Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Perspective on the President's Opportunity to Expand Travel

President Obama has opened the door part way for travel to Cuba.  

His remarks in Miami in November suggest the White House is preparing to take the next step:  “we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies” 

Ten days later Secretary of State Kerry, in his speech to the Interamerican Dialog program at the hall of the Organization of American States, added this specificity
“We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors. They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.” 

Last January Cuba gave greater freedom to it citizens than Americans possess when it abolished rules requiring government authorization of travel.  

Will the President respond and open the door further for us in the New Year?

It is estimated that 350,000 Cuban Americans returned to their homeland under a general license in 2012 which does not require application to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  It is assumed that most of the 98,000 other Americans who traveled used the people to people specific license obtained from OFAC although some were covered by a general license for universities and religious organizations.  (OFAC does not release figures on the number of specific licenses issued, nor the names of the recipients, and has no data on the use of general licenses.)  

The authorization and renewal process for a specific license is unpredictable, unconscionably slow and expensive in terms of staff time and/or for lawyers.  OFAC staff are required to evaluate the motivation of trip promoters and the likely experience of Americans in a country about which they have limited often prejudicial knowledge and no direct experience.  

Each decision on a specific license is subject to scrutiny by members of the House and Senate who oppose all travel.  They suffered a melt-down when Beyonce and Jay-Z were seen in Havana, just as they erupted when Presidents Obama and Castro politely shook hands at a high level people to people occasion, the memorial for Nelson Mandela.

OFAC licenses require tightly programmed group travel that can only be undertaken through Cuban government sanctioned receiving agencies and  guide/interpreters.  The existing tours provide invaluable insight for first time travelers and channel useful contacts, but are inappropriate for families, young people, others on a limited budget, and persons who want to create an independent itinerary.  Follow-up trips to deepen personal or professional relationships are virtually impossible.

Most OFAC regulations have not been changed since the Bush Administration.  They are punitive (no souvenirs), discourage normal access by Americans to counterparts (at conferences), and counterproductive, inhibiting spontaneous and informal contact.  It is virtually impossible to stay in privately owned bed and breakfasts, rent cars or use public transportation, options available to everyone else in the world.

Licensed US not-for-profits (including my own) and commercial tour operators, travel service providers and charter carriers were responsible for organizing and transporting virtually all legal American visitors.  Based on our experience over the last three years, the President should consider modifications in US policy and regulations such as are listed below. Some are in the economic self-interest of current providers; some are not. As a package they will contribute to the goals set forth by the President:

1)      Make clear to the Senate-House Appropriations Conference Committee that House language that seeks to destroy people to people travel and cripple family travel is completely unacceptable and will prompt a veto.

2)      Address the problem of banking by Cuba’s diplomatic and consular institutions in the US by ending sanctions against Cuba’s international dollar transactions.  (This will assure normal issuance of visas and passports for US citizens and residents and not incidentally benefit transfers affecting the operation of the US Interests Section and sales of US agricultural produce.)

3)      Ask Cuba in return to remove the linked 10% surcharge on dollar-CUC exchanges, thus increasing the value of remittances and payments by licensed US visitors. 

4)      Authorize US banks to arrange credit and debit card use in Cuba and US mobile phone companies to establish roaming agreements.

5)      Extend to all Americans engaging in purposeful travel to Cuba the same self-qualifying general license now provided to Cuban Americans, universities and religious organizations.  (A lesser but still welcome reform would be to authorize general licenses for all IRS recognized not-for-profit 501c3 organizations.)

6)      End the privileged and encumbered status of licensed Travel Service Providers (TSP), and allow all US travel agents, tour operators and organizations to promote and book programs for legally authorized travelers.  (Currently most TSPs are Cuban American companies located in Florida or New Jersey.  In addition to broadening the geographical outreach of promoters and providers, and creating hundreds of jobs nationally, this will eliminate exceptional administrative costs TSPs  currently pass on to travelers.)

7)      Remove all prohibitions on Americans organizing and participating in educational, cultural and professional conferences in Cuba.

8)      Allow authorized travelers to bring Cuban products home with them for souvenirs and personal gifts, precluding only commercial quantities for resale.

9)      Permit Cuban musicians to receive normal compensation for performances in the US, just as is available for Cuban academics.

10)    Clarify that US higher education institutions can provide full scholarship and living expense grants to graduate and professional school students from Cuba.  

11)    Initiate discussions with Cuba to establish Fulbright fellowships even before economic and diplomatic relations are normal, as occurred with Vietnam.

These steps will take an administrative, political and psychological burden off the limited staff of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.   They can concentrate on serious commercial violations of embargo law, including any effort to commercialize sun and sand all inclusive holidays. 

Opponents of all travel will complain that general licenses permit cheating.  No doubt some travelers will slip off for a day or two of relaxation at Playas del Este or Cayo Santa Maria, but that is far offset by the benefit of opening grass roots American interaction with Cubans.  No one knows how much time general licensed Cuban American travelers actually spend with family, or even if they have any that qualify, beyond their check of a box on the TSP reservation form.

The elimination of bureaucratic operational costs for current people-to-people organizers and Travel Service Providers will allow them to charge less to clients.  Existing businesses and organizations are well positioned to compete in an open market based on their experience and knowledge even as they lose the advantage of a government induced oligopoly. 

More significant relaxation of travel restrictions will also open Cuba to a far wider range of our “best ambassadors”, including minorities and others who cannot afford current cost levels, and travelers who do not wish to limit their contact with the Cuban people to group tours vetted by both governments.

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