Saturday, November 23, 2019

Updated paper Travel: Symbol of and Vehicle for Change"

 Edited Spanish version presented to Congreso de Pensamiento, Holguin, Cuba 10/23/19
(revised and updated from talk presented at XVI Edicion de la Serie de Conversaciones Cuba en la Politica Exterior de los Estados Unidos de America del 13 - 15 de diciembre de 2017
Centro de Investigaciones de Politica Internacional (CIPI)
Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales  (ISRI)

When I wrote the original version of this paper in 2017,  I expected to be able to describe an uneven progression towards near normalcy for travel between our countries.    However, events have muddied the waters and the future is harder to chart—although ultimately positive.

Before the revolution in 1959, Cuba was the primary Caribbean destination for Americans and we provided 80% of its visitors.

Being able to drink legally during prohibition was certainly an early attraction, but Mafia investments in hotels, gambling, drugs and prostitution transformed the destination in the 1950s.  At least as important were the same attractions that bring millions of visitors today: history, culture, baseball, beaches and the engaging people of Cuba—plus the ease of arrival whether by air, cruise line or by ferry.

Symbolically the ninth convention of ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents (recently renamed “Travel Advisers”), took place at the former Havana Hilton from October 17 to 24, 1959.  According to a post by FIT Cuba 

More than two thousand travel agents from 82 countries, accompanied by their families, visited the Cuban capital. These were unprecedented figures when compared to the previous eight conventions.”

Fidel Castro was a special guest, warmly received when he declared,

we in Cuba are very happy and grateful to you for honoring us all with your presence … please put all your political ideas aside. You and your friends are professionals, not politicians, and your mission is to help your friends find the happiness our world may provide.

We don’t have many things; we are not an industrialized country and lack a number of things, but in the field of tourism we have many advantages, like our sea, bays, beaches, all kinds of medicinal waters, mountains, game and fishing preserves, and the best temperature in the world. 

He went on to say,

“we are determined to develop tourism as much as possible, with a good service and, especially, fair prices, because rather than having 100,000 people paying for expensive hotel rooms and items we would like many hundreds of thousands to come, not only the wealthy but also those who are not rich and those who have no other fortune than their job… our ambition, which is a well-intended ambition, is to turn our Island into the best vacation resort and the most important destination worldwide.”

Presciently he noted

“We’re aware of the fact that many U.S. citizens come here with wrong ideas and then they find exactly the opposite of what they believed. That’s why we think that regardless of all the propaganda against Cuba we will make headway and have more tourists every year. Who is telling the truth, those who lie or those who open the doors of the nation for everyone to come and see for themselves what is truly going on in Cuba”

For just that reason, the threat of reality overcoming propaganda, the end of US tourism was a major and, for many years, a successful goal of the embargo. 

It dovetailed with Cuba’s disinterest in tourism in the initial decades of the revolution.  As the country’s turn toward socialism faced growing threats from the US, Fidel’s early enthusiasm apparently cooled.   Tourism flourished domestically, but until the mid-1970s foreign visitors were largely welcomed from politically aligned countries or movements, either as holiday rewards or as demonstrations of solidarity.  Conventional tourism was seen as carrying the subversive seeds of social inequality.  Cruises received special denigration.

Entry to Cuba was also discouraged by obstacles created by neighbors who followed the US goal of isolating and undermining the revolution.  I remember that on my first trip to Cuba in 1971 even Mexico only allowed us to transit by air to Cuba but not to return.  As a result we went home via a freighter to Canada in the dead of winter.

From the beginning, there were people who ignored the travel embargo, either acting in solidarity with the revolution or simply because they resented US government infringement on their personal freedom.  The Office of Foreign Assets Control chased after violators, penalizing them with fines and intimidation, notably through constant repetition of overstated legal risks in newspaper articles.   Individual travelers were most vulnerable, often settling for payment of reduced fines rather than risk criminal prosecution.  Probably the first US NGO to send visitors was Sandy Levinson’s Center for Cuban Studies in 1973.  Its delegation of lawyers used the loophole of being fully hosted by Cuba.  The Venceremos Brigade and later Pastors for Peace famously defied the travel embargo with little consequence.

President John Kennedy imposed travel restrictions in 1963 and President Jimmy Carter let them lapse in 1977, the same year that Interest Sections were opened in both capitals.  However, the opportunity for a breakthrough was missed.  On the Cuban side there was not the political interest or capacity to open the door to commercial tourism from the US, nor did US companies take advantage of the opportunity.  President Ronald Reagan reimposed restrictions in 1982. 

