Contributor: Sarah Arizaga
Here we go again!
You wanted to go to Cuba and now you’re worried you’ve let the opportunity slip through your fingers? Well, DON’T WORRY. You did miss the boat, but it was the literal one, not the figurative one.
If you haven’t gone to Cuba yet, you didn’t miss THE boat, you just missed these boats
In another throwback to a bygone era, the Trump Administration is taking a hard line with Cuba, this time primarily over their support of Venezuela’s dictator Maduro. This resulted in changes to the Cuba travel regulations that went into effect on June 5, 2019. The political differences of opinion between our countries have created many years of havoc, but let’s not discuss the politics of this right now. As fun and adventurous people looking for our next vacation, we’ll just keep focused on how these changes affect our travel plans.
A few questions for you...
1) Are you booked on a cruise to Cuba?
If that’s a yes, then I’m sorry, that’s a bummer. The June 5th changes pulled the rug out so fast all the cruise lines are still skidding across the floor. They eliminated cruise travel immediately without so much as a “we’ll give you a couple days to pack up your things”. Nope, cruises stopped coming that very day. You probably already know your cruise was re-routed to an exotic local like Key West, Cozumel, or the Bahamas. Call your cruise company, and if none of those destinations are enticing enough for you to risk the norovirus, get a refund and use it to buy your flight to Cuba.
2) Are you booked on a People to People (P2P) tour?
If that’s a yes, then I know you aren’t traveling with us, because we don’t offer P2P tours. I’m not hatin’ on that, I’m just glad you’re going! Yes, that’s right you ARE still going. The June 5th changes eliminated general license People to People travel 515.565(b), which was a subcategory of Education 515.565, but that’s the only one that was removed. All 12 categories still remain. Your provider hopefully already explained to you that you’re grandfathered in as long as you made a purchase related to your trip before June 5, 2019. So, if you bought your flight, accommodations, or tour package then go and have a great time!
3) Are you booked on a tour with us?
If that’s a yes, then congratulations for being such a smart and savvy traveler! Your trip can continue as planned. None of these changes affect you, because you are:
A) Traveling under Support for the Cuban People (SCP) 515.574 or one of the other categories of general license, none of which were changed by the new rules. SCP has been the catch-all general purposes category since Trump’s last round of changes in November 2017, so we stopped running P2P tours.
B) Flying to Cuba. The changes didn’t impact commercial flights, just cruise ships and other recreational vessels (fancy speak for boat), and private or corporate aircraft. If you were flying in on your private jet and not like cattle in American Airlines economy class, then I have a hard time feeling sorry for you.
4) Are you wanting to go to Cuba but haven’t booked anything at all?
If that’s a yes, then what are you waiting for? No, you can’t go on a cruise anymore, but that wasn’t really the best way to experience this amazing country anyway. No, you can’t go on a People to People tour anymore, but that was never the best option for a capable and intrepid traveler such as yourself. Support for the Cuban People allows more freedom to experience Cuba the way you want. P2P required a babysitter from the U.S. to make sure you participated in everything on the itinerary. Did you want to be babysat? Of course not, you’re an adult! So buy that flight and get your visa at the airport and we’ll see in the Pearl of the Antilles.
It’s still easy to get here. Most major airlines still fly here, and you just buy the visa at check in
Now it’s Your Turn to Ask Me…
What is Support for the Cuban People (SCP) ?
This legal stuff can get a little tedious and I don’t want to bore or confuse you more than necessary so I’m going to try to keep it simple. This is the “For Dummies” version aimed at the traveler who just wants to go on vacation. If you want me to go into detail about this, take me to coffee and I’ll talk to you until your eyes gloss over.
Support for the Cuban People (or SCP) 515.574 is a category of authorized travel to Cuba (aka general license) that lets you go to Cuba because you are going to:
- Promote independence of Cubans (not their government), usually by spending $$$
- Have meaningful interactions with locals
Not park yourself on a beach resort to sun your buns
Why Are You Pushing That Category?
I am suggesting SCP because you are not going for religious, journalistic or academic reasons, to visit family, to research something for your field of business, to attend a meeting, to build a house or some other altruistic reason. No, you are a simply a tourist and you need a “meaningful reason” to be in Cuba otherwise you are a law-breaking rascal.
How do I Support the Cuban People?
Ooh, this could get really difficult. You might have to eat delicious food, stay in charming B&Bs, buy stuff from cute boutiques, admire amazing art, learn how to dance, get a massage, hang out with cool local guides, and worst of all… TALK TO PEOPLE.
Support for the Cuban People is as easy as being serenaded on the malecón
I’m being flippant but yeah, it’s pretty much that easy. You don’t have to do all of that or any of that, they are just some suggestions. Come up with whatever creative activities you want: volunteer somewhere, pick up trash on the beach, teach something to someone. SO. MANY. OPTIONS.
