bipartisan momentum in Congress to find ways of ending travel restrictions.  The Miami ultras response this time came via allies in the Administration.  James Cason, the head of the US Interests Section, had been directed by superiors in the State Department to create enough provocations to push the Cubans to close it.  His notoriously direct and public engagement with US government supported dissidents led to a large number of arrests and controversial trials that were labeled as the Black Spring and widely denounced in the US and Europe.   Again Cuba could be seen as defending its sovereignty, but the political consequence in the US was the total collapse of Congressional efforts for freedom of travel and agricultural sales, much to the satisfaction of the ultras. 

As President Bush approached his reelection campaign,  he paid his political debt to Miami, drastically restricted travel licenses and limited Cuban Americans to one trip in three years with no humanitarian exceptions.  However by 2007, enforcement was virtually stopped because the appeals process had ground to a halt.  Violations by Cuban Americans were completely ignored except when a company tried to profit from them.

When President Obama took office, he brought an anti-embargo disposition but also political caution of how fast he could proceed.   As promised during his campaign, and despite pressure from some Cuban American supporters, he fundamentally transformed the relationship between the Cuban diaspora and their country of origin in April 2009, an approach welcomed by the government in Havana.  He ended all restrictions on their travel and on remittances, permitting a process of grass roots family investment that fit well into the new Cuban reality outlined by the Lineamientos and the initiatives of President Raul Castro.

There were news stories at the time that Obama also was considering opening travel for the rest of us but the White House acceded to pressure from Senator Menendez.  He did restore the definition of categories from the Clinton era in January 2011.      There was a boom in licensed group tours, but OFAC created arbitrary and politicized obstacles in both the application and renewal processes that limited most access to those with expensive legal support.  During this time, my organization was denied a license five times until Senator Leahy’s office intervened, at the same time it also successfully challenged unduly bureaucratic renewal requirements. 

The ultras weapon this time was USAID democracy programs that their allies had rushed to create in the closing months of the Bush Administration but that were implemented during the ignorant or uncaring tenure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Among them was the contract received by Alan Gross to set up a network of satellite linked internet communications.  Instead of apologizing for and terminating such programs, Clinton played into the hands of the ultras making Gross’s imprisonment a human rights cause celebre and an obstacle to any further opening.  Her position that the US had the right to unilaterally sponsor projects in Cuba naturally inflamed Havana’s sensitivity to infringement of sovereignty.  The issue became more complicated when Cuba chose to link the release of Gross to freedom for the Cuban Five.  One can only speculate what the consequences might have been if the Gross issue had been quickly resolved through mutual compromise and Obama had opened the door to wide scale travel in his first term rather than waiting until January 2015.

The decisive transformation made by Obama at that time was to turn the Clinton categories of specifically licensed travel into self-governed general licenses, removing all bureaucratic impediments of an application process.  That enabled virtually any group or travel business to organize its own trip under the people to people general license.  The description of purpose and internal administration of group trips was not changed, but absent a requirement for applications and renewals was virtually unenforceable.  The separate licensing of travel providers as OFAC police was also ended.

A moment of silence for victims of terrorism in Europe before the US-Cuba baseball game.

The final step of Obama on March 15, 2016, was to permit individuals, families and friends to organize travel independently under the individual general license for people to people travel.  This dramatically opened travel to Americans who could not afford or disliked group travel—or who wanted to share Cuba with their children.  A natural consequence was the increase of business for Cuba’s emerging private sector of casas particulares and paladars and their support enterprises, thanks to dramatically reduced costs and the convenience of direct credit card payment on line in the US to AirBnB and for commercial flights. 

At this stage one could say travel had become nearly normal, excepting only all inclusive beach holidays.

(following not included in oral presentation)

The character and goals of the Trump Administration are a dominant theme of this conference, but their confused character is well illustrated by travel.  Some of us had been optimistic that Trump would leave alone or even expand Obama’s initiatives.  His professional involvement in the leisure industry had led him to fund an illegal sounding in Cuba and a legal delegation to discuss golf courses and hotel.  A participant in the second trip, the Trump Organization’s counsel, Jason Greenblatt, whose father or father in law emigrated from Cuba seemed will disposed toward normalization and had been given a special portfolio on Cuba in the new Administration.

Even when Trump gave an anti-Obama red meat political speech in June in Miami, the changes he proposed in travel were substantively minor.  Untouched were virtually all forms of travel, including group tours, cultural exchanges (such as the Irish traditional music and dance performances we undertook last month in Holguin and Santiago) and the most touristic kind of interaction, cruise ships.  His attack on hotels under GAESA could be easily countered by restoring Habaguanex to the Historian’s office, reopening most of the banned facilities used by Americans in Habana Vieja.   His destruction of the individual general license was already being minimized by hints of an opening of a new path for independent travelers under a different license category, Support for the Cuban People.

Irish, Irish American and Cuban musicians perform traditional music for dance practice in Holguin, November 2017
Despite the unjustified 60 % draw down of US diplomats in September, the June model was largely implemented when the new OFAC regulations were announced last month.  Support for the Cuban People was modified so it no longer was limited to people who embodied a subversive agenda.  (see text below)

Despite this reality, the number of US visitors has plummeted.  In part that is due to the political climate.  Hostile words, even from an unpopular and morally discredited President, change the atmosphere for uncertain travelers impacted by half a century of hostility and mistrust.

