Wednesday, April 18, 2018

AP Roundup on Travel

AP Explains: For Americans, big changes in travel to Cuba

April 16, 2018 - 1:20 PM

HAVANA — Raul Castro's time in office has seen dramatic changes in Americans' ability to travel to Cuba, with a dramatic opening under U.S. President Barack Obama, then a partial reduction under President Donald Trump.


Before former President Barack Obama launched detente with Cuba in December 2014, most Americans without family ties to Cuba could travel to the island only on expensive guided tours dedicated to full-time "meaningful interaction" with the Cuban people and — in principle at least — avoiding activities that could be considered tourism, which is illegal under U.S. law.

"People-to-people" tour companies needed special licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department and were regularly audited and faced steep fines or loss of licenses for allowing travelers to engage in tourism.

In Cuba, U.S. tour companies were required to contract guides, tour buses and hotel rooms from the Cuban government, meaning U.S. travelers were effectively under the constant supervision of the government. As a result, they were often presented with activities and talks favoring Cuba government positions on domestic and international issues.


Obama eliminated the tour requirement, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba on individual "people-to-people" trips that were in reality indistinguishable from travel to any other country in the world. Travelers were legally required to maintain logs of their "people-to-people" schedules, but the Obama administration made clear it would not enforce the requirement.

Online lodging booker Airbnb was allowed into Cuba and commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba resumed after more than half a century. As a result, U.S. travel to Cuba roughly tripled by the time Obama left office. U.S. travelers engaged in what amounted to illegal tourism, but also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into independent restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts that drove the growth of Cuba's nascent private sector.


Trump re-imposed the requirement that "people-to-people" travelers could only come to Cuba with heavily regulated tour groups. Many Cuban entrepreneurs have seen reductions in the numbers of American travelers, whose business allowed many private Cuban businesses to flourish after the start of detente.

The policy also banned most American financial transactions with the military-linked conglomerate that dominates much of the Cuban economy, including dozens of hotels, along with state-run restaurants and tour buses.

Most individual American travelers ignore the ban or are unaware of it, and tour groups have found myriad ways of doing business with the Cuban government while respecting the letter of the regulation, for example by doing businesses with the Tourism Ministry and other organizations without direct military ties.

Individual American travelers are still legally able to go to Cuba for the purpose of supporting the Cuban people, a category that includes helping human rights organizations and non-governmental groups meant to strengthen democracy and civil society.* In real terms, this sort of travel is largely undistinguishable from people-to-people trips, with Americans visiting the same private businesses, organic farms and musical venues they did under Obama.

Cuban government figures show that 2017 was a record year for tourism, with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the island's otherwise struggling economy. Most were Canadians, Cuban-Americans and Europeans, who face no restrictions. Still, the number of American travelers without family ties topped 600,000, more than six times the pre-Obama level. But amid the boom — an 18 percent overall increase over 2016 — owners of private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts reported a sharp drop-off.

In large part that's because much of the American travel since Trump's regulation has been in cruise ship passengers, a form of travel that the new administration did not restrict. Cruise ship passengers spend all or nearly all of their time in Cuba in activities organized by the Cuban government.

That means that so far, Trump's regulations are steering money into the hands of the Cuban government and away from private businesses, the opposite of their intended effect.


Michael Weissenstein on Twitter:

*  That is correct as far as it goes, but there was an important amplification of the category

(2) Each traveler engages in a full-time schedule of activities that:
(i) Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities; and
(ii) Result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.
An indicator of qualification, although not an absolute requirement, is staying in a casa particular.

All of the regulatory language is here

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Personal Encounters with Miguel Diaz-Canel

My personal opinion is that when Miguel Diaz-Canel becomes President, his success will depend on how soon rationality returns to US policy at least as much as on the amount of real power his generation has in the Party, military and economy.

The two things are related as Cold War bluster from Washington reinforces the power of the old guard (and not incidentally strengthens the Russian hand).

I met VP Diaz-Canel when he was Minister of Higher Education.  We had rented a booth at Universidad 2012, a very large international congress that takes place every two years in Cuba.   We were the first, and until 2016, the only US organization to do so. 

Our booth had attracted a lot of attention from representatives of specialized and regional universities.  On the second day, a large group appeared in front of the booth.  It was Diez-Canel walking the exhibition hall, accompanied by staff, a couple of TV cameras, and his wife, Lis Cuesta Peraza, an assistant professor at the University of Havana and director of Academic Services at Paradiso, the tourism agency of the Ministry of Culture.

I felt some foreboding as the Minister had been quoted by the press about a year before in a public speech warning of the subversive intent of US universities that wanted to have programs in Cuba.

He was very warm in his greeting, expressed appreciation of my presence and invited me to come to a reception he was hosting that evening.
He was quite amenable to have pictures taken in front of our booth and banner. 

When I went to his reception, I told the Minister that his key note speech the night before about the character and value of international educational exchange would have been received well by counterparts in the US and Europe.  In fact if you took out his specific references to Cuba, it would be hard to know where he was Minister.  He laughed in acknowledgement.

Two years later after he had become Vice President he came only to the outdoor reception that followed the adjournment of the congress.   He and his wife walked through the crowd enjoying the music of Los Van Van, working it like a US politician.  He responded readily to the many people who came up to them and asked to have pictures taken together.

When I approached them, both Diaz-Canel and Lis Cuesta indicated that they remembered our meeting two years before.  (I had met her in the interim at Paradiso while there to see a colleague.)

