The Bush Administration had a problem in its Cuba policy: As ever-increasing majorities of the House of Representatives have voted to end the Cuba travel ban, it has insisted on maintaining the travel ban to deny hard currency to the Castro government, and it has been using the Treasury Department’s enforcement power to threaten and fine unlicensed travelers all across America. Yet it has not enforced travel regulations at all against Cuban Americans, despite the fact that they account for the lion’s share of American visits to Cuba, and Cuban American remittances transfer about one billion dollars annually to Cuba – funds that pass from their relatives to Cuban state coffers as soon as they enter a state store to buy clothing, appliances, food, or other basic goods.
The Administration was thus exposed to criticism not only for failing to plug a huge loophole in the embargo, but also for using federal police power in a discriminatory manner, exempting one ethnic group from the scrutiny and penalties directed against other Americans.
The solution came March 24 – and not in the form of a decision to adopt an evenhanded enforcement policy. Instead, the Administration loosened the regulations on Cuban American travel and remittances to the point where the regulations are virtually meaningless, and it simply abolished the regulatory category that allowed many Americans not of Cuban descent to visit Cuba, learn about the island, and make contacts with Cuban citizens.
This new policy may well increase the flow of hard currency to Cuba, defeating the key aim of the embargo. However, it achieved a political result – for Cuban Americans who favor tough sanctions, it closes one travel category, and for the growing numbers of Cuban Americans who choose to travel to Cuba, it virtually guarantees that they will face no penalty. This assessment may seem harsh, but it is difficult to draw any other conclusion from the Administration’s regulatory choices, and the Administration itself offered no explanation of the foreign policy reasons behind them.
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After working for two years with Cuba travel regulations inherited from the Clinton Administration – and after slowing the granting of licenses for travel and humanitarian activity – the Bush Administration has put its own stamp on the rules governing travel to Cuba.
The Administration has eased conditions under which Cuban Americans may travel and narrowed them for most others, and it has added language on humanitarian projects to explicitly endorse those with a political purpose.
The new regulations were announced March 24 in the Federal Register. Three main changes were made.
People-to-people. The new regulations abolish a principal travel licensing category: trips that combine non-credit educational activities with people-to-people contacts. Through these programs, thousands of Americans have learned about Cuba and made contacts with Cubans in recent years.
The Administration’s logic for eliminating this category of license is unstated. Officials say that some organizations abused licenses in this category, opening their travel programs to persons with no real link to the program’s educational purpose. It is certainly possible that some organizations’ travel programs also skirted the regulations’ intent by including minimal contact with Cuban citizens.
However, even if both these factors are present, the Administration has many remedies short of abolishing the entire licensing category. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control could easily communicate concerns to licensed organizations, rewrite the terms of licenses, revoke licenses, or penalize those who violate the terms of their licenses.
Abolishing this entire category is a clear signal that, rather than improve the people-to-people program, the Administration is content to turn away all Americans who would travel to Cuba under that category – even those whose activities fit the letter of the regulations.
Humanitarian. The new regulations state that humanitarian projects, including construction projects, can be licensed to aid those in Cuba who promote a “rapid and peaceful transition” or the development of independent civil society organizations. This new language adds no substance to the regulations; it merely makes explicit mention of activities that were already permissible. Administration officials say that new instructions to Treasury Department licensing officers will improve the licensing process. These instructions are not available to the public.
This new language is said to implement the President’s call, made in a speech last May, to “ease restrictions on humanitarian assistance” provided by American organizations “that directly serve the needs of the Cuban people.” It remains to be seen whether this intent will be applied to all humanitarian projects, and whether licensing will be speeded for projects that have no political aspect.
Cuban Americans. Of approximately 160,000 U.S. visitors to Cuba last year, about 120,000 were Cuban Americans, many traveling during the Christmas holiday season when 20 or more charter flights were leaving Miami daily.
The new regulations ease the conditions under which Cuban Americans may travel to visit relatives in Cuba. They eliminate the requirement that visits take place only in cases of humanitarian need. The regulations still allow only one visit per year without special permission, but with the “humanitarian need” requirement eliminated, it is not clear what criterion, if any, will be used to determine whether additional visits will be permitted.
Cuban Americans are now allowed to visit far more distant relatives than before, and to carry up to $3000 in cash to deliver family remittances to multiple households. The regulations also exempt Cuban Americans from the daily spending limit ($166) that governs all other Americans who travel to Cuba, if their expenses are related to the delivery of remittances. The regulations retain the limit of $300 in remittances per household per quarter, and they do not change the rule allowing Americans not of Cuban descent also to deliver remittances to Cuban households.
These are substantive changes to the regulations, but their impact on Cuban American travel may be negligible in practice. The Administration has taken no enforcement actions against Cuban Americans for violations of travel or remittances rules – a fact that Administration officials have confirmed in response to Congressional inquiries – so it is highly unlikely that Cuban Americans feel constrained by regulations that are not enforced in their community. (Treasury penalizes hundreds of other Americans for travel violations.)
Still, it is possible that the looser rules, and the virtual certainty that there will be no enforcement, will send a signal that will encourage more Cuban American travel and delivery of remittances.
Last summer, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to end all limits on remittances to Cuban households, and the Administration threatened a veto in part because of this amendment. The new regulatory action begs the question: Why not endorse the House legislation to end remittance limits entirely? This would seem to fit the Administration’s goal to “help the people, not the regime.” Most likely, the answer is that the Administration would not be able to hold the line in such a legislative debate, and the Congressional majorities that favor broader repeal of Cuba sanctions would be handed an opportunity to work their will.
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The real impact of the Administration’s moves depends only in part on the letter of the revised regulations. Of equal importance will be the licensing decisions made by the Treasury and State Departments as applications are received. These agencies have broad discretion, and the licensing process has long lacked transparency and been highly subjective. It will be particularly important to watch whether the Administration, while approving travel and projects that aid Cuba’s political opposition, disapproves those that do not.
The elimination of the people-to-people travel category signals that this might well be the case. It also indicates that the Administration, had it offered a foreign policy rationale for its actions, might argue that there is zero benefit to exchanges where American artists, historians, architects, community activists, or others spend time with their Cuban counterparts in structured educational programs that do not have an explicit political agenda.
The new regulations underscore a great irony of Cuba policy. The embargo is kept in place by Cuban American pressure, and its purpose is to limit the flow of hard currency to Cuba so as to pressure the Cuban government. Yet through the direct and indirect means of travel, remittances, and phone calls, Cuban Americans deliver more money to the Cuban government than any Cuban industry except tourism.
And while the Bush Administration, which defends the embargo for “moral” reasons, has opened this gap in the embargo even wider, it closes a door through which thousands of Americans build contacts with Cubans, and it continues to police Americans who violate the travel ban – unless, that is, they have relatives in Cuba.
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