Saturday, July 9, 2011

NY Times Reports on Legal Travel, with comment


New Ways to Visit Cuba — Legally

Published: June 30, 2011

ALWAYS wanted to visit Cuba? Well now you can — legally.
Cuba Travel Guide

Thanks to policy changes by President Obama earlier this year designed to encourage more contact between Americans and citizens of the Communist-ruled island, the Treasury Department is once again granting so-called “people-to-people” licenses, which greatly expand travel opportunities for Cuba-bound visitors.

The licenses, created under President Bill Clinton in 1999, stopped being issued in 2003 under travel restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush. Subsequently, the number of travelers from the United States visiting Cuba legally dropped from more than 200,000 in 2003 to less than 50,000 in 2004, according to estimates by Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters in North Bergen, N.J., among the largest United States organizers of trips to Cuba. The new changes, which come on top of loosened restrictions for Cubans and Cuban-Americans visiting relatives in Cuba, are expected to push the number of travelers visiting Cuba this year to 450,000 this year. “We estimate 375,000 to 400,000 Cuban Americans will visit this year and another 50,000 in other categories of legal travel,” said Mr. Guild of Marazul.

To be clear, it is still illegal for ordinary American vacationers to hop on a plane bound for Cuba, which has been under a United States economic embargo for nearly 50 years. True, plenty have dodged the restrictions — and continue to do so — by flying there from another country like Mexico or Canada (for Americans, traveling to Cuba is technically not illegal, but it might as well be since the United States prohibits its citizens from spending money in Cuba, with exceptions for students, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with legal reasons to travel there). And while Washington has also expanded licensing for educational groups traveling to Cuba by loosening requirements, travelers joining an educational trip must still receive credit toward a degree.

But the new people-to-people measures make it easier for United States citizens who do not have special status as working journalists or scholars to visit Cuba legally, so long as they go with a licensed operator.

“All a U.S. citizen has to do is sign up for an authorized program and they can go to Cuba. It’s as simple as that,” said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, a travel company that took more than 3,000 Americans to Cuba between 1999 and 2003, and was among the tour operators to apply for a license under the new rules earlier this year. It received its license at the end of June, and has planned 135 trips of three, seven or eight nights over the next year.

But other organizations, including Collette Vacations, the National Geographic Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are still waiting to hear from Washington. “They are not issuing them with any kind of speed,” said Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, an authorized travel service provider to Cuba, who has been helping organizations apply for people-to-people licenses. For example, Harvard University, which is offering an alumni trip under the new rules, was among the first to receive the special people-to-people license, Ms. Moore said, while the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, which operated four trips to Cuba between 2001 and 2003, has yet to receive theirs. “The bottom line is yes, they have issued some licenses, but they are doing it at a snail’s pace,” she said.

In all, only eight companies had been issued people-to-people licenses by the end of June, according to the Treasury Department. Thirty-five applications were still pending.

The trips aren’t your typical Caribbean vacation. Rather, the focus is on meeting local citizens and learning about the culture, not beach hopping and mojito-swilling. Days are filled with busy itineraries that may include visiting orphanages or speaking with musicians or community leaders. Guidelines published by the Treasury Department say the tours must “have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” But besides the mingling, the trips — which can range from $1,800 for a long weekend in Havana to more than $4,000 for a week — usually include opportunities to visit historic sites like Old Havana, or, for longer itineraries, a visit to Cienfuegos, a picturesque city in the South.

In terms of hotels, “service may not be quite as good and the Internet connection is incredibly slow and frustrating,” said Ms. Moore of Distant Horizons. But, she said, “they have all the facilities you’d expect: swimming pools, little gyms. And there are a lot of very good private restaurants.”

Don’t expect to stock up on those coveted Cuban cigars, however. Travelers aren’t allowed to bring cigars or rum back to the States, according to the Treasury Department.

Demand for Cuba is so strong that tour operators say that many of the trips already have long waiting lists. Learning in Retirement, an educational program associated with the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse, which is offering a 10-day people-to-people trip in April, said more than 65 people have already expressed interest for its 35 spots. “That’s just through word of mouth,” said Burt Altman, a retired professor who organized the trip. “We haven’t even put out the itinerary.”

“It’s the forbidden fruit,” said Mr. Popper of Insight Cuba. “It’s 50 years of pent-up demand for a country that 75 percent of Americans really, really want to travel to.”

Following is a list of planned people-to-people trips to Cuba.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY’S ALUMNI ASSOCIATION,, will take a group of 35 to Havana for five days in late October, led by Julio Cesar Pérez Hernández, the Cuban Loeb Fellow at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, to explore the city and meet professionals, including local artists and enjoy a private concert at the Ceramics Museum with guitarist Luis Manuel Molina. Cost: $3,880 a person based on double occupancy, including airfare from Miami.

