Re-capping restrictions on travel to Cuba under Trump
By Chris Vazquez
HAVANA TIMES – On Friday January 10th, the Trump administration canceled charter flights to all Cuban cities except Havana. Airlines would have sixty days to discontinue operations to the nine Cuban cities that received American charters.
A devastating blow to both Cuban families and the struggling Cuban private sector, this change is only the latest in a series of restrictions implemented by the Trump administration that have constituted a reversal of Obama’s policy of normalization through engagement with Cuba. To ensure we’re all on the same page, I believe a recap of these changes is in order.
In an effort to start at the beginning, it is worth mentioning that the United States has both a travel ban and an economic embargo in place against Cuba. Given its nature as a law, the travel ban can only be lifted by Congress. However, there are certain exempt categories of approved travel that allow Americans to travel to. Since the travel ban’s inception, though, anyone wishing to travel to Cuba under an approved category would still require a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
When former president Barack Obama began the detente with Cuba in December of 2014, he made one important change to the travel ban. Unable to lift the ban entirely without the approval of Congress, Obama’s claim to fame in this area was shifting the need for a specific license from OFAC to a general license. This meant that any American could simply book a flight to Cuba, buy her visa online, and travel to the island under the presumption that she was doing so under one of the (previously twelve) approved categories.
Once the change was formalized and the messaging was that “Americans can once again travel to the formerly forbidden fruit that is Cuba,” a bonanza of U.S. travel to the island ensued — Commercial flights were re-instated, cruises began running, tour companies shifted into gear, and the general urgency to visit the island was heightened by the somewhat selfish attitude of “Let’s go to Cuba before it changes.” For all intents and purposes, business was booming.
I will be the first to admit that I have no idea how Trump personally feels toward Cuba. I do know that he has explored constructing hotels and golf courses there in the past. However, I also know that it doesn’t matter.
Anyone who follows US-Cuba relations knows very well that American foreign policy toward Cuba is dictated almost entirely by the isolationist Cuban American politicians within the Miami exile community.
Referred to as “hardliners,” names like Marco Rubio and the Díaz-Balart brothers may ring a bell. In an effort to secure Cuban American votes in the swing state of Florida and to solidify support for other areas of their agendas, Republican presidential candidates are happy to hand the reigns of Cuba policy off to these individuals, whose M.O. is maintaining the status quo of the past 60 years.
Par for the course, Trump made amends with Rubio after the 2016 election and followed suit. In June of 2017, just six months after taking office, Trump announced the elimination of “individual people-to-people” travel, citing that it was essentially a guise for tourism — which is still outlawed under the travel ban.
A proponent of unrestricted American travel to Cuba, I did not support this move; however, I believe the stated reasoning was sound, as this category required very little from U.S. citizens traveling to the island and thus only nominally differed from tourism. Although other avenues for legal travel remained open, the messaging soured — and American travel to Cuba slowed.
Two years later in June of 2019, Trump eliminated the “people-to-people” travel category entirely. Effective one day after the announcement, group educational travel to Cuba would no longer be allowed. Along with this came the elimination of private and corporate flights/vessels to Cuba as well as the elimination of cruises to the island — by far the most convenient and popular means of American travel to Cuba.
What had made cruises so popular was their “one-stop shop” nature: Because the cruise companies partnered with Cuban businesses to offer shore excursions, they afforded Americans the peace of mind that their travel to Cuba was safely within the limits of the law. But with cruises gone, Americans seeking an island getaway felt that it was better to be safe than sorry, and they opted for other Caribbean destinations instead — U.S. travel to Cuba plummeted in the ensuing months.
The elimination of cruises and of people-to-people travel were prefaced by John Bolton’s April speech to the veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Miami. In his remarks, Bolton also announced — to thunderous applause — that remittances by Cuban Americans to their family members on the island would be limited to $1,000 per quarter.
Later that spring, the waivers on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act that had been renewed by every US administration since its passing were allowed to expire, and Cuban Americans were allowed to sue US and foreign corporations that had “trafficked in,” or financially benefited from, their former property in Cuba.
Next, in October of 2019 it was announced that commercial flights to all Cuban cities outside Havana would also be eliminated. After cruises, commercial flights were the easiest way for Americans to visit the island.