His comfortable informality and accessibility suggests a different personal style than the retiring generation of Cuban leaders.  Accounts by western journalists of his tenure in Santa Clara and Holguin lead to a similar impression about his persona as well as about the innovative ways he addressed problems as a Provincial leader.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Documentaries on Cuenta Propistas

New series documents the challenges of private startup enterprises in Cuba

April 12, 2018 08:30 AM
Updated April 12, 2018 03:33 PM

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why Cuba Has Two Currencies and Is Moving to Unify Them

Fri Mar 30, 2018 10:48 am (PDT) . Posted by:

"Walter Lippmann" walterlx

(Rumors about a quick ending of the dual currency system today
led the Cuban
National Bank to issue a formal denial. This issue been discussed
many times
in the Cuban media, going back many years, and including by Fidel
This linked item should be translated to English soon.)\
Currency Standardization in Cuba, Urgency and Complexities
Por Maria Julia Mayoral

Havana (Prensa Latina) Cuba has two currencies as legal tenders,
the peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC), but according to
facts, none of them complies with the functions of money, thus
creating distortions in the national economy.

Although it is a harmful phenomenon, the dual exchange rate is
even worse. In the wholesale circuit (where companies operate),
there is parity between the CUP and the CUC, and between the
latter with the U.S. dollar, while in the retail sphere, the
exchange rate is 25 CUP per one CUC.

In both circuits, the existence of two currencies has led to the
segmentation of markets. In addition, within the retail network,
there is coexistence of products in pesos, with or without the
protection of state subsidies, and others in CUC, whose prices
include high value added taxes (VAT).

Add to this the limitations in the availability of foreign
currencies. The companies, for example, need to have a liquidity
certificate (CL, in Spanish), which is granted by the central
Government, so that they can buy foreign currencies with their
CUC to import products.

According to President Raul Castro, the elimination of the
currency and exchange duality by itself will not magically solve
all the problems accumulated in the Cuban economy.

However, he said, 'It is the most determining process to progress
in the update of the economic model due to the impact that it
will have on all spheres of the nation's economic and social

The head of State and Government assured before the Parliament
that the purpose is standardizing the monetary system and at the
same time 'overcoming the existing distortions in terms of
subsidies, prices and wholesale and retail tariffs and,
logically, in the pensions and salaries in the State sector of
the economy'.

For his part, Vice-President Marino Murillo informed that 13
subgroups made up of more than 200 people 'are working with all
intentionality on this issue', including meetings with
international experts.

Both dualities, the official noted, have effects 'on the entire
society and on the economy, and it is not just eliminating one
currency and setting an exchange rate: it has to do with the
formation of prices, it has to do with people's incomes, it has
to do with the purchasing power of the salary'.

From the technical viewpoint, economists agree, it would not be
difficult to standardize the currencies and exchange rates, the
difficulty lies on the political and social costs for Cuba's
socialist project, which focuses on achieving equality,
prosperity and sustainability.

Cuba's currency and exchange duality is nearly 25 years old, a
too long period, and as days go by, solutions will be more
complex, according to the researcher Hiram Marquetti Nodarse,
from the Center of Studies on Public Administration and a
professor at the University of Havana.

The academic recalled that after the demise of the Soviet Union
and the socialist camp in Eastern Europe, Cuba lost 73 percent of
its import capacity and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell
34.8 percent in 1993.

The government of the United States saw that situation as a
one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to suffocate the Cuban Revolution
by stepping up the economic, financial and commercial blockade,
knowing that the Caribbean island would not have access to the
main international financial institutions either.

As revenues were seriously affected, the Government resorted to a
group of measures, including the liberalization of the
circulation of other currencies on the national territory in July
1993. That contributed to promoting tourism, boosting direct
foreign investments and facilitating a different connection with
the world economy, Marquetti noted.

According to the expert, it was an innovative decision that
involved the liberalization of seven foreign currencies: U.S.
dollar, French franc, Swiss franc, Japanese yen, pound sterling,
German mark and Spanish peseta. In addition, in the Latin
American context, the Mexican peso was granted an exchange

The decision also aimed to capture resources that could not be
received through the banking system, but through family
remittances, which were estimated at about 500 million dollars a
year at the time. In just five years, that figure exceeded
estimates, mainly due to the domestic market in foreign
currencies, Marquetti added.

Therefore, he summarized, the impact of liberalization was
positive in macroeconomic terms and contributed to building a
non-existing infrastructure, above all in the field of services,
by creating establishments to provide oil byproducts that at the
same time became outlets to sell food.

As a result, the national commercial network was updated to
develop the domestic market in hard currencies parallel to the
objective of boosting tourism.

From then on, innovative mechanisms were created for Cuban
economy, like the prerogative granted to the tourism sector to
finance productions for that sector and the domestic market in
hard currencies, thus generating a financial capacity that had
not existed until then, the expert pointed out.

In that context, a system of exchange houses (Cadeca) was
activated to facilitate people's access to the exchange of
foreign currencies for national currencies, and the CUC was
issued, whose existence is subject to eventual reforms.

According to Marquetti, the exchange and currency standardization
will not resolve the accumulated problems, but it would guarantee
accountable certainty in a medium term to make decisions in the
entrepreneurial and macroeconomic spheres.

In light of the current situation, it is a complex matter,
because the country is far from going through a period of
economic growth: the accumulated growth coefficient of the GDP
was 2 percent in five years and the public debt continued to
increase to finance budgetary deficits, he added.

The expert summarized that Cuba operates under conditions of
strong structural restrictions in terms of access to credits, its
capacity to back up the balance of trade deficit and the increase
in revenues by concept of exports of services.

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