The drawdown of US diplomats procedurally required a completely unjustified travel warning because of the limited capacity to provide services to US citizens.  In addition to the psychological impact flowing from half a century of negativity about Cuba, a travel warning triggers insurance and legal prohibitions on university, business and other institutional travelers.

The New York Times, for example has already canceled three months of group tours to Cuba because of diminished interest and canceled reservations.  Why would its affluent and relatively well informed clients have been so easily scared off?

We still don’t know whether the new tactic by Cuban American ultras to block travel and reverse normalization was the mysterious illness said to have afflicted US government personnel in Havana.   If Cuba’s apparent position that nothing actually happened is correct, the fact that the original targets were reportedly US intelligence operatives could mean they were conspirators in a planned disruption of relations.  Or their covert identity could mean they were a deliberate target of some non-Cuban force opposed to normalization, for example North Korea which shows little regard for international or diplomatic norms. 

In any case, it is certain that the ultras quickly moved to exploit the situation.  Senator Rubio and four colleagues had called for the US to close both embassies a few days before Secretary Tillerson withdrew 60% of staff, perhaps to prevent worse.  Rubio and Rep. Diaz-Ballart also criticized the revised travel restrictions as having been subverted by the bureaucracy so their game has not ended.

Despite the State Department’s apparent intention to make Support for the Cuban People a replacement for the individual general license, the published language, although modified favorably, was open to misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation for reasons of economic self-interest or politics.   In my view if the goal of travelers is to promote independent activity to strengthen civil society and their activities enhance contact with the Cuban people, with the result of meaningful interaction, their presence in Cuba will be seen positively as legitimate support for the emerging private sector, they qualify for this general license and they will be welcome visitors.  

If they are motivated by the other listed goals and act on them, their presence could be regarded as intrusive and not respectful of Cuba's sovereignty by authorities.   The same can be said for still legal group people to people tours which are encumbered by the same presumptuous language.
The ultras no doubt welcomed the effective termination of US visa granting authority as the result of withdrawal of diplomats.  They are spared the permanent addition of at least 20,000 Cuban immigrants annually, most of whom will eventually become anti-embargo voters, and of tens of thousands of non-immigrant visitors who deepen personal links across the straights. 

No doubt the ultras are hoping that the drastically diminished utility of the embassy, combined with the possibly provocative choice of a new charge d’affairs who was expelled as US ambassador to Bolivia, could lead Cuba to righteous actions that will be used to justify termination of diplomatic relations.  If in fact the Trump Administration strategy is to make the embassy a facade as was charged this morning, the effective Cuban response would be to make it more real by constantly inviting participation by US diplomats in broader aspects of Cuban society than has been the case.

We have two reasons to hope:  First, Cuban Americans and US academic organizations could start complaining vociferously about the end of visas and hold Rubio and Diaz-Ballart personally responsible.  Second, if the Democrats take back the House of Representatives in 2018, they can join a majority of Senators to end legislatively all travel restrictions.  Then we will see whether President Pence or Ryan will veto their action.

  --John McAuliff, Fund for Reconciliation and Development, 12/14/17

Full text of Support for the Cuban People section

§515.574   Support for the Cuban People.

(a) General license. The travel-related transactions set forth in §515.560(c) and other transactions that are intended to provide support for the Cuban people are authorized, provided that:

(1) The activities are of:

(i) Recognized human rights organizations;

(ii) Independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; 

(iii) Individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba; and

(2) Each traveler engages in a full-time schedule of activities that:

Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities; and

Result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.

(3) The traveler's schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.

Note that virtually identical language describes authorized people to people educational travel for groups:
§515.565   Educational activities.
(b) General license for people-to-people travel.
 (2) Travel-related transactions pursuant to this authorization are for the purpose of engaging, while in Cuba, in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities;
(3) Each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba;

My layman's interpretation:  if a travelers’ view of their goal is to promote independent activity to strengthen civil society and their activities enhance contact with the result of meaningful interaction, their presence in Cuba will be positive in support of the emerging private sector and they qualify for this general license.  If they are motivated by the other listed goals and act on them, their presence could be regarded as intrusive and not respectful of Cuba's sovereignty.
  -- John McAuliff

Friday, December 8, 2017

US Visa Problems for Cuban Musicians

How the partial closure of Havana's U.S. embassy nearly derailed PST: LA/LA's Cuban music festival

NOV 21, 2017 | 3:25 PM

Bringing artists to the U.S. is never an easy task. It’s all the more challenging when those artists live in a country under embargo by the federal government. The promoter of this weekend’s Cuban music and arts component of the arts festival Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA found that out the hard way.

A few months ago, the process of acquiring visas for more than two dozen Cuban musicians was going smoothly, said event curator Betto Arcos, who has been promoting world music performances in Los Angeles for years and hosted the “Global Village” world music program for seven years on KPFK-FM (90.7).

