Monday, February 7, 2011

A Few More Details On The Obama Administration's New Regulations for Cuban Travel

As I posted in mid-January, the Obama Administration has announced it plans to liberalize travel to Cuba. No, the embargo hasn't been lifted. But it will be significantly easier for Americans who don't have relatives on the island to visit.

Havana Cathedral (photo by Rahi Madatia)
Last Thursday, I spoke to John McAulliff, the coordinator for the Travel Industry Association on Cuba, to learn more details. McAulliff was in Havana at the time, working with ground organizations there to prepare for what most think will be a large influx of American tourists.

According to McAulliff, the Obama Administration has actually gone farther than the Clinton Administration did, with regards to two groups of travelers: students and those traveling for religious purposes.

Any student who can prove that he is getting college credit for his study in Cuba will be allowed to go without having to apply for a special license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This is an unprecedented move, a policy that's much less restrictive than what was allowed under Clinton.

This same exemption will apply to those traveling with religious organizations. And when I was talking to him, McCaullif seemed to slyly suggest that getting a group together and then affiliating it with a local synagogue, church, mosque or temple, might be the best way to go. "The government cannot define what religious activity is as that would be unconsitutional," he told me. "As long as you're affiliated with some religious organization--and 80% of Americans are--your group can go under the auspices of that organization without the hassle of applying for an OFAC license."

Under Clinton, the most common group travel to Cuba was for "cultural purposes". Tour operators are waiting to see how liberal the government is going to be in awarding OFAC licenses to these types of groups. The requirements for obtaining the license haven't changed in a good 18 years, but how the law is enforced can greatly affect the number of licenses given out each year. Under Clinton, thousands of licenses were issued; under Bush, almost none.

The takeaway: If you want to go to Cuba, try praying.

You can hear much of the interview (it was quite long, so we had to edit it down) by clicking on this link which will take you to a podcast of my radio show.

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