The change of perspective on the Cuban side began in the mid 1970s, but dramatic change is linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to obtain new sources of national income during the Special Period. 

Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and Linda McGlynn of the Center for Urban Studies at SUNY Buffalo wrote in 2009:

“International tourist arrivals in Cuba fell from a peak of 272,000 in 1958 to less than 4000 annually from 1959 until 1973. By 1975, Cuba had begun to promote tourism reaching over 300,000 visitors annually by 1990. As the Special Period began, the industry exploded during the nineties and by 2000, the number of tourist arrivals to Cuba had doubled.”  [“International tourism in Cuba: Can capitalism be used to save socialism?”]

A growing stream of Americans illegally joined the stream, flying from Mexico, Canada or Jamaica and usually escaping sanction.  However, legal travel for a diverse clientele only began in the Clinton Administration.    Clinton did not believe he had the authority to unilaterally end the embargo with Cuba as he had with Vietnam, but he could provide categories of licensing to provide exceptions.  Thus began the process of applying to OFAC for approval of a specific license on a trip by trip basis.   Initially that was not so complicated and my organization was one of many to do so, even without using a lawyer.  Cuban Americans were allowed to visit once a year, plus anytime for humanitarian reasons, but no effort was made to enforce that limit.

It was not lost on the hard line ultras among Cuban Americans that the negative propaganda about their homeland was losing effect as more and more mainstream Americans personally witnessed and even enjoyed a more complicated reality.  Regardless of whether visitors admired or despaired of Cuba’s political and economic system, they came home convinced that the Cuban people did not hate Americans and that the embargo was harmful to average people and counterproductive.

The tactic adopted by the ultras to challenge Clinton’s opening was Brothers to the Rescue.  It used a humanitarian mission of saving refugees at sea to mask deliberately provocative flights dropping political leaflets over Havana in blatant violation of national airspace.  One can argue that Cuba had no alternative in defense of its sovereignty, or that it swallowed the bait of Miami.  In any case the political reaction in the US to the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes led to Clinton’s support of the infamous Helms-Burton legislation and no more opening of travel based on executive authority.   In 2000 the legal authorization of agricultural sales was paired with the codification of categories of permitted purposeful travel.

Although President George Bush took power with the help of Cuban American interference in the vote count in Florida, he initially made little change in Clinton’s travel regulations.  There was considerable bipartisan momentum in Congress to find ways of ending travel restrictions.  The Miami ultras response this time came via allies in the Administration.  James Cason, the head of the US Interests Section, had been directed by superiors in the State Department to create enough provocations to push the Cubans to close it.  His notoriously direct and public engagement with US government supported dissidents led to a large number of arrests and controversial trials that were labeled internationally as the Black Spring and widely denounced in the US and Europe.   Again Cuba could be seen as defending its sovereignty, but the political consequence in the US was the total collapse of Congressional efforts for freedom of travel and agricultural sales, much to the satisfaction of the ultras. 

As President Bush approached his reelection campaign,  he paid his political debt to Miami, drastically restricted travel licenses and limited Cuban Americans to one trip in three years with no humanitarian exceptions.  However by 2007, enforcement was virtually ended because the appeals process had ground to a halt.  Violations by Cuban Americans were completely ignored except when a company tried to profit from them.

When President Obama took office, he brought an anti-embargo disposition but also political caution of how fast he could proceed.   As promised during his campaign, and despite pressure from some Cuban American supporters, he fundamentally transformed the relationship between the Cuban diaspora and their country of origin in April 2009, an approach welcomed by the government in Havana.  He ended all restrictions on their travel and on remittances, permitting a process of grass roots family investment that fit well into the new Cuban reality outlined by the Lineamientos and the initiatives of President Raul Castro.

There were news stories at the time that Obama also was considering travel for the rest of us but the White House acceded to pressure from Senator Menendez.   Obama did restore the definition of categories from the Clinton era in January 2011.   There was a boom in licensed group tours, but OFAC created arbitrary and politicized obstacles in both the application and renewal processes that limited most access to those with expensive legal support.  During this time, my organization was denied a license five times until Senator Leahy’s office intervened, at the same time it also successfully challenged unduly bureaucratic renewal requirements. 

The ultras weapon this time was USAID democracy programs that their allies had rushed to create in the closing months of the Bush Administration but that were implemented during the ignorant or uncaring tenure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Among them was the contract received by Alan Gross to set up a network of satellite linked internet communications.  Instead of apologizing for and terminating such programs, Clinton played into the hands of the ultras making Gross’s imprisonment a human rights cause celebre and an obstacle to any further opening.  Her position that the US had the right to unilaterally sponsor projects in Cuba naturally inflamed Havana’s sensitivity to infringement of sovereignty.  The issue became more complicated when Cuba chose to link the release of Gross to freedom for the Cuban Five.  One can only speculate what the consequences might have been if the Gross issue had been quickly resolved through mutual compromise and Obama had opened the door to wide scale travel in his first term rather than waiting until January 2015.