The musicians — hip-hop artist Telmary, Afro-Cuban jazz drummer Yissy Garcia and tres guitarist Pancho Amat, plus their bands — had submitted petitions for visas through the Department of Homeland Security. All but three of 26 applications were approved.

But following a mysterious series of incidents deemed “specific attacks” causing hearing loss and other unexplained illnesses for numerous Americans posted in Havana, more than 20 U.S. Embassy employees were called home from Cuba in September.

One result was that the process of granting visas slowed to a trickle.

Even though their visas had been approved, the musicians Arcos was trying to bring to Los Angeles were unable to acquire them in Havana, putting the three-day “Cuba: Antes, Ahora/Cuba: Then, Now,” festival that opens Thursday in jeopardy.

Through a series of creative moves, and with some assistance from John Feeley, the U.S. Ambassador to Panama, all three headline performers have procured their visas and will appear as scheduled at the festival’s free Friday night program, Sleepless: The Music Center After Hours, which will fill the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with sound and visual installations, art displays, film screenings and live music, as well as at Saturday afternoon’s free Rumba Dance Party + Jam Session in Grand Park.

Garcia is bringing her regular five-piece band, Bandancha, and Amat will travel solo, performing with an L.A.-based Cuban ensemble that specializes in the same traditional son music that Amat plays at home.

“Yissy Garcia, just by chance, was on tour in Argentina, and we got them to stay a little longer,” Arcos said. That’s when he put in a call to ambassador Feeley, whom he’d met years earlier in Washington D.C., before the diplomat was appointed to his post in Panama in 2015. Feeley helped Garcia and her five-piece group get appointments at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires in time to get their visas in hand before returning to Cuba.

For Telmary, who performs with an eight-piece band at home, Arcos said, “We didn’t know what we were going to do — we don’t have the money to fly to anywhere, and that’s eight people.”

Telmary, however, volunteered to use some of the fee she would get to perform in the U.S. to travel with several of her band members to Mexico. She was able to get her visa and those of about half her band from the U.S. Embassy there. She’ll perform this weekend with additional support from three L.A. musicians, two of whom are Cuban.

“The biggest news,” Arcos said last week, “is that I just got word this morning [from Feeley] that Pancho is on his way to L.A. The U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic has approved his visa. I just screamed with joy. He is a tower of music and has seen the entire history of the music of Cuba over the last 50 years.”

Amat, however, is coming alone, even though in Havana his band includes a guitarist, two percussionists, a bassist, two singers and a trumpeter in addition to himself on the tres, one of the signature instruments in Cuban son music.

The tres has six strings like a standard acoustic guitar, but they are strung in three pairs, each doubling notes an octave apart, akin to the more common 12-string guitar. The tres, which is native to Cuba and originated in Guantanamo, can cut through the sound of a large ensemble to add a shimmering, vibrant dimension to the overall sound.

Through a bit of serendipity, Amat will perform with an L.A.-based son ensemble led by another Cuban tres player: San Miguel, who immigrated to the U.S. years ago.

“Pancho was his teacher, and mentored him in Havana,” Arcos said. “I told him, ‘We can’t bring your band, but I want you to come. You’re the man. I really want you to be here.’ He said, ‘What am I going to do?’ I said, ‘I want you to play with San Miguel’s band.’ And he said, ‘Yeah — I’m in.’”

Each group highlights a different strand of Cuban music, fulfilling Arcos’ mission in putting a varied Cuban music and arts program together.

It opens Thursday at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City, which currently is featuring an exhibition about Cuba. At 7 p.m. Arcos will conduct a ‘Then, Now’ question-and-answer session with Amat, followed by L.A.-based Cuban flutist Danilo Lozano interviewing Garcia, then African American composer and musician Dexter Story in a talk with Telmary.

On Friday, all three bands will perform at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s late-night session running from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., also featuring guest DJs. Saturday’s jam session in Grand Park downtown will be led by a rumba group from Havana with appearances by Garcia, Telmary and Amat and other guests.

The festival concludes Saturday night when Cuban dance ensemble Malpaso performs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with musical accompaniment from the New York-based Afro Cuban Jazz Band led by Arturo O’Farrill, whose father, Chico O’Farrill, was one of the pioneers of Afro Cuban jazz in the late 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Arturo O’Farrill also is a new Grammy nominee, picking up a nomination earlier this week for instrumental composition for his work “Three Revolutions.”

Arcos expressed disappointment over the Trump Administration’s recent decision to pull back on the steps President Obama had taken to improve relations with Cuba, following nearly 60 years of the cultural, trade and travel embargo imposed after Fidel Castro’s populist Revolution installed a communist government on the island in 1959.

“This administration has aligned itself with the conservative side of the Cuban American community, but it’s not a monolithic community,” said Arcos, who is Mexican. “The majority of Cubans living in the U.S. don’t want the embargo to continue, because they’ve seen that it doesn’t work.”

That debate is likely to continue in the years ahead, but for now, Arcos’ focus is on what’s looming this weekend.

“The main thing here is it will give people an impression of what Cuba is,” he said. “It’s much more than most people think about it, and they’re going to get a chance to see it all. It’s going to be a party.”