By Peter Alexander | Frommers.com

Thanks to the extremely narrow restrictions placed on travel to Cuba by the current American administration, it is nearly impossible for the ordinary American to visit that country legally. There are circumstances under which you can travel there, and the humanitarian mission I took in Janauary was duly licensed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. You, too, may be able to join such a mission, but the organizers will have to endure a great deal of American red tape to get you there. Our government says it is not banning travel to Cuba, but they also say you can’t spend a penny to get there, while you are there, or to return. That’s why the Treasuryt is in charge of trips such as the one I took.

In addition to limiting visits by Cuban-Americans to see immediate family to once every three years, the rest of us can visit if we fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Full-time journalists on assignment
  2. Full-time professionals conducting academic research on a full-time basis in Cuba
  3. Attending certain international conferences held in Cuba

And you don’t need to apply for those three categories, as a General License allows you to travel.

In addition, you can ask for a Specific License (obtained through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC) for the following reasons:

  * Educational travel by students and faculty at accredited academic institutions
  * To attend Cuban-organized conferences and workshops
  * Religious travel
  * Free-lance journalists
  * Business travel for the purpose of exporting food and medicine to Cuba
  * Humanitarian projects
  * To perform in public performances, exhibitions and certain athletic competitions
  * By private foundations and educational and research institutes
  * For the purpose of exporting or importing informational materials
  * To give “support for the Cuban people” (which turns out to mean working to replace the current form of government there)

If you do not fit into one of the other categories above, your best bet is to find a group that is planning a humanitarian or research mission.

In my case, I found a group going to Havana for four nights, each of us carrying a suitcase full of over-the-counter medications, which we personally took to a Roman Catholic address in the Old Town. There, we unloaded our cases and made a great pile of ointments, vitamins, diabetes testing kits and more, and left with assurances that the medications would be given to anyone in the neighborhood needing them. Later, I visited what is said to be the city’s most prominent pharmacy, Johnson’s, and saw mostly bare shelves, so I felt my gifts would be put to good use.

Here are a few sources that provide occasional humanitarian or other general license missions:

  * Fundacion Amistad, based in New York and Durham NC, has no trips planned at time of writing, but suggest potential visitors check the Amistad website for the time when trips become available. Contact them at http://www.fundacionamistad.org.

  * Friendship Force International, offices in Atlanta, http://www.friendshipforce.org.

  * The Cuba-America Jewish Mission, based in Berkeley CA, has a mission planned for May, and perhaps two more in the autumn. Contact them at http://www.thecajm.org.

  * Global Exchange, out of San Francisco, is planning at least eight trips in 2006, each delegation to explore areas in their field of work. Included are delegations on these subjects: Architecture & City Planner in April; the Cuban Legal System in April; Disaster Relief in May; Protected Areas/Birds in May; Educator’s Delegation in June; Health Care in June; Protected Areas/Birds in December; and Educators again in December. Each trip costs $2350 per person. You are urged to bring medications for distribution there, also. Ms. Maria Everette, the program director, says another trip to be announced will make a ninth choice available. Contact them at http://www.globalexchange.org or phone 415/255-7296, fax 415/255-7498.

  * In addition, Maruzul Charters will consider assisting groups of professionals, all of whom must be in the same field (minimum of five), in arranging a full-time research program of meetings and site visits in Cuba. Among types of professionals mentioned were educators, health professionals, architects and planners, attorneys, artists “and other fields as well.” You should write them for details with size of your group, special research interests, projected dates of travel, etc. Contact information: 4100 Park Avenue, Weehawken NJ 07086; phone 800/223-5334 or 201/319-1054; fax 201/319-8970; http://www.marazul.com.

A Typical Mission

The mission I participated in was costly: The program cost $2,600 per person in a double room or $3,000 for a single for four nights in the very nice Parque Central Hotel in Old Town Havana near the Capitol building, all meals, round-trip airfare from Miami and a full range of activities for the entire stay. That also included a night in a Miami hotel, regional and local transportation there, airport transfers and documentation.

Illegal Trips

The Treasury Department strongly disapproves of tour packages, including those for scuba diving, bicycling, hunting, fishing, hiking or other tourist travel, saying they are illegal, even when prepaid by U.S. travelers through a travel agency located in a third country. Many Americans do willingly break the law by going to Cuba through Canada, Nassau (Bahamas) or Cancun (Mexico).

The prices for such illegal trips are affordable, granted you don’t get busted: Round-trip airfare on Cubana from Nassau runs about $299, and four nights in the excellent Parque Central Hotel costs around $463 for a package including breakfasts and a city tour with guide, admission to two nightclubs, and airport transfers. Three additional sites offering tours somewhat similar to this are http://www.voyagesdestinations.com, http://www.cubalinda.com and http://www.cubatravelus.com.

The latter offers one-week packages from Canada from as little as $499, with round-trip flights to Cuba, transfers, in-flight meals, and a visa. Staying at the fashionable and historic Nacional, however, with breakfasts, would run from $879. All-inclusive beach stays start from $799. Voyages Destinations has similar deals from Montreal, at a 2-star beach resort, the Mar del Sur at Varadero, offering one week stays (all-inclusive) from CAD $934.52, about U.S. $810, for instance.

But you risk being caught on returning to the USA, in which case a theoretical fine up to $250,000 or ten years in prison are possible punishments. The practice seems to be that the government fines you from about $1,000 up to $7,500 in most reported cases I could find. The Cuba Travel U.S. site states, not very helpfully, that if you are asked “more than normal questions” by U.S. Immigration, that you respond, in effect, “call my lawyer.” Personally, I don’t recommend such trips.

Do It Yourself

If you wish to start your own humanitarian (and legal) mission, contact a firm such as Global or Marazul, or you can apply to the Treasury Department at http://www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/programs.cuba/cuba.shtml. Allow at least two months to get approval or disapproval.

Of course, if you’re a citizen of any other country other than the United States, you’re free to travel to Cuba whenever you so desire.

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