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Posted July 14, 2003 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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Vanessa Bauza | Orlando Sentinel
HAVANA—Sure, she knew the tour was a bit skewed, perhaps too rah-rah. Nevertheless, Margo McAuliffe came away from her 10-day trip through Cuba “a fan.”

“I’m the reason they want the travel ban kept,” said the California retiree, referring to the Bush administration.

“I came here somewhat under the influence that Castro is a bad guy,” said McAuliffe, sitting in a Havana hotel lobby. “I felt this was one place [about which] I wasn’t hearing the truth. I feel our government has an ax to grind.”

With a packed itinerary focused on sustainable development, McAuliffe’s group, organized by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, learned about Cuba’s organic gardens and herbal healing. They visited a rehabilitation center for disabled children and talked with a family physician. In total they logged more than 1,000 miles from Havana to the eastern port city of Santiago and back.

McAuliffe had wanted to see Cuba for years in the hope of sifting through some of the rhetoric on both sides of the Florida Strait. News that the U.S. government is phasing out popular educational and cultural-exchange trips such as the one McAuliffe booked finally brought an end to her procrastination.

“I really jumped at the chance,” she said.

She’s not alone. Under new regulations released in March by the United States, no more licenses will be issued for the category known as “people to people” exchanges once they expire. The tightened restrictions are bringing a rush of American travelers who want to see Cuba before the loophole closes.

“The institutions are making a big marketing point of the fact that after January 1 there will be no more trips of this nature to Cuba,” said Janet Moore, president of Distant Horizons, a California-based tour operator. “All the groups are full, with waiting lists.”

Moore’s company organizes trips to Ethiopia, Iran, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. Cuba had become her most popular destination.

She has scheduled 15 groups to Havana between October and December, when her license expires. That’s more than double the number she normally books.

Thousands of Americans have visited Cuba since the “people to people” exchanges were created in January 1999 under the Clinton administration. Alumni associations, museum patrons, steam-engine enthusiasts, Little League teams, you name it—they all took advantage of the new licensing category to visit Cuba legally.

However, Treasury Department spokesman Taylor Griffin said tour organizers frequently abused the licenses by billing thinly veiled tourist trips as educational or cultural-exchange visits.

“It essentially ended up being used as a way to conduct tourist travel to Cuba. This sort of travel undermines the intentions of U.S. sanctions to Cuba,” Griffin said. “The whole point is to deny this regime U.S. dollars.”

There were abuses, some tour organizers agreed. But eliminating the category was not the answer, they said.

“There’s no question there were some abuses going on,” said Silvia Wilhelm, founder of Puente Cubanos, a Miami-based antiembargo group. “Some people were buying licenses. They were pretending to have itineraries that said one thing and were another. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is they are punishing everyone.”

Last year about 154,000 Americans traveled to Cuba legally under journalistic, academic, humanitarian, religious and other licenses, including “people to people,” the fastest-growing category, with about a 30 percent increase annually, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Many of the groups plan to reapply for new licenses under different categories. The restrictions could keep out up to 15,000 licensed travelers, Kavulich said.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has relaxed travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, the bulk of licensed travelers to Cuba, making it easier for them to visit relatives. It also increased the amount of cash they can take to their families, from $300 to $3,000 each quarter.

Though most of the money is spent in state-owned stores, the Cuban American National Foundation supported the tenfold increase, arguing that some of it trickles down to dissident groups and helps develop a civil society on the island.

The “people to people” exchanges, however, offered a distorted vision of Cuba by including “all of the accomplishments of Cuba’s revolution and none of its victims,” said Joe Garcia, CANF executive director.

Ricardo Gonzalez, a Cuban emigre and president of a sister-city association that partners Madison, Wis., with his hometown of Camagey, disagreed. He blamed the Bush administration’s domestic agenda for the squeeze on Cuba travel.

“Everyone who travels to Cuba always returns with a much better understanding of the issues involved,” Gonzalez said. “They return as advocates for a change in policy. I’m sure this plays into the administration’s desire to curtail travel.”

Vanessa Bauz is a correspondent in Cuba for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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