The decisive transformation made by Obama at that time was to turn the Clinton categories of specifically licensed travel into self-regulated general licenses, removing all bureaucratic impediments of an application process.  That enabled virtually any group or travel business to organize its own trip under the people to people general license.  The description of purpose and internal administration of group trips was not changed, but absent a requirement for applications and renewals they were virtually unenforceable.  The separate licensing of travel providers by OFAC was also ended.

A moment of silence for victims of terrorism in Europe before the US-Cuba baseball game.

The final step of Obama on March 15, 2016, was to permit individuals, families and friends to organize travel independently under the individual general license for people to people travel.  This dramatically opened travel to Americans who could not afford or disliked group travel—or who wanted to share Cuba with their children.  A natural consequence was the increase of business for Cuba’s emerging private sector of casas particulares and paladars as well as support enterprises, thanks to dramatically reduced costs and the convenience of direct credit card payment on line in the US for commercial flights and to AirBnB. 

At this stage one could say travel had become nearly normal, barring only all-inclusive beach holidays.

The character and goals of the Trump Administration are well illustrated by travel.  Some of us had been optimistic that Trump would leave alone or even expand Obama’s initiatives.  His professional involvement in the leisure industry had led him to fund an illegal exploratory team in Cuba and a legal delegation to discuss golf courses and hotel.  A participant in the second trip, the Trump Organization’s counsel, Jason Greenblatt, whose father or father in law emigrated from Cuba seemed will disposed toward normalization and had been given a special portfolio on Cuba in the new Administration.

Even when Trump gave an anti-Obama red meat political speech in June in Miami, the changes he proposed in travel were substantively minor.  Untouched were virtually all forms of travel, including group tours, cultural exchanges (such as the Irish traditional music and dance performances we undertook in Holguin and Santiago in 2017) and the most touristic kind of interaction, cruise ships.  His attack on hotels under GAESA could have been easily countered by restoring Habaguanex to the Historian’s office, reopening most of the banned facilities used by Americans in Habana Vieja.   His elimination of the individual general license was minimized by the widening of a different path for independent travelers under a different license category, Support for the Cuban People.

Irish, Irish American and Cuban musicians perform traditional music for dance practice in Holguin, November 2017

Despite the unjustified 60 % draw down of US diplomats in September, the June model was largely implemented when the new OFAC regulations were announced in November of 1917.  Support for the Cuban People was modified so it no longer was restricted for use by people who embodied a subversive agenda.  (see text below)

Despite this reality, the number of US visitors plummeted.  In part that is due to the political climate.  Hostile words, even from an unpopular and morally discredited President, change the atmosphere for uncertain travelers impacted by half a century of conflict and mistrust.

The drawdown of US diplomats bureaucratically obligated an unjustified travel warning in January 2018 because of the limited capacity to provide services to US citizens.  In addition to the psychological impact flowing from half a century of negativity about Cuba, a travel warning triggered insurance and legal prohibitions on university, business and other institutional travelers.
The New York Times, for example canceled three months of group tours to Cuba because of diminished interest and canceled reservations.  Even its affluent and relatively well-informed clients were easily scared off.

We still don’t know what was behind the mysterious illness said to have afflicted US and Canadian government personnel in Havana.   Cuba says it was all psychological or a deliberate ruse to reverse improving relations.  The original victims were reportedly US intelligence operatives.  That could fit into a narrative of a false provocation or it could mean they were a deliberate target of some force opposed to normalization.  Canadian research now points to the chemical biological effects of heavy spraying of insecticide.  The postulation of a chemical cause opens the door to suspicion of specific targeting.  It is also possible that the problems were the unintended consequence of the interaction of surveillance and counter-surveillance technology that neither side wants to acknowledge.

In any case, it is certain that the ultras quickly moved to exploit the situation.  Senator Rubio and four colleagues had called for the US to close both embassies a few days before Secretary Tillerson withdrew 60% of staff, perhaps to prevent worse.  Rubio held hearings during he ascribed the blame to a hard line faction in Cuba or a country that wanted to undermine US-Cuba relations.  Oddly Rubio also interjected that “it was not us”, meaning his collaborators in the US.  Rubio and Rep. Diaz-Ballart also criticized the revised travel restrictions as having been subverted by the bureaucracy so their game was not over.

