Posted on Monday, 10.05.09
U.S.-Cuba travel flourishing
Legal travel to and from Cuba is booming, even though the Obama
administration has not officially changed any rules regarding nonfamily
travel to the island.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
Joan Brown Campbell, the church lady who befriended Elián González
during his sojourn here a decade ago, has been to Cuba 37 times —
except during the last Bush administration, when she could not get the
required U.S. permission to visit the island for four straight years.
She applied again this year now that Barack Obama is in the White House
and got the license to travel straightaway. The U.S. State Department
even opened doors for her to invite several Cuban academics to visit New
York. Among those who attended a conference Brown organized last month:
Ofelia Ortega, a member of the Cuban national assembly.
“The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said to me, `Give us the names of
the people you are asking for; we will call them to come in for a visa,'
'' Brown said. “This was very unusual. In the past, people had to wait
in a long line and wait three months before finding out whether the visa
had been approved. I have been doing this for 35 years, and this was a
shock to me.
“They didn't turn anyone down.''
Although Obama has not officially changed any rules regarding nonfamily
trips to Cuba, State Department statistics show anecdotal evidence of a
flow of visits.
From October 2008 to August 2009, 16,217 Cubans have visited the United
States, up from 10,661 during the same period in 2007-08, the numbers show.
Just Wednesday, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota announced that a
delegation from Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment
will make a rare visit to its headquarters this week.
Experts say that although statistics have not been released regarding
how many American academics, musicians and church groups have visited
Cuba under Obama, the U.S. State Department has relaxed strict Bush-era
interpretations of existing law.
More Americans are heading to Cuba in the “people to people'' travel
excursions. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson recently made the trip on a
legal trade expedition, and actor Benicio Del Toro has gone at least
twice since his movie Che opened last year.
Cuba Education Tours offers American professionals tips on how to
qualify for a general research license. They offer trips over
Thanksgiving, Christmas and a “51st Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution
Tour spanning New Years.''
“Even though the administration hasn't yet published changes allowing
more cultural and educational exchanges to and from Cuba, anecdotal
evidence suggests that such loosening has already taken place,'' said
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a critic of Obama's Cuba policy. “We see ads
informing college students and artistic groups of planned excursions to
the island. So it looks like its back to the era of two-week college
courses in Cuban culture taught on the beaches of Varadero.''
DATA NOT RELEASED
The Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control declined
repeated requests to release data showing how many Americans were
authorized this year to travel to Cuba. The State Department
acknowledges that the Bush administration narrowly interpreted existing law.
“Actually, there has not been an official directive, and there
certainly has not been a policy change,'' said Bisa Williams, acting
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
“There's a flow up here and down there. We're just saying we are going
back to what's on the books. There is still a full review of every
In fact, the Cuban press reported this week that 30 American scientists
were refused permission to attend a medical conference in eastern Cuba
The so-called “people to people'' licenses date back to the Clinton
administration, when special travel permission categories existed for
academic and cultural visits. That meant some groups did not have to
apply for a special visa every time they traveled, which gave rise to a
cottage industry that specialized in taking special-interest groups to
visit the hemisphere's last communist regime.
But Bush put a stop to the practice, which experts say was widely abused
by tourists who visited Cuba's beaches under the guise of academic or
cultural enrichment. Advocates for increased relations between the two
countries say the trips are necessary to break down barriers between the
two long hostile nations.
“There was a general policy to obstruct all people to people contacts
between Americans and Cuba,'' said attorney Robert Muse, an expert on
the U.S. trade embargo. “Virtually any application submitted was denied
during that period. While there may be more travel going on now, what
Obama has not done is return to licenses.''
In 2007, the Bush administration authorized just seven Americans to go
to Cuba for public performances or athletic competitions.
The State Department now says they are permitting performances, but are
looking at factors such as ticket prices.
Colombian rocker Juanes met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in
May to promote his idea for a “concert for peace'' in Havana Sept. 20.
Because the concert was free and open to the public, the State
Department allowed American musicians to participate.
Obama also ended Bush's practice of stonewalling Cuban academics
traveling to the United States to attend conferences.
“Cooperation in academia is very important, and so Cuban professors
felt very limited before,'' said Cuban political scientist Rafael
Hernández, who got a visa to attend Brown Campbell's conference, and
will be a visiting professor this semester at the University of Texas.
“Professors resented not being able go forward with that. It's too soon
to tell whether there's been a real change,'' Hernández said.
Hernández said he twice got visas under the Bush administration and was
denied “various times.'' He had last visited the United States in 2006.
Critics say the recent boom in travel demonstrates that Obama doesn't
need an official policy change offering special licenses.
“The law permits all that without a change,'' said pro-embargo lobbyist
Mauricio Claver-Carone. “There is purposeful travel. The administration
has been more lax in authorizing travel than the previous administration
was, but that fits the pattern with Democrats.''
But activists have urged Obama to do more by officially changing the
rules, not just interpreting them differently.
“Obama is being very cautious,'' said Silvia Wilhelm, who heads the
Cuban American Commission for Family Rights. “I don't know why they
haven't just said, `these are the new licenses.' I think they want to be
careful in this arena, and let's face it, this arena is a minefield.''
Since Obama has already offered Cuban Americans the right to travel
freely and send money, he is probably waiting for the Castro government
to make similar concessions before he allows more liberalized travel for
all Americans, she said.
“This is not a rumba. This is a danzón: very small steps,'' Wilhelm
said. “Now we have to see if our dance partner will also take small
U.S.-Cuba travel flourishing – Cuba – MiamiHerald.com (5 October 2009)