The "Cuban Thaw" might be more short-lived than Americans originally thought, thanks to the Trump administration. In December 2014, then-President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro announced their plan to move toward improved relations between the US and Cuba. After over 50 years of hostility, the strides were notable. In addition to the effects in terms of international relations and trade, the agreement also resulted in the reopening of the US embassy in Havana and lifted restrictions on American travel to Cuba, including travel by cruise ship.
Under the Obama administration, travelers to Cuba have been able to operate on independent itineraries they have created themselves, which was not the case before the recent agreement. Now, according to Edward Piegza, founder of Classic Journeys and expert in people-to-people exchanges to Cuba, under President Donald Trump's proposed new policy — or really, the reinstatement of an old policy — it's likely this type of unmonitored travel will no longer be allowed.
"We're returning to a pre-Obama state of travel to Cuba."
"It appears that what Americans will not be able to do under the new restrictions is directly book hotel rooms or Airbnb accommodations and 'just hang out' in Cuba. Instead, we're returning to a pre-Obama state of travel to Cuba in which it needs to be part of a formalized people-to-people exchange program." Piegza has been operating his active tour company since 1995, began Cuban tours 2013, and is fluent in the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)'s requirements for the people-to-people exchange.
So what are people-to-people exchange programs? First of all, they are licensed by the US government. Piegza says that in the case of his own company, they spent years applying for their license, which then had to be renewed regularly.
"Normalization" — which is what the agreement with Obama and Castro began the process of — relaxed the licensing requirements but left in place the rules that trips had to be for cultural exchange purposes. "The last phase of 'normalization' allowed independent travel," Piegza said.
However, on June 16, the Trump administration announced renewed restrictions, which will effectively strip away the looser guidelines, leaving the original rules in place, meaning travelers can go to Cuba on licensed tour operators like they did in the past.
So what does this mean for US tourists?
"All tourists will have to comply with the formal requirements of a people-to-people exchange," Piegza said. "They will need to document this experience to the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department. The easiest way to do this is to travel with a tour operator that already has all of these requirements in place. Travelers utilizing this travel authorization must maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between traveler and individuals in Cuba. An employee, consultant, or agent of the group must accompany each group to ensure that each traveler maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities."
"Travelers . . . must maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities."
If you are traveling with a tour company, US travelers should be asking if the company sends an employee, consultant, or agent of the group to keep the daily journal of the people-to-people interactions so that information can be presented to OFAC. If the company does, the traveler is covered. If they don't, according to Piegza, that's a problem and travelers should rethink booking through that company.
Will this affect new flights and airline routes to Cuba?
Luckily, even under the new restrictions, travelers can still fly to Cuba on US-based commercial airlines, though there's some speculation that airlines might cut back on service to certain Cuban destinations because of the reinstated restrictions. On the other hand, airlines may continue to see Cuba as an opportunity for company growth based on increased interest in traveling there, as well as more opportunities to do so.
Why were the restrictions reinstated?
One of the concerns expressed by the Trump administration in issuing the new regulations is that American dollars spent at some hotels go to Cuba's military and its intelligence bureaucracy.
"Here's what I can tell you from direct experience," Piegza said. "The Cuban government has official agencies created to act as middlemen in many travel transactions. But not all transactions. Private ownership of boutique hotels, casa particulares (private guest houses), paladares (privately owned restaurants), galleries, transportation, and other businesses are burgeoning in Havana and all over the island. Well-connected tour operators are still being allowed to engage directly with those businesses. And in doing so, travelers are meeting a new generation of entrepreneurs while also seeing their travel dollars go directly into the pockets of local people — not supporting the government or any of its arms."
So, what do Americans need to know if they are planning to travel to Cuba in the current climate?
It's important that travelers follow the formal requirements of a people-to-people exchange — as administered by a third party with a license to do so. "Find out how long the tour company has been operating in Cuba," Piegza said. "Did they operate trips under a P2P license before normalization? If so, they already know how to comply with the regulations. If not, then all of this is new to them and they are going to have to learn as they go along."
Despite the difficulties that may arise from Trump's restrictions, many — including Piegza — argue that now is an important time to see Cuba.
"If you're traveling with a responsible travel group or tour operator, you're going to be truly supporting the Cuban people," he said. "In the true and original spirit of people-to-people travel, you can engage directly with them — cooking in their kitchens, dancing in their salsa studios, talking with farmers at work in the tobacco fields. When you eat at one of their privately owned restaurants, the payment is made directly. The Cuban people live lives that are sometimes hard for us to imagine, on incomes that are inconceivably small. How they cope, how their existences are knit together by family and tradition, and how direct personal interactions affect our understanding of the world are all reasons why I urge you to visit Cuba."