Political row over Cuba travel touches down in Fallbrook
BY TOM PFINGSTEN FOR THE NORTH COUNTY TIMES
In a second-floor office overlooking Alvarado Street in Fallbrook, Michael Sykes and his staff spent the summer in the middle of a 50-year-old international debate over the Cuban economic embargo.
It has been a unique and perilous struggle for a small, specialized travel agency caught up in a heated debate ranging from the streets of Havana to the Cuban-American community in South Florida to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.
And now, after a year of facilitating dialogue between ordinary Americans and Cubans, Sykes said politically driven changes at the Treasury Department have brought his business, Cuba Cultural Travel, to the brink.
Sykes applied for a so-called "people-to-people" license in February 2011, after the Obama administration relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba.
The program is overseen by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control, which is charged with making sure its licensees are not taking Americans on pleasure tours around the Communist Caribbean island.
The yearlong license was set to expire in July, and Sykes applied for a renewal in April. The rules were changed in May, so he reapplied once more and "found out last week that they denied it" without explanation.
With an expired license, Sykes cannot accept money or advertise. Dozens of his customers are on hold or have received cancellation notices while Cuba Cultural Travel and scores of other small businesses around the nation struggle to renew their annual licenses.
"The idea is that we don't want people going there and just sitting around, drinking on the beach," Sykes explained. "We want them to interact with the Cuban people, share their thoughts and ideology, and in return, get something back from the Cubans. They have to travel with someone who's got a license, like me, and they have to be in a group."
The embargo began in October 1960 and has been fortified with new laws and rules several times since then.
According to Sykes ---- a longtime Cuba observer who had a people-to-people license in the early 2000s under President Bill Clinton's relaxed travel guidelines ---- the recent changes spilled over after Marco Rubio, the junior Republican senator from Florida, took issue with the concept of "people-to-people."
Critics, including Sen. Rubio, allege that the program is a cover for luxurious sightseeing tours through an exotic city made more alluring to Americans by five decades of restricted access.
But Sykes knows better.
"We do really good work," he said. "We do interact with people, we do make a difference there, we are helping with free enterprise. I mean, there's so many benefits to what we're doing in Cuba."
His tours, including groups organized through the Fallbrook School of the Arts as a fundraiser for the nonprofit campus, always include intimate gatherings with artists and musicians.
After his renewal request was denied, Sykes resubmitted a full application. His office is still awaiting word on its status.
"The people-to-people program remains robust and we are working to turn around the license applications we have received as quickly as possible," Hagar Hajjar Chemali, a spokesperson for the assets control office, wrote in a statement on Tuesday.
Jeff Braunger, the Treasury Department program manager for Cuba travel licensing, added that "we have issued and continue to issue renewals to applicants that demonstrate that they qualify for a license under this program.
"We revised the license application criteria to stress to applicants the seriousness of the requirements of the people-to-people licensing program, in part because of reports we received concerning travel under the licenses," wrote Braunger.
He did not elaborate on what those "reports" said or which tour guides they mentioned, but Sykes and others are disheartened by the revival of a debate that many had hoped would begin to subside.
"You can travel pretty much anywhere you want in the world," he told me. "The fact that Americans can't travel to Cuba is very un-American."