Wednesday, October 24, 2012

People to people travel rescued but not safe

       by John McAuliff, Fund for Reconciliation and Development

In January of 2011 President Obama finally returned travel for most Americans to more or less the situation under President Clinton. “More” in that universities and religious organizations received general, no need to apply, licenses. “Less” because third party providers of study abroad were shut out completely and licenses were issued for only one year.

The category that opened the door to all Americans to visit Cuba was people to people, in which the only prerequisite was willingness and ability to pay for a group trip with a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities...that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

The devil was in the details, how would such amorphous language be implemented. What subjective and political screen would be in place behind the very closed doors of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), still led by a Bush appointee. In the first year OFAC approved about one in three license applications, and imposed a one year time limit. It seemingly had more enthusiasm for trips that looked more like high end educational tourism, and less for those focused on substantive interaction.

But even that was too much for the hard liners in Congress. They hid behind the claim that the small increment of Americans in a universe of 2.5 million tourists significantly subsidized the regime they hate. In reality their accurate fear was that the more people travel to Cuba the more challenge will arise to the US diplomatic and economic embargo.

The ultras tried to slip in a rider to the comprehensive appropriations bill in December that would gut travel, but the President faced them down. Their next tactic was hostage taking. Rubio denounced on the Senate floor both the biggest (Insight Cuba) and oldest (Center for Cuban Studies) providers of open registration travel, then put on hold the confirmation of the Assistant Secretary of State and several ambassadors. He only withdrew his unilateral objection when, he claimed, the Administration agreed to tighten licensing for travel. OFAC dutifully produced new guidelines in May but they seemed only face saving for Rubio in that the new language was in an either/or format allowing easy renewal.

Describe how the educational and people-to-people exchanges you propose would enhance contact with the Cuban people, and/or support civil society in Cuba, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.

However in practice, OFAC demanded unreasonable amounts of detail and justification and turned down completely qualified renewals.

The head of an organization that actually received a license renewal wrote me:

Well, the first version totaled 17,000 words as I did not toss out a generic template but rather specified two or so events each AM and PM.

A few weeks after they received that, I received an email from OFAC staff stating that it was not immediately clear in all instances how "[our] encounters resulted in meaningful engagement for both travelers and Cubans."

This sort of surprised me. For instance, in stating that with met with a grandparent's group in Línea street to discuss the challenges that seniors face on both sides of the Straits seemed pretty obvious to me what the meaningful engagement component was. Thus, I copied and pasted the above phrase after every encounter and then spelled out plainly (with some tautology it seems to me) the value added: "Both groups shared their experiences with senior health-care issues. Cubans did not complain about the price of health care, but rather the lack of prescription drugs, food, and linens in hospitals. Americans complained about the cost. Both groups agreed that seniors should be valued more in their respective countries."

That sort of thing.

Bottom line: I had to send them a 25,000 word document!

And what skills do OFAC staff have in assessing what is meaningful engagement? Why is UST meddling in that nonsense? And where is the Tea Party and the strict constitutionalists when you need them?
Insight Cuba, Rubio's prime target went through an excruciating process, being forced to cancel trips and lay off staff as it sought to write and rewrite more than 140 pages of detail OFAC ostensibly sought.

In late August, Ellen Creager blew the roof off with an article in the Detroit Free Press. Many additional stories in mass media and trade publications followed. Three petitions were launched and pro-travel Congressional staff met with OFAC.

Six weeks later the log jam appeared to break. Insight Cuba was renewed, and even our license finally came through after six revisions and a year and a half of waiting. Presumably someone in the Administration or Obama campaign noticed that the President's opening and credibility were at stake. However organizations that were licensed later than Insight are still awaiting renewal, including Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Austin-Lehman.

OFAC justifies the delay on the grounds that it is understaffed. However, that is a self-created problem based on a policing mentality which treats Cuba as an enemy and suspects the motives of anyone who wants to go there. Were OFAC simply registering programs and checking the credentials of organizations rather than trying to second guess intentions and censoring those it dislikes, the process would be far simpler and faster.

The Administration could solve the problem easily by just removing OFAC and Congressional pressure from the process. All purposeful travel can receive the same kind of general license as was granted to Cuban American, universities and religious organizations. The Administration should also allow all US travel agents and tour operators to book flights and programs for authorized travelers. This will make Cuba available to a far wider American population, including families and backpackers, and reduce costs significantly by allowing use of public transportation, rental cars and privately owned casas particulares (bed and breakfasts).

The perverse character of current US policy is that Americans are forced by OFAC to use group trips which can only be organized in-country by state companies which naturally use state hotels, restaurants and transportation. OFAC has denied licenses because they included visits to private markets and cuenta propistas (the self-employed) and self-directed time to personally explore life at the grass roots. Programs and facilities provided by the state companies are generally quite good, but it is odd for the US government to be their source of clients.

OFAC reached new heights of absurdity by requiring in July that all visas be issued by the Cuban consulate that is part of the Interests Section in Washington. Up until then charter airlines and Travel Service Providers (TSP) simply issued tourist cards, marking up the cost to around $40. The Cuban consulate collects $75 per visa and the TSP adds a service charge for assembling and forwarding documents. Unless OFAC has a secret agenda of employing Cuban government workers and increasing state revenues, its only conceivable motive was to make arranging travel more complicated and time-consuming. Ironically Americans who use the five day a week commercial flight from Grand Cayman to Havana can with complete legality pay $20 for a tourist card at check in.

If President Obama is reelected, he could fundamentally transform the US-Cuba relationship, as outlined by NPR's Nick Miroff in the Global Post

However, just as with license renewals, public opinion matters. A SignOn/ petition that advocates trusting the American people and provision of a general license for all purposeful non-tourist travel is attracting signatures here

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