Did Trump Change How Americans Travel to Cuba?

Did Trump Change How Americans Travel to Cuba?

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(Updated August 8, 2017, 12:30 p.m. PDT)

On Friday, June 16, 2017, Donald Trump made a major policy announcement that could markedly affect the ability of Americans to visit Cuba or do business there.

(Bryan Ledgard Flickr Photo)

Initially, Trump appeared set to totally scrap the steps President Obama took to discard over a half-century of failed “isolationist” policy toward Cuba and engage the Cuban people and government in a new era of mutually beneficial relations.

The Website, The Hill, said that the Trump administration had considered severing diplomatic ties to Cuba entirely, but backed away from such a drastic move in favor of a partial reverse of Obama’s policies since it would “be ‘less likely to elicit pushback’ from the business community and regional partners.”

NPR reported that two-thirds of Cuban Americans living in South Florida and that some members of Congress, including at least one Republican, were not in favor of Trump’s announced policy.

And in this Associated Press story, the Cuban government said that Trump’s new policy “would not achieve [its] objective of weakening the [Cuban] government.”

But what will Trump’s policy, if implemented, actually do and what effect will it have on both Cubans and Americans?

What Travel to Cuba Was Like Before Trump

Cuba, Libre?, a feature-length documentary by Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, puts that question into a historical context by show what travel to Cuba by Americans was like over the several decades prior to Trump’s election.

Cuba was a tropical playground for Americans during the first half of the 20th century until the island nation became off-limits to American tourists for over thirty years after the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.

But in the early 1990s, when the Cuban government turned to tourism to bolster its economy which declined precipitously after the demise of its chief ally and financial benefactor, the Soviet Union, Americans resumed visits to Cuba by taking “People-to-People” cultural exchange tours.

And beginning in December of 2014, the easing of restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba created opportunities for Cuban entrepreneurs to establish tourist-related business and for U.S. airlines and cruise lines to bring thousands and thousands of American visitors to the island.

Cuba, Libre? includes historic film footage of Cuba in the early to mid-20th century, the revolution led by Fidel Castro and the break in diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, film and photos from more recent times, and interviews of five travel writers who have visited Cuba during the last twenty years.

The film has aired on over twenty public access television stations nation-wide, and had several public screenings in the San Francisco Bay Area, including at one film festival. It won an Honorable Mention from SaMo Indie Fest film festival held in Santa Monica, California in November 2016.

Here’s the film’s trailer.

What Has Changed, What Hasn’t

As with other Trump initiatives, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting “tax reform,” Trump’s policy statements regarding Cuba will mean nothing unless and until either government agency regulations or congressional legislation are created to give them legal effect.

So, for now, what the Obama administration put into place remains in place and nothing Trump has said changes that.

Agencies Which Would Implement Trump’s Policies

The U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets, which has either directly, or indirectly, controlled visits to the island by U.S. citizens in the past and will continue to do so in the future, has said that it “expects to issue its regulatory amendments in the coming months. The announced changes do not take effect until the new regulations are issued.”

The Department of Commerce has adopted regulation on exports, and those would also have to be amended to reflect changes Trump wants.

If You’ve Got Firm Trip Plans in Place

If you already have planned a trip to Cuba, you probably don’t have to change those plans since OFAC says that

 “[p]rovided that the traveler has already completed at least one travel-related transaction (such as purchasing a flight or reserving accommodation) prior to the President’s announcement on June 16, 2017, all additional travel-related transactions for that trip, whether the trip occurs before or after OFAC’s new regulations are issued, would also be authorized, provided the travel-related transactions are consistent with OFAC’s regulations as of June 16, 2017.”

Flying to Cuba

Nothing in Trump’s policy announcement will prevent U.S. based airlines from continuing to fly between the two countries, as they began doing at the end of August of 2016. And no government agency regulations limiting such air travel is contemplated.

That isn’t to say, however, that airlines might cut back or eliminate service from the U.S. to Cuba, as some already have done in face of a decrease in demand for such service that came after Trump’s election, if the number of potential passengers drops even further.

Cruising to Cuba

As with air travel, the federal government does not plan to curb cruise ship lines from continuing to carry passengers from U.S. cities to Cuban ports-of-call.

No More “Individual Travel”

Even the easing of travel restrictions by President Obama did not allow U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba as “tourists.” Lazing on a beach was at least theoretically a “no-no” because it was not among the twelve categories of authorized travel

  1. Family visits;
  2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
  3. Journalistic activity;
  4. Professional research and professional meetings;
  5. Educational activities;
  6. Religious activities;
  7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  8. Support for the Cuban people;
  9. Humanitarian projects;
  10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and
  12. Certain authorized export transactions.

In the past, individuals who wanted to travel to Cuba had to obtain a specific “license” from the U.S. Treasury Department for travel that fit into one of those dozen “pigeonholes,” unless they were traveling on a group tour with an organization or tour operated that had been already licensed by the federal government to take people to Cuba.

And Americans visiting Cuba should have kept receipts, journals, or other paperwork confirming that they had indeed traveled for such purposes, just in case they were audited by the Treasury Department.

But under the Obama administration, U.S. citizens were granted a “general license” for such travel, were no longer required to go on a group trip, and probably would never be audited to determine if the trip was authorized under one of those twelve categories of permitted travel.

However, in its story, “How to Travel to Cuba Now,” The New York Times said that “the Trump administration is directing the Treasury Department to strictly enforce the law regarding travel to Cuba, including routine audits.”