What you MUST do is have a full-time schedule (e.g. 6-8 hours) of daily activities where you are either supporting a privately-owned business or community project or interacting on a meaningful level with locals. Let me clarify that last requirement:
Meaningful: Discussions about culture, politics, business, economics, history, family, community, the environment, the Cuban reality, the meaning of life, the theory of evolution, etc. etc.
Not Meaningful: “Hey amigo, I’ll take that bottle of rum there and a pack of cigarettes.”
You’ve got to keep a record what you did and spent in Cuba because in the unlikely event your trip gets audited by the big scary Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). They want you to prove that you spent your days and money being meaningful and supportive. Keep these records for 5 years, that’s how long they have to audit you. Oh yeah, also, don’t spend money at any of these prohibited hotels and stores.
The easiest way to travel SCP is to take a tour designed to comply, we have three excellent tours that take the guesswork out of Cuba travel.
If any entity, such as the airline or US customs officials, wants to know your category of travel, you’ll tell them 515.574 Support for the Cuban People. Carrying an affidavit with you (download it from the internet or we’ll send one if you’re booked with us) will make the process easier, but it is not required.
Our tours have always prioritized supporting small business, farmers, community projects, and rural communities even before P2P and SCP were a thing. It’s just the way we roll.
What is the Paperwork Requirement?
You just need to keep any receipts that you are given and itineraries for any tours you booked and write a record what you were doing each day, for example in a travel journal. Your entry could look something like this:
Today I at ate the privately owned paladar called Donde Lis where I spent 6CUC on food and had a fascinating discussion about the Backstreet Boys with my waiter Alejandro.” (This is a true story)
My Backstreet Boys loving waitstaff at paladar Donde Lis
You don’t even have to do all that, just jot down what you were doing and names, dates, transactions. Or don’t, but that’s on you.
What if I Don’t? Will I Be Arrested?
No, and you won’t have your passport revoked either. Worst case scenario you’ll probably be fined. Under the Bush Administration, when the travel embargo was heavily enforced (before the general license existed) the average fine was 1k. OFAC hasn’t been enforcing these rules for travelers since around the time the Spice Girls were spicing up our lives, so don’t expect that you will be asked to show this to anyone. I think it’s better to be safe than sorry though. Most of our travelers tell us that the re-entry to the US is uneventful. I’ve had a couple of times where an immigration official had too much time on their hands and asked me lots of questions, but usually they are being friendly about it. The most common question I get after telling them I traveled under SCP is “How did you support the Cuban People?”
Why was People to People Eliminated?
The Trump Administration considers P2P “veiled tourism” with the majority of dollars going to the government. It’s true that P2P tours tended to use more government services, such as hotels and government tour companies, thus putting more money into the “enemy” pockets. The thing is, both cruises and P2P tours did result in meaningful exchanges and supporting the Cuban people, and had a positive impact on both sides of the Florida straits. It’s just that SCP more directly supports entrepreneurship in Cuba.
One of the hotels the Trump Administration has prohibited. Most luxury hotels are forbidden.
What Has the Impact of these Changes Been?
The abrupt and unceremonious end of cruises was a big blow to our day tours company Havana Adventures. We had many guides in Havana devoted to these passengers, and we went from receiving sometimes hundreds of travelers to now having just a few. But the biggest impact, just like back in November 2017, will probably come from the media- not the Trump Administration. This time, just like in 2017, news reports make people think they can’t come to Cuba or that its prohibitively difficult, but it’s not. Last time it took the media about 3 months to get the story right, but the damage had been done. Interest in Cuba plummeted, which was painful for us and our beloved brothers and sisters 90 miles away. From the looks of it, the news outlets are getting up to speed faster this time but again, the headlines are scaring people. Just remember, traveling legal to Cuba can be as easy as eating, sleeping, shopping, and conversing.
I’ll end this article with an anecdote…
When Bolton made his vitriolic speech on April 17th I was in Havana and radio bemba (Cuban slang for the grapevine) was buzzing with the bad news. I was immediately consumed with worry and disappointment: what was going to happen to the Cubans? Another great depression like the 90’s? Why was my government being so hateful? Was I going to lose my job?!!! I felt really low, and my Cuban friends were so chill about it. “We’ve survived before, we’ll survive again.” They explained that they were so used to being kicked by the American government that they really couldn’t get worked up, they’d just deal with whatever happened. And they started joking about it. My pity party and anxiety for the future seemed silly in the face of their graceful acceptance. These guys all had such a difficult life compared to mine, and had weathered storms that would have knocked me down. Still, they showed concern for me, even though they’d be the ones getting the worst of it. Well, that impacted me and changed my perspective not just about that situation but about letting worries consume me. Now I try to manage life’s challenges with a more Cuban mindset. Venceremos. And that, my friends, is what meaningful interaction is all about.
Me with some of our wonderful guides in Havana. They are seeing a lot less work since the recent changes, but have a resilience and good humor that I hope to learn from. Make it a priority to come meet them!