Friday, August 20, 2010

Pack Your Bags for Cuba? Maybe Soon, If You Have a Good Reason

Jake Colvin
Vice President for Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council

Pack Your Bags for Cuba? Maybe Soon, If You Have a Good Reason
Posted: August 20, 2010 01:23 PM

Widespread speculation that the Obama administration will loosen
restrictions on the ability of American citizens to visit Cuba has put
travel to the island back in the spotlight. If you are hoping that the
president's expected announcement will allow you to travel to Cuba, here
are a few things to consider:

Ten years ago, Congress passed legislation which restricts the president
from allowing "travel to, from, or within Cuba for tourist activities."
The president may only license travel under a dozen categories of travel
for a particular reason.

Under current law, American citizens may be able to travel to Cuba to
visit family, to conduct professional or academic research, for
educational or religious reasons, for public performances or
exhibitions, to support the Cuban people, to conduct humanitarian
projects, or to market or sell certain products. There are also
exemptions for journalists, diplomats, and private foundations.

Within these limitations, the president has the ability to get many more
Americans traveling to Cuba for activities that would benefit the United
States and the Cuban people.

The administration has a great deal of room to expand the number of
Americans who would qualify to travel to Cuba. For example, the Bush
administration imposed a condition that, in order to travel to Cuba
under an academic license, a student had to be enrolled in a degree
program and engaged in a course of study that was no shorter than 10
weeks. President Bush also prohibited visits by individuals when a
family member is in Cuba, except in "exigent" circumstances and only "in
true emergent situations, such as serious illness accompanied by an
inability to travel." Restoring flexibility to educational, religious
and cultural programs would likely result in more access for U.S.
citizens via programs by local churches, schools, museums and other groups.

President Obama could also improve the logistics of traveling to Cuba.
Currently, travel to Cuba is limited to a few ports, with most travel
originating in Miami via charter airlines. Expanding flights to other
air and seaports, establishing regularly-scheduled commercial airline
service, and loosening restrictions on travel service providers to book
trips to Cuba would lower costs and facilitate the ability of Americans
to get to Cuba to engage in the list of activities permitted under
current law.

Finally, the president could make a simple administrative change that
could have a significant impact on travel. The U.S. Government relies
heavily on "specific licenses," which requires the Treasury Department
to approve applications to travel to Cuba on a case-by-case basis. The
White House has the option of permitting more travel to Cuba under what
is known as general licenses, which provide blanket authorization for
qualified Americans to declare themselves eligible to travel to Cuba
rather than requiring a permission slip from the Treasury Department in

Relying more heavily on general licenses would ease the burden on the
Treasury Department. Instead of processing applications for travel to
Cuba, the Department would be able to redeploy resources internally to
focus on more urgent priorities of tracking terrorist financing.

Changing these rules could have a significant impact on travel to Cuba
over time. An announcement from the White House would also be a welcome
step in the right direction that would create additional momentum for
Congress to end the absurd limits on travel that Washington places on
its citizens.

Given that American citizens can get to China, Iran and Vietnam on a
U.S. passport, it is a wonder Cuba is still largely off-limits.

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