Cuba travel regulations: Trump edition!

Today the Treasury department released amendments to the restrictions on Cuba travel. For the most part, this was just the official rollout of changes Trump announced way back on June 16th.

For my kind of travel – People-to-People trips – there are three significant changes. Two were announced in June, and the third comes as a surprise.

But if you’re already registered for one of my trips, or if you were thinking about it, the good news is: Everything’s fine. The trips I run are still legal. For our purposes, nothing has changed. So breathe easy!

1. No more solo People-to-People travel

First, some history. When I got started doing Cuba trips in 2013, People-to-People travel had to be sponsored by some organization. Most of the time, that was a tour company running the trip. And the organization had to send one of their people with you to all program activities. So the typical arrangement was a group of travelers accompanied by two staff: a trip leader representing the tour company and an expert Cuban guide.

I got my start working for a tour company who used that arrangement. It works well. That’s why I always co-lead my trips together with a Cuban guide.

In March 2016, the Obama administration relaxed this requirement. This allowed individuals to travel to Cuba on their own cognizance. You just had to follow all the People-to-People rules about how you spend your time in Cuba, who you spend it with, and how you document your activities.

Well, today Trump followed through on a promise he made in June, taking us back to the earlier policy. So once again, People-to-People trips must be sponsored by someone like me – a tour company or other organization subject to U.S. jurisdiction. And that organization must have a representative accompanying you during all program activities.

They’ve also relaxed the regulations for a different category of travel, “Support for the Cuban People,” which could still allow individuals to travel on their own. That could mitigate the elimination of individual People-to-People travel. But they haven’t been very clear about what exactly is required to travel under this category. Many travelers want to be sure they’re on the right side of the law, so I expect this vagueness will make them less likely to attempt such a trip.

2. No transactions with Cuban military enterprises

Here’s another policy change promised in June. The Departments of the Treasury, Commerce and State have prohibited any financial transactions benefiting Cuba’s military, intelligence, or security services. A large chunk of Cuba’s economy is run by the military, including a number of hotels and tourism businesses, Havana’s new luxury shopping mall, and much more. So they’re all off-limits to us.

The State Department has released a list of Cuban businesses and other entities that fall under this prohibition.

I don’t frequent any of those places or interact with the entities. So for my purposes, very little has changed. I’ll just keep an eye on the list and make sure to avoid everything on it.

3. Accompanied by a U.S. citizen or resident

Last but not least: I mentioned that one of the three changes is a surprise. As noted above, the organization sponsoring a People-to-People trip has to send a representative with the travelers to all program activities. I’ve talked to the Treasury Department multiple times over the years, asking who can serve in this capacity. And frustratingly, on different occasions I’ve gotten different answers.

Well, today’s amendments to the Cuba travel regulations clear up any confusion. The representative must be a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction. That is, not a Cuban.

For my trips, this isn’t a big deal. I lead almost all Detours With Matt trips myself, together with a Cuban guide. On the rare occasions when I can’t lead a trip myself, a close friend and colleague takes my place. We’re both U.S. citizens, so we satisfy the requirement.

Some companies have been offering trips led only by the Cuban guide. They considered the guide to be their representative accompanying the travelers. As of today, that model no longer flies. And that’s effective immediately for any trips initiated since the June 16th announcement.

This is a surprise. It was not announced in June, so it’s catching people off guard. I hear through the grapevine that a bunch of tour companies are freaking out about it – trying to figure out what to do with those trips, some of which depart in the next few days.

Personally, I’m glad that they’ve now spelled out this requirement so clearly. It always frustrated me that the regulations weren’t clearer on this point – and that Treasury explained it to me in different ways at different times. From now on, there’ll be much less confusion.

Cover photo

I took this photo in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and it’s appropriate to today’s news. The billboard illustrates Cuba’s anger about the U.S. embargo, which they refer to as the bloqueo. Cuba blames the embargo for its weak economy, which depends on tourism dollars more than on any other source of revenue. On a day like today, when the U.S. announces travel restrictions, Cuba’s got to be especially angry about it!

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