Why it is happening, nobody is sure. But the Cuba "People to People" travel program touted so highly by President Obama in 2011 is coming to a screeching halt, drowning in paperwork and non-renewed licenses for travel organizations.
Almost no organizations that got licenses from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last year to sponsor trips to Cuba have received renewals. Trips that were advertised have been scrapped. Organizations are left to wait without any updates or information.
“We work with about 30 different non-profit organizations that have programs to Cuba in next 12 months, and 100% of them have not received renewals of licenses,” said Jim Friedlander, president of Academic Arrangements Abroad in New York, a travel service provider, late Tuesday.
He said that the practical effect of OFAC’s lack of activity is that it disrupts the entire People to People program.
To me, this is contrary to the whole purpose of the president's 2011 loosening of travel for Americans to Cuba.
Because of the outdated U.S. embargo against Cuba that makes it illegal for Americans to travel there, most Americans have never been to Cuba unless on a family or religious visa. The People to People cultural travel program finally allowed thousands of regular travelers to visit last year and early this year, interacting with Cubans in a meaningful way.
But in May, the OFAC application for a license to operate trips to Cuba under People to People grew from 6 pages to essentially hundreds of pages. Organizations seeking renewal had to document every minute of every day for every single trip they had done in the past year to prove that they were doing “People to People” activities and not tourism.
Then, most of them heard nothing. Weeks and months passed. Licenses lapsed. Since OFAC is notoriously closed-mouth about its work and does not make public its list of licences, applicants have been able to get little information. But gradually they realized they were all in the same predicament.
The U.S. Treasury press office on Tuesday did email me a comment from Jeff Braunger, program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing: “We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses. We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses. We receive numerous such requests which are being handled in turn. It is our goal to respond in a timely matter.’’
I think this is approximately one paragraph more information than all the organizations waiting for their renewals have gotten from his office.
The thing that alarms me most is that the groups I’ve talked to seem intimidated and scared. They are afraid of going public with their concern, worried that if they seem to be complaining about months of delays that have caused them to cancel trips, lose money and lay off staff, that OFAC will punish them by stowing their application on the bottom of a giant pile.
I don’t think that’s true, but the very fact that companies are so skittish concerns me greatly. These are not fly-by-night groups. Typical groups that have -- or had -- Cuba “People to People” licenses include Harvard Alumni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Insight Cuba and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, all reputable groups that ran ethical and very good culturally-rich trips.
Now, a look at their websites tells the story. Harvard has one trip planned for Dec. 27 but with this caveat: “Pending ‘People to People” license renewal.” The Met wiped Cuba off its itinerary for now. National Geographic, which has run 29 trips taking 703 people total in the past year, is taking only preliminary waiting-list reservations for fall trips with no deposit. (A deposit, according to OFAC rules, is engaging in financial transaction with Cuba and illegal if you have no license) Insight Cuba has suspended all trips for the past two months and is on hold, waiting for its renewal that expired in June. National Trust has 4 Cuba trips still on its 2012 itinerary, but with an asterisk: "Pending People to People License Renewal."
Whether you are pro-Cuba travel or anti-Cuba travel, this whole thing should concern you a lot. There is something sinister to me about preventing citizens from traveling, then allowing them to do so, then throwing giant roadblocks to prevent them from going after all.
So why is it happening?
It could be election year politics, with OFAC personnel covering their bases in case Democrats are out in November and Republicans take over.
It could be undue influence from the small but mighty faction of anti-Cuba types in Congress.
It could be the White House consciously deciding to slow down the program for political reasons in exchange for something it wants from Cuba.
Or it could just be bureaucratic overload, with hapless workers struggling under an avalanche of paperwork it thought it needed and no deadline, and meanwhile these worthy groups that have done so much work to run People to People trips to Cuba lose money, customers and confidence in their government.