Despite the State Department’s apparent intention to make Support for the Cuban People a replacement for the individual general license, the published language, although modified favorably, was open to misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation for reasons of economic self-interest or politics.   In my view if the goal of travelers is to promote independent activity to strengthen legal civil society and their activities enhance meaningful contact with the Cuban people, their presence in Cuba will be seen positively by authorities in both countries as legitimate support for the emerging private sector.  

If they are motivated by the other listed goals (support for “Recognized human rights organizations;  Independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy”) and act on them, their presence could be regarded as intrusive and not respectful of Cuba's sovereignty.   The same could have been said for then legal group people to people tours which were politically justified by the same presumptuous language.

The ultras no doubt welcomed the effective termination of US visa granting authority as the result of withdrawal of diplomats.  They are spared the permanent addition of at least 20,000 Cuban immigrants annually, most of whom will eventually become anti-embargo voters, and of tens of thousands of non-immigrant visitors who deepen personal links across the straights. 

No doubt the ultras were hoping that the drastically diminished utility of the embassy could lead Cuba to righteous actions that can be used to justify termination of diplomatic relations.  If in fact the Trump Administration strategy is to make the embassy a facade, the effective Cuban response would be to make it more real by constantly inviting participation by US diplomats in broader aspects of Cuban society than has been the case.

The political climate changed when John Bolton was named to lead the National Security Council and he chose Mauricio Claver-Carone to head its department of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  Bolton had a history of anti-Cuba actions during the Bush Administration, including the charge that Cuba was engaged in bacteriological warfare research, a lie intended to undermine the historic visit by former President Carter.  Claver-Carone was the principle Washington lobbyist opposed to President Obama’s policy on Cuba.  He published a blog called Capitol Hill Cubans (that can still be read on line) and directed the Cuba Democracy PAC which funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Republican and Democratic candidates all over the country. 

The Bolton/Claver-Carone presence was first felt when the US launched a regime change campaign against Venezuela.  They convinced President Trump, prominent politicians of both parties and much of the US media that Juan Guaido had legal and political legitimacy and would be welcomed by the Venezuelan people and military.  While they enjoyed early diplomatic success, and claimed recognition of Guaido over Maduro by over 50 countries in the Western Hemisphere and Europe, every subsequent tactic failed.  They explicitly saw the collapse of Venezuela as a path to also overthrowing the government of Cuba.  The people of  Venezuela and Cuba suffered harsh economic sanctions but the strategy failed and President Trump concluded he had been misled.

Their direct attack on Cuba was launched in Bolton’s speech to veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April.  It is likely that Claver-Carone wrote it and he was present in the audience.  Bolton announced an intention to restrict remittances to $1000 a quarter and restrictions on travel to stop “veiled tourism”, a favorite talking point by Claver-Carone against Obama. 

Significantly these goals did not become regulations until June 5th when President Trump was in Europe, visiting the Queen of England and commemorating the D-Day invasion.  One can speculate that the timing was deliberate to avoid last minute intervention by the President and those on his staff who favor travel.

The most destructive step was against cruises, whose rapid growth was particularly aggravating for the ultras.  The cruise companies were shocked that the restrictions imposed by the Department of Commerce would be immediate and total, unlike the treatment by OFAC of people to people ground tours that were grandfathered, i.e. could take place if payments had already been made.  Customers arrived at docks in Florida to learn that the boat they were boarding would not go to Havana.  The cruise lines lost 800,000 passengers and enough revenue that their stock declined in value by as much as 5%.  Some of the larger tour operators for whom Cuba represented only a small portion of business gave up when people to people hotel based tours were also forbidden.  The agencies that specialize in Cuba relabled their programs as Support for the Cuban People. 

The biggest difference was that they normally needed to place travelers in privately owned bed and breakfasts rather than state hotels.  For all but small groups, the itinerary still had to be organized through the State receiving agencies.

Although there were still pathways, US travel declined dramatically.  The political atmosphere set by the government is a big factor in relieving or increasing anxieties created by decades of conflict and propaganda from both sides.  The reason for the great success of the cruises is that they created a safe bubble while providing a taste of once forbidden Cuba.

Regrettably the cruise companies, the big tour operators and the airlines did almost nothing to oppose the damage to their business and to the people of Cuba for whom they presumably cared.  They could have used their prestige and wealth to lobby the White House and Congress.  Even more important, they failed to mobilize any of the million US citizens they had brought to Cuba.

