People-to-People trips to Cuba: What’s legal and what isn’t

So I’ve run into some interesting – read, illegal – trips advertised online as legal People-to-People educational exchange programs.

And before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. I’m not dispensing legal advice. I’m just a guy who knows how to read, and how to call the Treasury Department and have them explain things I don’t understand. Or, more frequently, I have them explain things I do understand, just because I want to make sure. Even so, I’m not a lawyer, I could be totally wrong about everything, and you shouldn’t trust anything I say.

I’ve had this issue of illegal trips come up a couple different ways. One company got my dad’s attention, advertising a trip in a magazine he reads. Another time, a prospective client found someone offering a trip at a much lower price than mine. In both cases, when I took a closer look, I found legal problems.

I don’t know if Treasury is hunting down the folks operating these trips or the travelers going on them. But I have the idea that if Marco Rubio is elected president, he might audit the hell out of us all – out of anything benefiting Cuba in any way – because it would throw a big wrench in Cuba’s works. So I don’t advise anyone to play games with it.

Marco Rubio drinks during the State of the Union rebuttal

Not a fan of Cuba.

The two big ways I’ve seen companies violating the regulations are:

1. Unaccompanied by the tour operator:

Treasury’s published guidelines for People-to-People trips require that

    an employee, paid consultant, or agent of the sponsoring organization must accompany each group traveling to Cuba to ensure the full-time schedule of educational exchange activities… [From Frequently Asked Questions Relating to Cuba, published September 18, 2015]

“Must accompany each group” – sounds clear, right? Well, I’ve seen several companies try to cut corners on this one, because having someone accompany each group is expensive. One tour operator just sends you with a Cuban guide, who’s not personally employed by the operator at all. Another has an employee permanently stationed in Havana and considers that this meets the standard of accompanying their travelers to Cuba.

I wanted to see if these companies knew something I didn’t. So I called Treasury to ask how much wiggle room there is and what they mean by “accompany.” They laughed at me like I was Bill Clinton questioning the meaning of the word “is.” The unequivocal answer was, the tour operator has to send someone with the travelers who personally accompanies them during all program activities. Personally. In person. For the full duration of every activity. Not someone working from an office in Havana.

It also has to be an employee or legal agent of the tour operator. Not a Cuban guide who’s working for the tour operator off the books, or who’s employed by some Cuban tourism agency contracted by the tour operator to provide tour guiding.

If no agent of the tour operator has personally witnessed your participation in the programmed activities, then it wasn’t a legal People-to-People trip!

UPDATE: As I read them, the September 21 revisions to Treasury’s Cuban Assets Control Regulations do not suddenly allow this requirement to be met by Cuban citizens. They allow direct employment of Cuban nationals in Cuba by “Entities organizing or conducting educational activities authorized by ยง 515.565(a).” But People-to-People trips are authorized under 515.565(b). Section (a) covers academic exchanges for students and faculty, plus assorted other stuff, while (b) covers non-academic educational exchanges, i.e. People-to-People trips, along with attendance at conferences, workshops, etc.

Matt and his friend Hilda

Here you have two lovely people. Just lovely. One of us is a U.S. citizen, and the other’s Cuban. One of us can work for a U.S. company and accompany People-to-People travelers, and the other can’t. Did I mention we’re both lovely people?

2. Program activities that don’t qualify:

People-to-People educational exchange trips are meant to foster meaningful interactions between travelers and Cuban nationals (except certain people the U.S. considers persona non grata). They’re also meant to support Cubans operating independently of the state’s control, whether that’s independent political organizing, private enterprise, independent community service… You get the idea.

I know one company that runs fishing trips and claims to operate under a People-to-People license. My dad was interested in their trips, so I investigated. The company volunteered the following “reasoning”: They’re affiliated with some research institution, which has their travelers count fish and report the numbers back, making the trip serve an educational purpose. So it’s totes legal! Right?

Wrong. This isn’t People-to-People. If anything, it’s People-to-Fish. And while counting fish may serve some bullshit noble scientific purpose, it does not make for a People-to-People trip.

Plate of fish with accompaniments.

Not a person.

This stuff isn’t that complicated. In most respects, the regulations are pretty black and white. There may be some gray areas – but these I’ve explained? Not so gray.

Or, to say it another way: The rules of Cuba travel are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known!