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January 17, 2011 

White House's Cuba Travel Announcement - What Does it Really Mean?

As was widely reported, the White House announced on Friday revisions to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Despite various reports referring this announcement as a further "easing" of the Cuban embargo, most of the changes returned U.S. policy on Cuba back to where it was during the Clinton Administration.

As noted below, these policy changes only impact very limited categories of travel to Cuba and have no impact on commercial travel or sales to Cuba. In addition, these changes will only take effect when new regulations are issued in the coming weeks by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

The changes announced by the White House include the following:

1. Changes Involving Travel to Cuba - OFAC's Cuban Assets Control Regulations governing travel to Cuba will be modified as follows:

  • In one of the most significant policy changes, religious organizations will be permitted to sponsor religious travel to Cuba under a general license. Currently, a paper license (known as a specific license) must be obtained in advance from OFAC for individuals associated with a religious organizations to travel to Cuba. A general license issued by OFAC authorizes activity to take place without having to submit a license application to OFAC. It is likely that OFAC's new regulations will require persons traveling to Cuba under the religious travel general license to submit pre- and/or post-travel reports to OFAC. 
  • Authorizing additional educational exchanges with Cuba by allowing accredited institutions of higher education to sponsor travel to Cuba for course work for academic credit under a general license; allowing students to participate through academic institutions other than their own; and facilitating instructor support to include support from adjunct and part-time staff. This change should increase the number of college students studying in Cuba.
  • Restore specific licensing of non-degree program educational exchanges under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs. Since this type of travel can only be done pursuant to a specific license, a license must be obtained from OFAC before this type of educational travel to Cuba can take place.
  • Allow specifically licensed academic institutions to sponsor or cosponsor academic seminars, conferences, and workshops related to Cuba and allow faculty, staff, and students to attend.
  • Allow specific licenses to organize or conduct non-academic clinics and workshops in Cuba for the Cuban people.
  • Allow specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities. It remains to be seen what types of additional journalistic activities will be authorized, since free-lance journalists can currently obtain specific licenses and a general license exists for journalists regularly employed by news organizations. 

2. Non-Family Remittances - OFAC will expand the scope of authorized payments to people and organizations in Cuba as follows:

  • Restore a general license for U.S. persons to send remittances up to $500 per quarter to non-family members in Cuba to support private economic activity. 
  • Create a general license authorizing payments to religious institutions in Cuba in support of religious activities.

3. Increase in Number of U.S. Airports Supporting Licensed Charter Flights To and From Cuba - Regulations will be issued to permit all U.S. international airports to apply for authorization to handle licensed charter flights to and from Cuba, provided such airports have adequate customs and immigration capabilities. Currently, all charters flights to and from Havana, Cuba must take place from Miami, JFK in New York or Los Angeles International Airport. However, in practice virtually all flights to and from Cuba depart from Miami. Tampa International Airport has already indicated an interest in handling flights to and from Cuba and hopes to offer charter flights in the coming months.

It is important to note that only OFAC-approved providers of air, travel and remittance forwarding services can handle travel and payments arrangements to and from Cuba. The current list of OFAC authorized Cuba providers can be found here (PDF).

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