Claver-Carone claims that the limits on travel are designed to keep dollars away from the Cuban state and military and the enterprises they control and profit from.   Were that the case they would be promoting independent travel.  In fact their goal is to destroy anything that undermines their hostile and prejudiced narrative about Cuba.  American visitors carry home a variety of positive and negative impressions of Cuba, but few if any agree with the embargo and regime change—or with restrictions on travel.

The following data demonstrates how rapid the growth of US visitors , even in the first year of the Trump Administration when the rules were in effect unchanged.  The growth can largely be attributed to cruise passengers.  2019 figures up to the end of September reflect also cruise traffic up until June 5th.





Cubanos en el exterior (todos)

Estados Unidos (no C-A)




What happens next?

Everything has become more complicated and negative.  There have been a series of annoyances initiated by the Trump Administration.  Two Cuban representatives to the UN were expelled for undertaking “influence” with US citizens, a normal practice all over the world, including by US diplomats in Cuba. One of them was my principle interlocuter with the UN Mission.  Aspects of the embargo have been tightened, some symbolic, some with practical consequences. Most recently the US  denied Cubana de Aviacion and Gaviota the right to rent safe aircraft from European companies. 

Ending the suspension of Title III in Helms-Burton has created legal complexity for US and international business engaged with Cuba.  At the end, US and Cuban Americans who claim ownership of property nationalized in Cuba may never gain anything but the costs of lawyers and of uncertainty for prospective investors are high—and give them one more reason to repeal Helms-Burton.

Much of what has transpired may be attributable to Claver-Carone, a skilled bureaucratic practitioner.  A vital question is when he follows Bolton out the door.  If he does, we could see a more reasonable approach to Cuba, even in this Administration.  My personal fantasy is that in return for Cuban support for a political solution in Venezuela, Trump supports legislation to end all travel restrictions.  We are very close to a majority in the Senate already and can expect success in the House.  A legislative end of all restrictions would permit return of cruises and real tourism at all-inclusive resorts as well as an upsurge of independent individual and family visits.

If Cuba opened the sector to private Cuban travel agencies, tour operators and guides as transformed Vietnamese tourism, the direct impact on the economy would be dramatic.

The elephant in the room is how Trump responds to his very likely impeachment by the House of Representatives.  During this period of great political stress, he may avoid any change that could upset his allies in Florida.  However, he might also calculate that an agreement for fair and open UN supervised elections in Venezuela combined with an historic commercial breakthrough in travel with Cuba could build broader support and be more consistent with his anti-interventionism and business orientation. (Trump sent two teams to Cuba to explore hotel and golf course opportunities before he ran for President.)

In any case, our Presidential election of November 2020 is promising for a serious opening of reasonable relations with Cuba.  Every Democratic candidate who is already a Senator is already a cosponsor of legislation to end all travel restrictions.  Jill Biden, the wife of the former Vice President, was an enthusiastic visitor to Camaguey, as you can see from a White House video on line.  Several candidates have already promised to end the full embargo, the “bloqueo”.
Just as Beijing's arrogance in the South China Sea and Moscow’s in Ukraine damage their security by strengthening US ties with Vietnam and Ukraine, Washington's arrogance toward Cuba gives strategic benefit to Russia and China.

The essential reforms to improve daily life in Cuba are a completely domestic matter, but at least we can anticipate that within eighteen months the US will no longer be such an obstacle, and could even become a partner.  It can be very dark before the dawn.

  --John McAuliff, Fund for Reconciliation and Development, 10/23/19

Full text of Support for the Cuban People section

§515.574   Support for the Cuban People.

(a) General license. The travel-related transactions set forth in §515.560(c) and other transactions that are intended to provide support for the Cuban people are authorized, provided that:

(1) The activities are of:

(i) Recognized human rights organizations;

(ii) Independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; 

(iii) Individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba; and

(2) Each traveler engages in a full-time schedule of activities that:

Enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities; and

Result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.

(3) The traveler's schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.

Note that virtually identical language describes authorized people to people educational travel for groups:
§515.565   Educational activities.
(b) General license for people-to-people travel.
 (2) Travel-related transactions pursuant to this authorization are for the purpose of engaging, while in Cuba, in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities;
(3) Each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba;

My layman's interpretation:  if a travelers’ view of their goal is to promote independent activity to strengthen civil society and their activities enhance contact with the result of meaningful interaction, their presence in Cuba will be positive in support of the emerging private sector and they qualify for this general license.  If they are motivated by the other listed goals and act on them, their presence could be regarded as intrusive and not respectful of Cuba's sovereignty.
  -- John McAuliff