By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK | New York Times
DUNCAN BEARDSLEY said a bitter goodbye to Havana a few weeks ago.
While he was there, Mr. Beardsley, director of the travel study program for Stanford alumni, learned that the Bush administration was no longer granting special licenses that allow alumni organizations, museums and other cultural groups to take American citizens on educational trips to Cuba.
The “people-to-people” exchange educational exemption, expanded by President Clinton in 1999, enabled as many as 100,000 United States citizens to visit Cuba legally without special status as working journalists or full-time scholars.
Dismayed by the news, Mr. Beardsley and his group brought up their complaints in a meeting at the United States Interests Section in Havana. “We were told the educational license was being eliminated because it was being used primarily for salsa and the beach,” he said. “This is a travel-study program. Study is an important part of everything we do. It is very frustrating.”
The administration’s decision on March 24 to stop granting the educational licenses has set off a flurry of protests from prominent cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Harvard University Art Museums and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as many alumni and professional groups have organized trips to Cuba for their members.
Last year, about 35,000 people traveled there with an educational license, according to estimates by Bob Guild, program director at Marazul Charters of Weehawken, N.J., the largest organizer of trips to Cuba.
Now specialized sponsors like the Center for Cuban Studies in New York are rushing to schedule as many trips as they can before their current licenses expire this fall. The center has doubled its planned trips from 8 to 16 before its current license expires later this year. The American Museum of Natural History moved up a trip scheduled for December to November for the same reason. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, has canceled planned trips to visit artists and galleries because its license expired last month.
“The new regulations spell the virtual end of travel to Cuba for ordinary Americans,” said Nancy Chang, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit civil rights group. The rules still leave exemptions for students on academic programs as well as for professional scholars, journalists, government officials and Cuban-Americans visiting family, but far fewer people fall into those categories.
The Bush administration is ending the educational licenses because it believes too many people have been using them mainly to have fun. It has been a more or less open secret that many ostensibly educational trips to the Havana Jazz Festival, for example, leave plenty of room for cigars, mojitos and beaches.
“The license was being abused,” said Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the Treasury Department. “It undermined the intention of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba, which are to deprive the Castro regime of the financial wherewithal to continue to oppress its people.”
On March 24, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the branch of the Treasury Department that administers the embargo, stopped granting new licenses and issued a rule eliminating the exemption. Officials in the office said the change was part of a constriction in Cuba policy that President Bush outlined in a fund-raising speech in Miami last May. It also coincided with a recent crackdown on Cuban dissidents by President Fidel Castro. The Treasury Department is formally accepting comment on the rule change until May 23.
Proponents of travel to Cuba, however, argued that some of the administration’s moves appear inconsistent. For example, the Treasury Department is simultaneously increasing the amount of money United States citizens can take to relatives in Cuba and expanding the number of relations they can travel to visit, a change potentially at odds with the goal of cutting off the Cuban government’s economic resources. “That is the irony,” said Ms. Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Cultural organizations and Cuban tour operators are urging their patrons to protest. “There is nothing more corrosive to the Castro regime than having wealthy, cultured, educated Americans going for study tours and stirring the pot with Cuban intellectual and opinion leaders,” said James F. Friedlander, chief executive of Academic Arrangements Abroad, which organizes educational tours for museums and other institutions.
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, argued in a letter to Treasury Secretary John W. Snow that because of its dilapidation, “Cuba is a laboratory for restoration and preservation procedures of vital interest to the preservation community in the United States.” He urged that abuses of the licenses should be addressed without eliminating them completely.
Some organizations are already looking for ways to get back to Cuba under other exemptions, like one for religious groups. Mr. Beardsley of Stanford said, “It’s unfortunate if the only way people can go is on a religious trip, when the main interest of our alumni is in political science.”