While Ban Is Debated, Americans Are Flocking
There are ways to see the island without violating U.S. government restrictions. Tour providers are numerous.
year, Congress debates whether to end the travel
ban to Cuba. But in this election year, the wrangling has been
louder than usual, involving former President Jimmy Carter, who
met in May with Fidel Castro in Cuba, House Majority Leader
Dick Armey (R-Texas) and President Bush. (Their positions on
ending four decades of sanctions were si, si and no,
In July the House adopted a measure
that would end restrictions
on U.S. citizens traveling to the Communist island; the Senate is
expected to take up the issue when it returns after Labor Day.
Bush has vowed to veto any end to the restrictions.
As debate continues over the ban,
scores of educational and
other groups send thousands of Americans to Cuba each year
without violating the law. Many other Americans go there
individually as journalists or in other professional capacities,
which is allowed under the ban, or to visit Cuban relatives,
which is also allowed. Licensed charter flights regularly take off
for Havana from Miami, Los Angeles and New York.
In all, about 176,000 Americans visited
Cuba last year, according
to estimates from the independent U.S.-Cuba Trade and
Economic Council in New York. At least 25,000 of them went
without authorization, the council believes; other estimates range
up to 60,000.
It is, in fact, fairly easy for Americans
to go to Cuba without
skirting the law, which makes it all the more surprising that so many go illegally, typically by
detouring through a third country such as Canada or Mexico. In doing so, they risk civil fines up to
$55,000 or even criminal penalties of up to 10 years in jail or a $250,000 fine, according to the U.S.
Treasury Department, which enforces the travel ban through its Office of Foreign Assets Control,
Some people, no doubt, knowingly go
to Cuba illegally, aware that enforcement of the ban is
spotty. But it's easy to see how some could break the law inadvertently because the regulations are
so convoluted. A useful summary of them, along with a list of U.S. companies authorized to
conduct tours and fly between the U.S. and Cuba, is on OFAC's Internet site, www.treas.gov/ofac.
(Click on "Sanctions Program and Country Summaries," then select "Cuba.")
Generally, there are two ways to travel legally to Cuba.
Certain categories of people--U.S.
journalists, government employees, professionals attending
conferences, researchers and athletes--can travel as individuals or in groups, providing the visit is
related to their professions; people can also visit close relatives in Cuba up to once a year. Such
people needn't apply to OFAC for permission to travel.
An easier option for most Americans
is to sign on to a trip organized by an educational, religious
humanitarian group that has obtained what's called a "specific license," granted by OFAC for trips
related to the group's purpose.
In any case, trips to Cuba must use
"travel service providers," or TSPs, and airlines (called
service providers") licensed by OFAC. As of July, more than 175 TSPs and more than 30 carrier
service providers were listed on the OFAC Web site. (Some companies hold both licenses.) Most
are in Florida, and most, knowledgeable observers say, cater to Cuban Americans visiting family in
Cuba. But more than a dozen TSPs are in California.
In the Los Angeles area, Cuba Travel
Services Inc. of Inglewood, (800) 963-2822,
www.latocuba.com, has operated a weekly nonstop charter flight from LAX to Havana for more
than two years. Round-trip fares begin at $650, depending on the season.
Although some polls show that about
two-thirds of Americans want to end the Cuba travel ban,
such trips remain controversial, especially among Castro opponents. If you are considering a trip,
make sure the organizer has a current OFAC license.
Trips come in an astonishing variety
of prices and itineraries. They typically include all food and
lodging costs. (Under OFAC rules, American visitors can spend no more than $166 a day in
Havana and $125 per day in other areas of Cuba--excluding most professional and some other
costs--and can bring back no more than $100 in Cuban goods.)
With Castro aging and a sense that
support for sanctions is slipping, many visitors are eager to
the island before its isolation ends, trip operators say. Who's going to Cuba may surprise you.
"I get a tremendous amount of
retirees who were in Cuba in the 1950s," says Marie Delorie,
runs the Cuba program for the nonprofit Cross-Cultural Solutions in New Rochelle, N.Y. "They
want to see it while Castro is in and before McDonald's invades." Summer trips are popular with
teachers and students, she adds.
Here are some of the organizing groups:
* Global Exchange: This
San Francisco-based nonprofit is known for human-rights activism,
as its campaign two years ago to persuade Starbucks to buy coffee beans under so-called fair-trade
standards. But it has also run a burgeoning Cuba program for 11 years. It organizes about 60 trips a
year, up from four when it began, says program director Malia Everette. Last year it sent more
than 2,000 people to Cuba.
Among its many offerings is a two-week
"Cuban Rhythms" program, priced from $1,800 per
person, double occupancy, including round-trip air fare from Cancun, Mexico. The itinerary varies
but typically includes workshops in Afro-Cuban dance and music, meetings with urban
environmentalists, visits to schools and "a day for personal exploration of Havana." There's an
11-day "Eco-Bicycling Adventure," from $1,600 per person, double occupancy, including
round-trip air from Cancun, with visits to an organic agricultural cooperative and a two-wheeled
Havana tour. For the truly academic, there's "XX Latin American Congress in Hydraulics" from
Sept. 25 to Oct. 6.
Some traditional tourist pastimes,
such as walking tours and concert-going, qualify as educational
activities under Global Exchange's OFAC license, Everette says--in fact, nearly every activity may
qualify except maybe snorkeling and sunbathing, she says.
"Occasionally we'll get someone
who says, 'I just want to hang out' on the trips," Everette
"We tell them to be legal you need to be in our program at least 40 hours per week." Contacts:
(415) 255-7296, www.globalexchange.org.
* Cross-Cultural Solutions:
The main focus of this private nonprofit is sending volunteers
the world for relief work and other aid. But in the last two years it has also sent a total of about
700 Americans to Cuba on licensed educational exchange trips, says program manager Delorie.
"Insight Cuba" trips depart
nearly every month. The one-week version, priced from $1,781 per
person, double occupancy, excluding air fare, typically focuses on Havana and nearby areas, with
walking tours, meetings with women's groups and social workers and some time to "pursue
individual interests." The two-week version, priced from $2,651 per person, double occupancy,
excluding air fare, takes in more of the island, including Trinidad, Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba.
There are also special trips, such
as one to the Havana International Jazz Festival from Dec. 11
18, priced from $2,631 per person, double occupancy, including air fare between Miami and
Havana. Contacts: (800) 380-4777, www.traveltocubanow.com.
* Adventure Tours and Travel:
This licensed travel service provider, based in Pasadena, began
sending Cuban Americans to the island in 1992. Today it organizes about 15 cultural trips per
year, specializing in art and architecture for colleges, art centers and other institutions, said Peter
Sanchez, group coordinator. The institutions market the trips.
One client is the Long Beach City
College Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the college, which
got its educational OFAC license this summer. The group's weeklong "Discover Cuba" trip, priced
at $2,699 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip air from LAX, departs Oct. 18.
Contacts: (562) 938-4634 (ask for Ginny Baxter), www.cubaculturaltours.com/lbcc.