Despite first domestic flights to Cuba, Americans prohibited from traveling as tourists

Screen shot 2016-09-02 at 7.20.48 AMAmericans aren’t used to being told they can’t do something, especially something as seemingly harmless as lounging around on a beautiful beach all day. But despite all the ways travel rules for Americans in Cuba have relaxed each month over the past two years, our own government prohibits us from traveling to Cuba as tourists.

“If Americans skip a day to just sit on the beach, can we do that?” SEVEN ON YOUR SIDE Consumer Investigator Kimberly Suiters asked Alejandro Enfantes, a Cuban tour guide.

“No, you cannot,” Enfantes answered. “It’s basically illegal for Americans to just go to the beach.”

“Who would stop me from sitting on the beach for 5 hours tomorrow?” Suiters asked, pointing to the clear blue water of Varadero Beach on Cuba’s north shore.

“Certainly not me,” said Enfantes. “It’s your country’s rules, not mine.”

But are those rules being enforced?

7 ON YOUR SIDE asked the U.S. Treasury Department, which regulates U.S. citizenship activity in Cuba, rather than the U.S. State Department, how many Americans have been fined for traveling to Cuba without a proper license or for breaking the law by acting like a carefree tourist?

We checked government records in recent years and had to search back to 2005 to find four Americans who were forced to pay civil penalties totaling $4,875 for “violating the Cuban embargo.” Two of the travelers went to Cuba by way of Toronto, Canada, and the other two through Nassau, the Bahamas, routes many Americans have risked taking for years to circumvent the embargo. Businesses, however, are still being fined for violations. In 2016, Halliburton was assessed a $304,000 fine, CGG France a $614,000 fine, and WATG architects a $140,000 fine.

But with the first American hotel chain in five decades moving into Havana in the summer of 2016 and now commercial U.S. flights permitted each day, “U.S. travel to Cuba is on track to triple this year to more than 300,000 visitors in the wake of the 2014 declaration of détente,” according to the Associated Press.

Enfantes’ travel company has benefitted from the boom, especially since Americans who do manage to get to Cuba are required to do eight hours of non-touristic activities each day, which is why wiggling your toes in sand for hours wouldn’t be legal. To fulfill the U.S. Treasury mandate to “maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities … result[ing] in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba,” it’s far easier for the American traveler to link up with a travel company that organizes a legal itinerary for you, not to mention makes all arrangements for transportation, dining, housing, plus demonstrations by artists, interactions with organic farmers, lectures by university economists, and performances by local musicians.

7 ON YOUR SIDE’s Suiters traveled with 22 other Americans through Friendly Planet, a budget-friendly travel company based in Pennsylvania which charged each traveler approximately $3,500 for the entire 7-day trip, including chartered flights on and off the island. The participants ranged in age from 17 to 67 and they came from Seattle, Houston, New York City, and cities in between. Most of whom shared the same reason for traveling to Cuba now: to see the country before Americans change it.

Friendly Planet applied for licenses for the group to travel to Cuba under the people-to-people general license required by U.S. law. Americans wishing to go to Cuba must fit under one of 12 government-approved categories that fall under that general license, such as humanitarian projects, religious activities, family visits, and a people-to-people exchange. After passports were stamped in Cuba, the travelers were advised to hold onto their itineraries and travel journals with passports for the next 5 years, to prove to U.S. border agents on future international trips that they did indeed travel to a communist country legally.

Suiters reports the Cuban people that they met were eager to see the U.S. embargo, imposed 50 odd years ago, lifted. The “blockade,” as Cubans refer to it, was part of the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act, intended to “isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of American dollars.”

Havana, in particular, could benefit from American dollars. The bones of beautiful architecture painted with eye-popping color were everywhere; think historic New Orleans, but without a touch-up in 55 years. The iconic American cars that serve as taxis on every block looked magnificent from afar, but riding in one sounded a lot like a gas-powered lawn mower. Cubans have had to invent the parts they couldn’t import.

“Remember that Cuba is more close to United States than God,” said Isis Milla, an agronomist on an organic farm outside Havana. “We have to be finished with embargo right now.”

Milla dreams of a day when she can sell her organic vegetables and herbs to a Whole Foods; or shop for new equipment at a Home Depot.

How close they are to that level of American capitalism is impossible to measure. American credit cards are allowed in Cuba but Suiters says they didn’t work while they were there. The U.S. government prohibits travelers from taking out more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco, the equivalent of four high-quality cigars or 10 bottles of tasty rum.

One university economist, who apologized that the travelers had to listen to his lecture rather than enjoy a mojito on the patio of the Hotel Nacional, described the limited Cuba travel as “one hole in a Swiss cheese embargo.”

U.S. limits on American tourism are known by travelers around the world. A young couple from Spain commented to Suiters, “We thought Americans couldn’t come here at all.”

When we greeted a 22-year-old Cuban bike taxi driver with the local expression, “Que bola!”, he was astonished. As he pedaled us around the streets of Havana he shouted to his friends sitting on their stoops at midnight, “Gente de Miami! Estados Unidos!” We had told him that we came from our nation’s capital, Washington, DC, but it was the America part that he cared about.

Americans in Cuba are still considered something of a novelty. We should check back with that driver a year from now after hundreds of thousands of Americans have descended on a country the size of Virginia.

“We are meant to be friends,” Victor Rodriguez, a community center director, told Suiters. “We are quite close. Why enemies? You like our art, we like your art. You like our music. We like your music. We are meant to be friends.”

Later, on the streets of Old Havana, under a bright yellow building with aqua blue shutters, two musicians played a familiar tune on a violin and guitar as Suiters and the travelers walked by – the theme song to the popular American sitcom Friends.

Kimberly Suiters/ABC7, WJLA

September 1, 2016

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