INSIGHT CUBA,, is offering several trips that include a weekend in Havana that costs $1,795 and visits an orphanage; Callejon de Hammel, a community project promoting art, music and culture; the Instituto de Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (Cuban Institute of Friendship With the People), an international Cuban organization that promotes cultural relations between the United States and Cuba; and an eight-night Cuban Music and Art Experience ($4,095), where visitors meet the staff at Egrem, the Cuban state record company, participate in a percussion and dance workshop, visit local music schools and talk to musicians during rehearsal at a famous Havana jazz club.

LEARNING IN RETIREMENT,, is offering a 10-day trip in April 2012 visiting a range of professionals from Santiago de Cuba to Trinidad including a violin maker and a dairy farm operator. Cost: $4,300 for members who pay a $35 annual fee.

CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART AND COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN,, plans to offer an eight-day trip in November, pending a license. The trip, led by Mario Ascencio, the museum’s library director, will explore the art scenes of Havana and Trinidad, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Guests will attend a cocktail reception at the Ludwig Foundation, which promotes Cuban contemporary artists, and meet local curators, artists and gallery owners. Cost: $3,700 a person, including round-trip airfare from Miami for guests who pay $60 for a museum membership.


 My comment:

The very slow pace of licensing from OFAC means either that its four Cuba staff members are hopelessly overwhelmed, or it is deliberately slow walking decisions and picking and choosing whom to license for unknown reasons.

I am skeptical of the second part of this statement:

"In all, only eight companies had been issued people-to-people licenses by the end of June, according to the Treasury Department. Thirty-five applications were still pending."

In between our license application in late February to send Irish American musicians to participate in a Celtic festival that was denied, and our most recent application in late May for a people to people license, the gap in consecutive numbers was nearly 3500.

Certainly some of those were resubmissions related to meeting bureaucratic requirements and perhaps even OFAC's listing system is too opaque to understand. 

The reason we were just given for our second "denial without prejudice" for a people to people license relates to format not substance. But at least that puts us ahead of colleagues who have heard nothing.  

Ultimately,  the White House not OFAC is at fault.  The President could have provided to recognized not-for-profits the same kind of general license which does not require an application that he granted to Cuban Americans, universities and religious organizations.

However, his political advisers appear more concerned with appeasing hard liners in Florida, most of whom will never support Obama, than fulfilling the promise of his January announcement.

A fuller list of potential travel providers, most of whom are still awaiting licenses, can be found at