Throughout this process of gradually restricting American travel to Cuba, new entities continued to be added to the Cuba Restricted List — a list of entities owned and some operated by the Cuban military with which financial transactions by Americans are strictly prohibited. Entities on this list include large tour companies like Gaviota and popular tourist hotels like the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski and the new Iberostar Grand Packard.
And then there was Havana…
This brings us to the elimination of charter flights to all Cuban cities outside of Havana earlier this month. Now, you may be asking yourself, “Where does that leave us?”
In essence, the path for the average American wanting to visit Cuba is to take a commercial or charter flight directly to Havana under one of the eleven remaining approved travel categories. The most popular of these categories is “Support for the Cuban People,” which stipulates that U.S. visitors promote American ideals and engage in activities that patronize the private sector, like staying at casas particulares (AirBnB’s), eating at paladares (independent restaurants), and shopping at cuentapropistas (independently-owned stores). I have often alluded to this being the most effective way for Americans to travel to Cuba, and I encourage anyone who plans to visit the island to do so in the spirit of supporting the Cuban people.
However, I also support lifting the travel ban entirely because I understand that American travel bolsters the Cuban private sector; that providing resources to the private sector supports the re-construction of Cuban civil society; and that a robust civil society is necessary for meaningful change.
As Tony Montana famously said, “First you get the money, then you get the power…” That said, although I support keeping all lanes open on the highway, I have often likened travel through “Support for the Cuban People” as the express lane on this highway. If the administration elects to leave only the express lane open, the messaging should be corrected to let the American people know that it is open; it is “toll-free;” and they are encouraged to use it. Now, before I digress into the importance of fixing the messaging, I want to share my thoughts on the most recent restrictions.
On the elimination of charter flights…
Unlike commercial flights, charter flights are primarily used by Cuban Americans and Cubans living abroad to visit their relatives living on the island — many of whom live in provinces very far away from Havana.
These people still need to see their families, which will now mean up to fifteen-hour journeys on poorly-built roads or domestic Cubana de Aviación flights — and more money to the Cuban state. For all that the Cuban Revolution did and didn’t do, one irrefutable effect has been the separation of Cuban families. 61 years later, governments on both sides of the Florida Straights continue promoting policies that exacerbate familial separation for political gain.
In addition to Cubans visiting family, charter flights are also used by mulas, or “mules,” who bring “remittances in kind” to the island. These goods become the inputs for the Cuban private sector, which lacks access to wholesale markets.
The absence of formal input markets forces small and medium-sized Cuban enterprises to compete with the inefficient state sector, often having to travel to other countries like Panama and Haiti to purchase goods for re-sale. The Cuban government understands it needs the private sector for the tax revenue it provides, but it has always sought to keep the sector small because it views the free market as a necessary evil to fund the centrally planned economy rather than as catalyst for economic development.
One of the ways Cuba limits the growth of private businesses is by not formalizing wholesale markets. By further restricting inputs to the sector through the elimination of charter flights, the Trump administration plays right into the Cuban government’s effort to limit the free market on the island. So much for promoting capitalism…
All in all, these changes hurt me immensely because the victims of these policies, average Cuban families and business owners, the very people the US preaches to be protecting.
Being the world police also means standing and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. Exploiting good people for political gain by governments on both sides is reprehensible and un-American at its core.
As we continue to restrict American travel to Cuba, we provide the regime with the perfect scapegoat on which to blame its shortcomings. It capitalizes on this opportunity by painting the United States as the sole reason for the plight of its people, and the conservative faction within the Cuban government grows stronger.
No matter how small we make the pie for Cuba, rest assured the state will get the lion’s share — and that share will never be small enough for them to starve. Meanwhile, good people will. Caught in the crossfire, the Cuban people are the only casualty of this ideological war.
I encourage anyone traveling to provinces outside Havana to use Sube, an app developed by Cuban entrepreneurs that provides reliable long-distance transportation and supports Cuban businesses in the process. It is possible that new travel restrictions will continue being announced until the election in November, and commercial flights to Havana may be next to go. As Cubans like to say — “No es fácil, but we will continue to luchar y resolver.”