By LEN MANIACE | THE JOURNAL NEWS
A doorway to Cuba that opened in 1999, permitting most U.S. citizens to travel there legally for the first time in decades, slammed shut this year.
The last of the “People-to-People” trips to Cuba ended last year, and some say the change was due to the powerful political role of anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, a state that plays a key role during the presidential elections.
“There will be a significant decrease in legal travel to Cuba for Americans in 2004,” said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, a cultural/educational program based in New Rochelle.
Insight Cuba sent some 2,300 Americans to Cuba last year, usually for one-to-two week programs that took travelers to historic sites, hospitals and schools, as well as to workshops and meetings with Cuban musicians and people.
Kenneth and Cynthia Jaeger, a retired Irvington couple, were among the last Americans traveling under the People-to-People program, spending a week in Cuba in late December. “I wanted to see what life was like in Cuba and wanted to meet the people.” Kenneth Jaeger said. “I wondered what they knew about the United States and our way of life.”
The couple said they found the Cuban people unusually friendly, but found the nation’s buildings, vehicles and infrastructure in far worse condition than they imagined. They said the program was tightly planned and educational. Though they understood the rationale for the new travel restrictions, the couple said they did not agree with it. “Something inside me says if we lift the embargo, it might hurt Castro even more,” Kenneth Jaeger said. “Because then the people there might realize how we live.”
Federal officials cite two reasons for tightening the rules for travel to Cuba: to deprive Fidel Castro’s government of money, and because some operators were abusing the program by offering what were, essentially, vacation tours.
“While illegal travel to Cuba, especially tourist travel, may seem harmless, it is in fact an important source of revenue for the Castro regime,” R. Richard Newcomb, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department, said in testimony before Congress last year. “A dollar paid to a tourist hotel in Cuba goes mostly to the regime, leaving only pennies in worthless pesos for the workers.”
Besides Cuba, the U.S. also restricts travel to Iraq and Libya.
Although travel to Cuba was restricted for most Americans, other changes broadened the opportunity for Americans with relatives in Cuba to travel there.
Where travel previously was restricted to close relatives of Cuban residents, the group now includes cousins and more distant relatives. Also the requirement that such travel be for humanitarian purposes has been dropped.
Some 156,000 Americans travelled to Cuba legally in 2003, according to John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York City-based consulting organization. Approximately 85 percent of them were relatives of Cuban residents. Of the remainder, about half travelled through the People-to-People program, Kavulich said. Another 22,000 to 25,000 Americans went to Cuba illegally, most travelling through either Canada or Mexico, Kavulich said.
Kavulich said he believed that regime change in Cuba, or at least different behavior by the current regime, was not the main reason for President Bush’s desire for tighter travel restrictions. “He has a massive challenge to demonstrate in two counties in Florida that U.S. policy in Cuba is all about politics,” said Kavulich, “and in the remaining counties in the state of Florida and in the other 49 states to present U.S. policy in law enforcement terms.” He said the Florida counties were Dade and Broward, home to most of the state’s large Cuban-American population.
When asked if politics played a role in the elimination of the People-to-People program, Tara Bradshaw, an Office of Foreign Assets Control spokeswoman, did not respond directly, saying: “The Bush administration is committed to the full and fair enforcement of U.S sanctions against Castro’s regime and adamantly believes it is important to maintain these sanctions.”
Both Popper and Kavulich acknowledged that some travel groups were abusing People-to-People’s educational goals, but said there had been little attempt by the government to weed those organizations from the program.
“They could have enforced the program, but instead they just cancelled it,” Popper said.
Licenses for travel to Cuba are still available for journalists and government officials travelling on official business; amateur or semi-pro athletes involved in competition; and certain business travel. The Treasury Department would also consider permitting travel for humanitarian purposes.
Insight Cuba plans to continue sending people to Cuba by changing its program to conform with the new regulations, Popper said. Insight Cuba is a part of Cross-Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit group based in New Rochelle, that sends Americans to Third World nations, typically for two-week programs, to learn about their cultures by performing volunteer work. Insight Cuba was exploring ways to undertake similar activities in Cuba.
“This is going to force us to be more creative and develop travel programs that are more meaningful for the individuals who go,” Popper said.