“Can I go to Cuba now?”: Obama administration announces new travel guidelines

April 22, 2011

Whenever the U.S. government messes with its rules for Cuba travel, my phone blows up, my inbox overflows. So when the Obama administration laid down new rules yesterday about travel, the emails and phone calls came fast and furious.

The timing of the release was certainly curious – three months from when they were first announced in January and just days after Cuba concluded its first Communist Party convention in more than a decade. For those who missed the news: Raúl Castro, 79, is now president, chief of the armed forces and 1st secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, making him the undisputed número uno. They also named a first-ever non-Castro successor, José Ramón Machado Ventura, a youthful 80 years old.

But back to the Obama administration’s new rules for everyone who wants to go before it all changes: I’m no lawyer, nothing but a writer with a spiritual umbilical cord that goes back to Cuba, so here’s what I tell folks, and what I know to be true.

If you’re a U.S. citizen, technically, you can travel to Cuba whenever you want. The actual restriction isn’t on travel but on spending money. That’s why, if you want to travel “legally,” you need a license from Treasury, not the State Department.

The new rules make it easier to go for specific purposes – family visits, journalism, academic research, educational purposes, and professional events – but most Americans will still fall outside what’s referred to as the “general license.” That's because, according to the U.S., you can’t just go hang out – you must have a specific purpose. If you want to study the new surprisingly easy to understand rules (and find a purpose …), the Treasury has published them in their entirety.

The biggest change is that most of the 2003 Bush administration restrictions on people-to-people exchange have been deleted. That means licenses will be much easier to get. As a result, count on much more cultural exchange, more artists and writers and singers going back and forth (but few Cuban-Americans going to Cuba – the U.S may let them travel, but Cuba’s not about to let Paquito D’Rivera, Gloria Estefan or any passionately anti-Castro Cuban exile perform on the island).

In addition, the new rules mean Americans can send up to $2,000 a year to Cuba “to support private economic activity.” And Western Union will deliver directly, for a stiff price but quite efficiently. The Cuban government will take a 20 percent bite out of it upon arrival.

There’s also new specific non-licensing on telecommunications equipment, but Americans should be wary: Cuba is notoriously unpredictable about how it deals with electronics at its points of entry. You may get a nod in Havana about your laptop but have it temporarily confiscated at the Holguín airport. You may never see it again in Varadero. 

If you’re a Cuban-born U.S. citizen, your situation’s a little different, because you need permission from Cuba too, not just the U.S., so you’ll have the nightmarish experience of dealing with the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. which routinely ignores emails, letters and phone calls. When you finally realize you’ll have to go personally, plan a week of sight-seeing in the nation’s capital and go well-armed with calming agents cuz you’ll need them.

A quick note: If you’re a “natural-born” U.S. citizen, Cuba doesn’t require anything from you beforehand if you’re just visiting – you can get a tourist visa at any Cuban airport. But do bring cash – the Treasury ban means you won’t be able to use local ATMs or any U.S.-issued credit card. Whatever you have on you is what you’ll have available for the trip.

One last thing about Cuba travel, however you go: On the way back from Cuba, don’t lie to U.S. customs. Whether your travel is ultimately “legal” or not, what’s absolutely illegal is lying to a federal officer.