By HELENA PAYNE | Associated Press
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Dreary January is usually a busy month for Americans visiting sunny Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program. But this year was different, as a chill continues between the communist island and the White House.
The Bush administration has eliminated cultural exchange licenses that allowed just about any American to travel to Cuba, 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, introduced in 1999 by the Clinton administration, were intended to let Cubans and Americans learn about one another through educational trips.
But federal officials now say the exchanges had become little more than thinly veiled tourism and eliminated the program. The last licenses expired Dec. 31, and some travel agencies are scrambling to find a legal alternative.
About 160,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2002, the last year for which statistics are available. Many others travel there illegally by departing from airports outside America, without having their passports stamped by Cuba.
Bob Guild, program director for travel service provider Marazul Charters Inc., 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, Mr. Guild said, the numbers were off by 50 percent.
The cultural exchange program offered the only option for many Americans who didn’t qualify for other limited visas to visit Cuba, “It was the only way ordinary people could go who simply wanted to learn more about Cuba, about the embargo, about the situation,” said Merri Ansara, director of Common Ground Education & Travel of Cambridge.
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 passed with those provisions.
The Treasury Department, which stopped issuing people-to-people licenses, argued that Americans weren’t using the cultural exchange program for what it was intended, but rather were just vacationing on the Caribbean island, according to spokeswoman Tara Bradshaw.
“Tourist travel puts hard currency in the hands of Castro and his cronies and does very little to help the Cuban people,” said Ms. Bradshaw.
But Katrina Hart, 64, a landscape painter from Hamilton, Mass., 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.
The options available for Americans to legally travel to the island are now limited. Visas can be obtained by researchers, business people attending conferences or meetings, journalists, government officials, amateur athletes and close relatives of Cuban nationals. Other licenses are also issued to humanitarian and religious groups.
San Francisco-based Global Exchange extended its last trip of 2003 to Cuba into the new year by combining people-to-people and 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.
Information: Center for Cuban Studies, [url=http://www.cubaupdate.org;]http://www.cubaupdate.org;[/url] Common Ground Education & Travel, [url=http://www.commongroundtravel.com]http://www.commongroundtravel.com[/url] ; Global Exchange, [url=http://www.globalexchange.org]http://www.globalexchange.org[/url]