Support the Cuban People: US-Cuba general travel license category

If you carefully review the US Treasury regulations there are general travel license categories which provide a certain level of freedom for supporting the private sector, and opportunities for engaging with Cubans without a lot of direct supervision from US tour leaders or exorbitant prices from US group people to people tour operators. The “support for the Cuban people” category is one we feel may begin to see more frequent use by independent US travelers, providing they ensure compliance with the full-time itinerary requirement within the parameters of the category. Cuban officials have not supported this category to date as their (understandable) posture is that the best and truest “support for the Cuban people” would be a removal of the US Embargo, of course. But being pragmatic, we think that ideology aside, travelers and Cuban travel intermediaries should be devising more practical ways to work within the existing guidelines that will both satisfy current US legal regulations and Cuban objectives/targets for tourism production without disrespecting Cuba’s right to self-determination and self-government as a sovereign nation. The line of thinking in Cuba is that the US has created this license category as a subversive move, so WoWCuba strongly urges those who select it to be very careful about exactly how they propose to be compliant on the full-time itinerary component of this category within the rule of Cuban law. In Example 1, we’ve replaced the disingenuous suggestion in the US Federal Register document of “volunteering with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children” (as this was something Cuba made a priority at the beginning of the Revolution, and education continues to be one of their more successful initiatives) with an activity far more likely to actually transpire and truly benefit the Cuba we know & love.

“Example 1 to §515.574: A group of friends plans to travel and maintain a full-time schedule throughout their trip by [staying at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List (see § 515.209) and volunteering with the recognized environmental organization CITMA or United Nations to clean up a section of public beach in the local community, both providing a positive example in terms of environmental responsibility/community beautification, and more importantly, reducing the possibility that diseases such as dengue or zika would proliferate in the mosquito population]. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum. The travelers’ trip would qualify for the general license because the volunteer activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.

Example 2 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) during his or her four-day trip. While at the casa particular, the individual will have breakfast each morning with the Cuban host and engage with the Cuban host to learn about Cuban culture. In addition, the traveler will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately-owned businesses [note there are around 200 private entrepreneurial categories in Cuba]. The traveler’s activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. Because the individual’s qualifying activities are not limited to staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) and the traveler maintains a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people, supports civil society in Cuba, and promotes the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that results in meaningful interaction between the traveler and Cuban individuals, the individual’s travel qualifies for the general license.

Example 3 to §515.574: An individual plans to travel to Cuba, rent a bicycle to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors. The individual intends to stay at a hotel that does not appear on the Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s trip does not qualify for this general license because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”

Note to 515.574(a): Each person relying on the general authorization in this paragraph must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. See §501.601 and §501.602 of this chapter for applicable recordkeeping and reporting requirements.”

Ensuring Compliance

Support for the Cuban people §515.574 covers activities of individuals, human rights organizations & NGO’s that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba when travelers engage in a full-time schedule of activities (generally understood to be ~ 6 hrs/day on weekdays) that enhance contact with Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. While most are still misinterpreting the rules of this category, wrongly assuming travelers are required to stay exclusively at private Cuban residences (casa particulares or AirBnB’s), WoWCuba can confirm that’s definitely not the case. We’ve consulted with the US Treasury and they state that, “Private home stays are not obligatory for compliance with the 515.574 GL”. Stays at hotels not on the restricted entities list are fully permissible (basically anywhere except a Gaviota or Habaguanex-owned hotel). License category compliance is a result of engaging in full time activities per the license description. Supporting the private sector can also include dining at privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and shopping at privately-owned small businesses (cuentapropistas).

Support the Cuban People full-time category compliance
WoWCuba’s suggested theme: Environmental Cleanup & Sustainability

If interested in pursuing an itinerary along environmental lines in the Havana area, following are some specific ideas on how to design a compliant program:
Volunteer activities could be with the United Nations or CITMA (Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment) and include cleaning up a section of public beach, for example, to promote non-proliferation of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or zika (also a benefit to public health). Landfills & garbage in oceans are major issues on planet Earth and Cuba is not exempt from the problem.

PNP Rincon de Guanabo

The Rincón de Guanabo is a Natural Protected Landscape in desperate need of immediate attention as it’s bordering on neglect, with a lack of financing to ensure its vibrant future. It’s less than 30 minutes east of Havana on the coast close to the Mayabeque provincial border. There’s a small interpretive center located at the Municipal Historic Museum. The UN is looking for help to conserve and sustainably manage the area which features mangroves, turtles in risk of extinction, beach, coral reef with abundant healthy elk coral just a short distance from the shore, and wetlands with local and migrant birds. Garbage and seaweed tend to collect on the beach and following are some photos taken in November 2017 (after Hurricane Irma). Evidently cleanup efforts haven’t yet made it to this section of the beach which is rarely frequented by visitors, but borders the wetlands and mangrove reserve area.

