HELENA PAYNE | Associated Press
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - January is usually a busy month for agencies licensed to send Americans to sunny Cuba. But this year is different.
The Bush administration has eliminated cultural exchange licenses that allowed just about any American to travel to the communist island nation, which has been subject to a U.S. trade embargo for more than four decades since Fidel Castro seized power.
These so-called “people-to-people” licenses were intended to let Cubans and Americans learn more about each other, but officials said the exchanges had become little more than thinly veiled tourism. Supporters of the program said President Bush had it abolished to shore up votes from anti-Castro Cubans in the election battleground state of Florida.
About 160,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Many more traveled there illegally by departing from airports outside the United States.
But the cultural exchange program offered the only option for many Americans to visit Cuba, said Merri Ansara, director of Common Ground Education & Travel of Cambridge.
“It was the only way ordinary people could go who simply wanted to learn more about Cuba, about the embargo, about the situation,” she said.
“It was creating dialogue,” added Common Ground marketing coordinator Laura Sitkin. “The dialogue was changing American policy.”
Bob Guild, program director for Marazul Charters Inc., which has offices in Florida and New Jersey, said the number of Americans traveling to Cuba should be much lower in 2004. His company sent 2,500 people to Cuba in January 2003. This year, Guild said, the numbers are off by 50 percent.
“The idea of using individuals’ right to travel as an instrument of foreign policy is not right, it’s not constitutional or moral,” Guild said.
For the first time, both houses of Congress voted last year in favor of lifting the Cuba travel ban. But the language of the bill was changed at the last minute because President Bush threatened to use his veto power if the bill was passed with those provisions.
In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department stopped issuing people-to-people licenses last year, and they expired on Dec. 31.
Treasury spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw said Americans weren’t using the cultural exchange program for what it was intended, but rather were just going to vacation on the Caribbean island.
“Tourist travel puts hard currency in the hands of Castro and his cronies and does very little to help the Cuban people,” said Bradshaw.
Katrina Hart, a 64-year-old landscape painter from Hamilton, traveled to Cuba in December on a people-to-people trip, and she said it was far from a vacation, with lectures on Cuban history and culture, and visits to farms, schools and museums.
“We spent most of our days in very serious pursuits and we have a schedule to prove it,” Hart said.
Several options are still available for Americans to legally travel to the island - from researchers, business people attending conferences or meetings, journalists, government officials, amateur athletes and close relatives of Cuban nationals. Other specific licenses are also issued, often to humanitarian and religious groups.
Cambridge vice-mayor Marjorie Decker traveled in November on a people-to-people license to Cienfuegos, Cuba, where she studied the country’s early childhood education and biotechnology programs, which she described as “cutting edge.” She said all Americans should be entitled to travel to Cuba so they can draw their own conclusions about the island.
“That’s how you build a safer world when people actually have relationships and know you and you’re not a mystery,” Decker said.
Some travel agencies that relied solely on the people-to-people exchange to send groups to the island are scrambling to find a legal alternative.
But the Center for Cuban Studies, one of the oldest groups offering cultural exchanges between Cuba and the U.S., was forced to halt its travel services, said Marcos Meconi, who coordinated Cuba trips for the New York-based center.
Global Exchange, based in San Francisco, managed to extend its last trip of 2003 to Cuba into the New Year by combining people-to-people licenses with humanitarian licenses.
“In the end, we feel it’s a lot of bureaucracy, red tape,” said Rachel Bruhnke, coordinator for Global Exchange’s Eco-Cuba program. “We feel that the intention of the policy is to keep American people and Cuban people separated.”
ON THE NET
Center for Cuban Studies: http://www.cubaupdate.org
Common Ground Education & Travel: http://www.commongroundtravel.com
Global Exchange: http://www.globalexchange.org/
Marazul Charters Inc.: http://www.marazulcharters.com/