Posted January 28, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
By HELENA PAYNE | Associated Press Writer
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Dreary January is usually a busy month for Americans visiting sunny Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program. But this year is 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 (news - web sites) 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 each other 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, according to the U.S. Treasury Department (news - web sites). 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, 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.
The cultural exchange program offered the only option for many average Americans — who didn’t qualify for other limited visas — 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.”
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.
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 going to vacation 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 Bradshaw.
But 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. Visas can be obtained by 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.
With the “people-to-people” program, travel companies often acted as the middle man between the government and travelers to obtain the licenses. The companies would set up the program, then submit documentation and provide a detailed itinerary of the trip and a list of travelers to federal authorities for approval.
The Center for Cuban Studies, one of the oldest groups offering cultural exchanges between Cuba and America, has been 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.”
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