John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development

By Gay Nagle Myers

In January 2011, the Obama administration rolled out long-awaited regulations to reinstate the people-to-people category of licensed group travel to Cuba. Many of these programs, which got off to a smashing start last fall by organizations licensed to run such programs, now are languishing as organizers wait for renewals of their one-year licenses by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). People-to-people travel to Cuba falls under OFAC scrutiny because that office is charged with administering and enforcing economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy against targeted foreign states. In an interview with Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers, John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit organization that seeks to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, offered his views on the complicated, confusing and ever-changing regulations.

Q: Why the delay in the license renewals?

OFAC issued more restrictive guidelines in May, claiming that some organizations had violated stipulations that called for program activities to be of a cultural or educational nature. It took a month or so to figure it all out.

OFAC is subverting people-to-people travel by tying up license renewals in bureaucratic nonsense. About 140 licenses originally were granted, but only a few have been renewed. OFAC won't reveal which organizations got the licenses in the first place, how many were denied and which have been renewed. I estimate there are at least 10 times as many denials as approvals.

OFAC keeps saying that "we're in the process of reviewing," but meanwhile those previously licensed operators with fall and winter people-to-people programs to Cuba have lost the ability to sell those programs since they don't yet have their renewals. Cuba isn't the kind of trip that a traveler can book on the spur of the moment. Companies have had to lay off employees. It is an insane process.

One applicant's first license renewal version totaled 17,000 words as he sought to specify two or so people-to-people events each a.m. and p.m. OFAC tossed it back, saying the document did not illustrate how the encounters "resulted in meaningful engagement for both travelers and Cubans." His second document was 25,000 words. His license has been renewed.

Q: What's the solution or resolution?

The problem would not exist if licenses had been issued for two years, as was the case in the Clinton administration. The solution on licensing is very simple: All purposeful travel must qualify for a general license based on the nontourist affirmation of the traveler, just as is the case now for Cuban Americans, universities and religious organizations. This will take OFAC out of the business of judging and second-guessing travel motives of Americans and enable individuals to create their own programs in Cuba, using public transport, renting cars, staying in privately owned bed-and-breakfasts and eating in privately owned restaurants instead of, or after, going on a supervised group tour. In many ways, that offers the most authentic people-to-people travel experiences.

Q: What about the issue of the tourist entry cards required of U.S. travelers to Cuba?

OFAC wants to create a new level of confusion by making the Cubans the administrators of this process. OFAC stipulated that the Travel Service Providers can no longer issue the tourist cards. Passengers must obtain them from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington.

This change is not something the Cubans are set up to do, at least for now. The change was made by the U.S. government, not the Cuban government.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 

Correction: John McAuliff's name was misspelled in a prior version of this report. 

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