If and when new regulations are adopted, individual travel will, with very limited exception, be banned, although group travel for “people-to-people” purposes will still be permissible.

Who Loses if Trump “Wins”?

If remains to be seen how Trump’s Cuba policies will play out. Perhaps some will never become part of government regulations. And perhaps Trump will leave the White House before such regulations are adopted.

Trump’s policies basically return to the approach that the U.S. took for a half-century before being junked by President Obama: Economic punishment meted out against the Cuban government will ultimately result in its Communist leadership being ousted and replaced by a democratically elected, pro-U.S., one.

When he announced a rapprochement with Cuba in December 2014, President Obama pointed out that decades-long approach harmed the Cuban people, didn’t benefit America, and failed to bring about the desired “regime change.”

Following Trump’s policy announcement, The New York Times said that it is Cuban small businesses, not the Cuban government, that will suffer if Trump “walks back” the Obama-initiated steps toward warmer U.S.-Cuban relations.

And in a story filed last Friday, the Miami Herald quoted James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, as saying that

“This policy was clearly written by people who have never been to Cuba, at least not in this century…Because if they had, they’d know that the only think that restricting travel will do is devastate Cubans working in the private sector who have relied on American visitors to provide for their families.”

Cuba travel expert, Christopher P. Baker, one of the five travel writers who appear in the Cuba, Libre? documentary film, told San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor Spud Hilton that

“The budget travelers are in a bit of a pickle. Most of the group travel is really expensive… Clearly, it’s going to reduce significantly the number of people traveling to Cuba… It’s going to confuse people. People are going to be scared off.”

Hilton reported that tour prices could be as low as $2,000 and average $3,500 for shorter trips, and that Baker told him that

“[t]he proliferation of tour operators… is bringing the price down some, if only because rising hotel prices in Cuba have encouraged more operators to seek out private room rentals, either the traditional, informal casa paticulares homestays or through Airbnb, which entered the Cuba market last year. The move has allowed some operators to lower rates.”

In its reporting on Trump’s roll-back of Obama’s Cuba policy, CNN noted that

“the new policy would make it difficult for any American company to expand their footprint in Cuba…[and that the] change would make Americans who travel under the Obama administration categories of permitted travel subject to a Treasury Department audit, a move that could have a cooling effect on travel as it adds a potential layer of inconvenience to travelers.”

The Washington Post said that:

 “Central to President Trump’s plans to peel back his predecessor’s detente with Cuba is the idea that there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ U.S. travel. The United States, Trump believes, can tightly regulate American vacations to deprive the Castro government of dollars and redirect the money to the island’s growing class of entrepreneurs.

“But it will be difficult to pick winners in Cuba’s state-controlled economy, where government businesses and the private sector are thoroughly intertwined. And even harder will be determining what sort of travel constitutes the kind of ‘people-to-people’ interactions the Trump administration says it wants to preserve.

“By reinstating restrictions on independent travelers, the Trump administration’s new policy will hurt Cuba’s emerging private sector that caters to American visitors, critics insist.

“Instead, the new rules will herd Americans back toward the kind of prepackaged, predictable group tourism that the Cuban government actually prefers — and earns more revenue from.”

In a Facebook comment on that story, Christopher Baker said

“Much is correct in this piece, and much is misinformed. First, many organized group people-to-people ‘tours’ use private room rentals for… Every organization I know dines almost exclusively in private restaurants, uses classic cars in its itineraries, and offers as much opportunity as individual travelers have for purchasing art etc. from private sources.

* * *

“The missing ingredient here is that the group travel experience offers the potential of traveling with a Cuba expert…who can provide the nuanced context for understanding Cuba’s complexities.”

So, when it comes to Cuba, will Trump be a “winner” or a “loser”?

And what about Americans and Cubans who would be impacted by Trump’s policy change?

In a story in The Atlantic headlined “Trumps Cuba Policy Will Fail,” Ben Rhodes, “a former deputy national-security adviser for Barack Obama…[who] led the negotiations to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba,” made the following observation:

 “…ultimately, the past must give way to the wishes of the people. Fidel Castro is dead. A new generation, in Cuba and the United States, doesn’t want to be defined by quarrels that pre-date their birth. The embargo should—and will—be discarded. Engagement should—and will—prevail. That is why Trump’s announcement should be seen for what it is: not as a step forward for democracy, but as the last illogical gasp of a strain of American politics with a 50-year track record of failure; one that wrongly presumes we can control what happens in Cuba. The future of Cuba will be determined by the Cuban people, and those Americans who want to help them, not hurt them.

Update, August 8, 2017

Coincidentally, yesterday just before the documentary film, Cuba, Libre?, by Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, screened last night in Eugene, Oregon, the PBS Newshour aired a segment on how Trump’s policy changes, if implemented, would impact both Americans planning on visiting the islands and the Cuban government and more importantly, Cuban entrepreneurs involved in tourism.

As the Treasury Department, whose Office of Foreign Assets Control has regulatory control over travel to Cuba by Americans, pointed out on July 25, 2017, it must adopt new regulations before the policy changes announced by Trump can take effect. The PBS Newshour story indicates that those new regulations may be announced next month.

(Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, discussed Cuba and his documentary film, “Cuba, Libre?” with podcasters Weston Moody, Melinda Adams, and Tom Wilmer. He covered Cuba in several stories posted on Tales Told From The Road, including “Cuba: Your Personal Journey and Mine,” “Your Flight from The U.S. to Cuba Arrived, But Now What?,” andVisualizing Cuba, Three Ways.”)

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