The Washington Post reminds us this week that beginning on March 21, Island Travel & Tours will be operating direct charter flights from Baltimore's BWI Airport to Havana as part of the Obama administration's liberalization of travel to Cuba, which has been subject to a U.S. economic embargo for half a century (you can also take charter flights to the island from Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and a host of other U.S. cities). The president's efforts to increase "people-to-people" contact between the two countries represents a return to Clinton-era policies, after President Bush's tighter restrictions in 2003 caused the number of annual U.S. visitors to Cuba to drop precipitously from more than 200,000 to less than 50,000 in the space of a year.
The article got us wondering: How exactly does one get to Cuba these days? In short, you must have a government-defined "purpose" for visiting -- one that rises above run-of-the-mill tourism. But that purpose can take several forms, including:
Family: You can visit a "close relative" who's a Cuban national as often as you want and bring those who live in your house along. In late December, thousands of Cuban-Americans flew to the island to celebrate the new year with their families.
Religion: You can participate in "religious activities," typically under the auspices of a religious organization. The Archdiocese of Miami, for example, is bringing Christian pilgrims to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI's visit in March.
Education: You can conduct noncommercial research as an academic or student, study at a Cuban academic institution for credit, participate in other types of educational and cultural exchanges, or staff U.S. educational programs in the country. Havard University, Washington State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and the University of Michigan are among the institutions that have sponsored trips to Cuba for students, faculty, staff, and alumni, and Northwestern University is offering study abroad programs in Cuba focusing on public health and culture and society. But not everyone's thrilled about the changes. Cuban-American Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has dismissed the Smithsonian Institute's Cuba trips as "little more than a tropical vacation" that don't allow Americans to see the "brutal reality of the Castro dictatorship."
Journalism: You can engage in "journalistic activities" as a reporter or provide broadcasting or technical support for a journalist. Ray Suarez at PBS, for example, put together a series of controversial reports from Cuba in 2010.
Business: You can attend a professional conference (so long as it has nothing to do with commercial activities in Cuba or biotechnology products), carry out humanitarian work, or conduct business as an employee of a U.S. telecommunications services provider or a producer or distributor of agricultural commodities, medicine, or medical devices. Now that Cuba has begun offshore oil drilling, some are urging the Obama administration to allow U.S. companies to respond in the event of an oil spill in Cuba.
Government/Diplomacy: You can conduct official business as a government employee or a member of an international organization to which the United States belongs. While it's former U.S. officials like Jimmy Carter and Bill Richardson who typically make headlines for traveling to Cuba, government employees have visited as well. In 1999, Illinois Governor George Ryan, who opposed the U.S. ban on trade with Cuba, made a humanitarian mission to the country and met with Fidel Castro. Six years later, U.S. aid officials visited the island to assess damage from Hurricane Wilma.
Depending on which category you fall into, you may or may not need specific written permission from the Treasury Department to travel to Cuba. But the restrictions don't end once you've made it to the island. Travelers can spend no more than $179 per day on travel expenses that don't involve informational materials or activities for which they received a license to enter the country. They also can't purchase "services unrelated to travel or a licensed activity" -- which includes non-emergency medical services and, presumably, most souvenirs. What's more, U.S. credit cards don't work in Cuba because of the embargo. Taken as a whole, these restrictions often translate into itineraries stuffed with U.S. government-sanctioned activities around Havana and other locations such as Cienfuegos in the south.
But for those who still long to be among the roughly 500,000 U.S. visitors whom the Cuban government estimates come to the island each year, there are ways to realize your goal. So, go forth and, in the words of Avenue Q, find your purpose.
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