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Dobbs Ferry, NY


July 8, 2011

In Cuba, Yes, but Only With a Purpose

LINDA SLEZAK stood over a bed of delicate bean plants, tearing out tiny weeds and mounding loose, rust-colored earth around the stems.
A hot June sun glared over the Arroyo Arenas organic vegetable garden at the edge of Havana where Ms. Slezak, a 68-year-old retired social worker from Long Island, and 16 other Americans were visiting as part of a “food sovereignty” program organized by Global Exchange, a human rights organization, and Food First, a policy institute.
She and the beans were partly shaded by netting slung over the long trough-shaped beds, but it was hot, damp and sticky. She paused now and then to wipe her forehead.
Sweating in a Cuban field is not everyone’s idea of relaxation, and it is a far cry from the decadent gaiety that drew Americans to Havana before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. But trips like this are one way of getting to see Cuba, and have just become accessible to most Americans.
After President George W. Bush clamped down on travel to Cuba in 2003, groups of American professionals continued to visit to research topics like agriculture, artmusic, literature or health care. Under President Obama, the United States Treasury Department is again issuing licenses for “people-to-people” trips, intended to encourage contact between Americans and Cubans.
Tour sponsors said that with the new licenses, many of the trips being offered as research programs would be available to everybody, not just professionals. (Many already include a lot of interaction with Cubans.) Two recent research programs — one involving green farming, the other art — give a taste of what visitors can expect. 
Certainly they can expect to be busy. Tourism is still prohibited by the embargo, and American travel to Cuba must be “purposeful” to be legal. Those applying to join research tours must attest to having a professional link to the subject matter. (For people-to-people travel, this requirement doesn’t apply.)
These strictures translate into packed itineraries that leave little time for sunbathing. Depending on the trip’s focus, visitors attend lectures on topics ranging from seeds to santería. They might take cooking classes, visit clinics, go to art studios or meet marine biologists. Some groups stay at Havana’s grand old hotels; others stay at guesthouses and even rural campgrounds.
“It’s always frustrated me that Cuba is such an incredibly beautiful place, and we can’t go,” said Ms. Slezak, who heard about the food sovereignty trip through her work as a leader of the slow-food movement. “This was a way to go.” (Food sovereignty is a development term for people’s right to define their own sustainable food systems.)
Erna Brout, a 73-year-old painter from Hartsdale, N.Y., was in Cuba on an art tour organized by the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies. She said she found her trip exhilarating, if exhausting.
“It’s like boot camp,” she said, resting on a bench at the loft-style studio of the sculptor William Pérez and the mixed-media artist Marlys Fuego in central Havana. “We don’t get lunch. We put hard-boiled eggs and cheese in our bags from breakfast and bring it along.”
The six members of her group visited three dozen artists during a weeklong program that took them from Havana to  Cienfuegos, on a sparkling bay on the south coast, and to Trinidad, the colonial gem that is the birthplace of Benito Ortiz, one of Cuba’s foremost primitivist artists.
The group drank mango juice as Mabel Poblet, an artist, explained how she composes images from tiny acetate tiles at her Havana home, and talked to students and professors at the Instituto Superior de Arte, with its complex of voluptuous Catalan-vaulted terra-cotta domes.
“Hearing the younger artists speaking about their art with such passion and such brilliance — to me, it was just wonderful,” Ms. Brout said by phone after returning home. “I felt very privileged.”
Despite the intense schedule, Ms. Brout and the group found time in Varadero, in the northwestern province of Matanzas, to wade in the sea and sip mojitos at Xanadu, the grand former mansion of Irénée du Pont, now part of a golf course. At the house of an artist in Cienfuegos, they listened to an impromptu recital of traditional trova music.
Ms. Slezak and her group were just as busy. They visited urban vegetable gardens in and around Havana (part of Cuba’s effort to grow food efficiently near cities), a center for herbal medicine and a food conservation project.
 From Havana, they headed to Las Terrazas, an ecotourism complex nestled in a biosphere reserve, and then to Pinar del Río and the Viñales Valley, where limestone hills, or mogotes, rise from the farmland like great green molars.
This group squeezed in some leisure time, too, touring Havana’s carefully restored old city, catching some jazz at La Zorra y el Cuervo and dining at La Guarida, a bohemian restaurant tucked at the top of a crumbling central Havana mansion.
Delegations of Americans are good public relations and a promising source of income for Cuba. (That makes trips like these a point of fierce contention for those in the United States who oppose greater contact between the two countries.)
While visitors are shuttled around on a tight schedule, their evenings are often free, and several said they felt they had time to draw their own conclusions, both positive and negative.
“I’m satisfied that I can go home and be clear on certain things,” said Nesbitt Blaisdell, an 82-year-old actor who used to run the compost heap at the community garden at Sixth Street and Avenue B in New York. “There are good things and things that are unresolved.” He was blown away by the organic farms, he said, but troubled by the lack of freedom of expression. 
Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies who was in Havana with Ms. Brout’s group, said the center would add variety to existing programs to appeal to people-to-people travelers. The new rules, she said, opened the way for other trips focusing on things like gender politics, film or Cuba in transition.
“You spend a day in a dance class, and then in the evening, you can go to a club and dance with Cubans. And you’re not breaking any rules,” she said. “That’s great.”
Several visitors said they would like to come back on people-to-people trips exploring different aspects of Cuban life.
Al Chiodi, 50, from Eustis, Fla., who came for the food sovereignty program, said he would like to return to look at art and architecture. “Would I want to explore more?” asked Mr. Chiodi, who runs a business center that includes several green business initiatives. “Yes, I certainly would. There are so many aspects I would like to see.”
These trips vary in cost, but Global Exchange offers 10- to 12-day visits to Cuba for $2,400 to $2,875, including a round-trip flight fromCancúnMexico, to Havana, visa costs and three-star accommodations.
The Center For Cuban Studies does not publish prices for trips, but Ms. Levinson said a one-week trip, including accommodations, a round-trip flight from Miami, visa costs and a donation to the center, runs $2,200 to $2,800.
For the travelers, Cuba, like most destinations, surpassed expectations on some fronts and disappointed on others. Ms. Slezak was baffled by meals of soggy vegetables, processed meat and powdered egg, especially after all the organic farms she saw, while Ms. Brout, who had been warned there might be no soap, was surprised to find shampoo and a hair dryer in her bathroom at the Hotel Nacional in Havana.
By the last day, Ms. Brout was dying to relax by the pool, she said. But she did not regret seeing so much art.
“I don’t think I would have traded it for the world,” she said. “I don’t think I know Havana very well for the squares and things tourists get to see, but I think I am much richer for what I saw.”

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