The re-opening of “people-to-people” travel to Cuba by President Barack Obama in early 2011 was the boldest and, arguably, the single most consequential step taken by his administration in relation to the island. It was in fact a revival of a Clinton-era exemption to the decades-old ban on U.S. citizens visiting that country. The exemption had been closed in 2003 by President George W. Bush.
Visits to Cuba must meet two requirements to be approved as people-to-people travel: the travel must be for an educational purpose, not tourism; and there must be frequent “meaningful” interactions between the U.S. travelers and Cubans who are not officials of the government of Cuba. The educational requirement of people-to-people trips is most often met through cultural programs that explore such subjects as Cuban music, dance, fine art, and architectural history. However, among many other current offerings there are also environmentally themed trips, as well as programs focused on the Cuban health care and education systems.
Since the program was re-introduced, an estimated 100,000 Americans have been visiting Cuba each year on people-to-people trips. The visits have been organized by a wide variety of groups, including the National Geographic Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and dozens of similar institutions. The travelers meet and talk with Cubans from different backgrounds and leave millions of dollars in the hands of non-state restaurateurs, artists, musicians, taxi drivers, and small farmers who supply the new private eateries of a changing Cuba.
The State Department is a firm supporter of people-to-people travel. In 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry called the program a “vital part of U.S. foreign policy,” adding, “We believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors […] they are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.” According to comments made by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson less than a year ago, the policy has benefited Cubans “by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”
Applications for licenses to conduct people-to-people programs are labor intensive, but thousands of American visitors to Cuba will attest it is a process worth undertaking. To obtain a license, a U.S.-based organization must apply to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). It must demonstrate its capacity and intention both to offer full-time educational programs in Cuba and to enforce the requirement that the travelers under its auspices engage “meaningfully” with Cubans not affiliated with the government. Sample itineraries of activities to be undertaken in Cuba are required and carefully vetted by OFAC licensing officers to ensure both conditions are met.
According to the chief of the licensing division who manages Cuba travel for OFAC, Jeffrey Braunger, since 2011 a total of 350 people-to-people licenses have been approved. This figure does not, however, distinguish between original and renewed licenses, so the total number of licensees is probably less than 300.
In 2013, 275 people-to-people applications were filed. Those applications are a mix of first-time applications, renewals and reapplications arising from denied applications. Because statistics are not kept on first-time applications, it is difficult to know whether interest in applying for people-to-people licenses is waxing or waning. But it appears interest has remained steady.
On average, it takes OFAC four months to process an initial or renewal application. OFAC therefore recommends that licensees apply for renewal at least four months before the date of a license’s expiration. However, it will accept applications up to six months before the date of expiration.
No one who has been through the people-to-people application process will say it is easy. But in fairness to OFAC, it was never meant to be easy. In 2000, Congress passed a special law making tourism to Cuba illegal. As a result, applicants for people-to-people licenses must prove that their proposed programs in Cuba are not tourism but, instead, constitute direct and meaningful interactions between travelers and Cubans not affiliated with the government. Looking constantly over OFAC’s shoulder are several influential members of Congress who have never disguised their hostility to people-to-people travel. A demanding application process at OFAC may well be the best guarantee of the program’s survival.
However, people-to-people programs may be at risk from an unforeseen quarter. In February, the Cuban Interests Section (CIS) in Washington DC, announced that it is suspending consular services in the United States—including the issuance of visas to U.S. citizens for travel to Cuba. The announcement was ordered after the M&T Bank stopped handling Cuban bank accounts in the U.S., including the accounts where visa fees are deposited. No substitute bank has been identified. The CIS said in a prepared statement that it “regrets any inconvenience this situation may cause to U.S. citizens who may require the services of our offices, with the negative impact on academic, cultural, educational and other types of exchanges between Cuba and the United States.” This, of course, puts people-to-people programs at risk. Proponents of those programs can only hope a solution will be found quickly.