Natural Protected Landscape

Travelers could take this further by separating waste and donating aluminum cans to a private entrepreneur (often elderly people) who gather and return recyclable materials in exchange for a fee, thereby not only leaving a public area cleaner/more beautiful/safer for public health, but also economically assisting a vulnerable segment of Cuba’s society. Another extension of this type of project could include bagging seaweed to take to a local agricultural cooperative (such as the one in Alamar) to be rinsed and transformed into organic compost, where fresh (non-pesticide) materials are sorely needed to keep their urban gardening plots fertile and productive. Seaweed breaks down much faster than a lot of alternative organic matter. Or collecting seaglass for local artisans to be used for recycled art projects. The possibilities for collaboration with the private sector could be extensive.

Affidavits & Paperwork

Independent US travelers to Cuba simply print/complete/sign a do-it-yourself form, take it with them while traveling in the event US authorities request evidence of the purpose of their trip, and then keep their copy on file for 5 years along with their detailed itinerary and any receipts corroborating their licensed travel category compliance. If traveling to Cuba under a general license, upon returning to the US, in the Countries Visited section of the Customs/Immigration form you can freely declare “Cuba (under general license xxx.xxx)” without fear of reprisal. Having a copy of your affidavit can be helpful on the off chance that a US Immigration official requests one. Download a Sample Travel Affidavit Form-General for individual travel categories.

Travel Service Providers

OFAC no longer issues specific licenses to US travel agencies. Neither are US travelers restricted to using travel agents or airlines based or incorporated in the US to make their legal Cuba travel arrangements. Any travel agent or airline in the USA or abroad may be used for these transactions. While the new US limitation on educational group people to people travel (§515.565b) requires that the organization sponsoring the group travel (not necessarily the travel agency employed for prepaying services itself) must be a person subject to US jurisdiction and send a trip chaperone (also subject to US jurisdiction) to accompany the trip and ensure trip compliance, the chaperone/group rules do not apply to the Support the Cuban People general license. According to the Treasury, “There is no prohibition against US persons using 3rd country entities to make travel arrangements, however US persons must comply with one of the general licenses and in the process of making payments be ready to inform any of the banks involved in that payment of the general license they fall under.”

For further information on Legal US Travel to Cuba, visit the US Travelers section of WoWCuba’s website.

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3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

I’ve been interviewed by Canadian media in advance of at least 2 hurricanes. It’s funny they have never reached out to me after a storm has passed to check and see how things went, or how we were recovering, but perhaps that’s a little less exciting for news-followers. So I do hope this post won’t bore most of you, with that in mind. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, hurricanes were something I’d never experienced prior to living in the Caribbean. But having spent my entire adult life in Cuba, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be prepared for the occasional wrath Mother Nature metes out in this part of the world. Back in 1993 my two brothers began our Cuban adventure travel business by boarding a commercial Cuban ship in Halifax with a container load of bicycles, parts & accessories bound for the port of Havana. They hit some bad weather along the way and what was supposed to be a 5-day trip turned into a 2-week journey. US laws wouldn’t let the commercial ship of Cuban registry take shelter in any of their ports, so they were forced to continue the journey south while taking a beating from waves in the Atlantic along the way. Cars on the deck were smashing against containers of lard which in turn broke loose and began to tear apart the ship’s gunnels. One of my brothers was vomiting on the deck as the captain was calling for everyone to don life jackets; meanwhile my younger (not wiser) brother was capturing the whole scene with a vhs video recorder. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the danger they were in, but thankfully the ship did not break apart, they eventually made it to safe harbor in Havana, and so began our adventures in Cuba.

In 1994 I was living on the coast in Marea del Portillo in Granma province when there was a distant threat of a hurricane possibly headed for the area. One thing about hurricanes is they can be unpredictable – they can gain/lose force and even change directions depending on other weather factors. But Cuba’s government’s 4-step preparedness plan doesn’t leave anything to chance. They went to the work and expense of evacuating the entire resort, busing guests / representatives and even a full complement of staff to Bayamo for a couple of nights while the weather situation was monitored. In the end, the storm dissipated and we all returned to the hotel without further adieu. But the incident gave me a very up-close and personal picture of how methodical and prepared Cuban authorities are to face these kinds of disasters, acting several days in advance to take preventive measures first to preserve human life for those living in any areas identified as vulnerable to coastal flooding, etc. and then attention is paid to any resources that can be saved with the remaining time. The civil defense in Cuba has the authority to take over state hospitals, hotels, schools and other facilities to turn them into emergency refuges. Medical staff and facilities are prepared, announcements are regularly made to the population on how to prepare, and citizens are usually working like busy ants beforehand removing potential projectiles, storing water, charging batteries, and securing all that needs attention before heavy winds and rain force them indoors until the storm has dissipated. School children are taught how to prepare for hurricanes from the time they are very young.

Many of you who have never experienced a hurricane before assume the most dangerous time is during the storm. But quite often the after-effects can be just as deadly, including storm surges, or in the case of some countries where clean-up is less than efficient, you may find standing water or debris can lead to breeding of mosquitos and the spreading of diseases such as dengue or zika. In Cuba, we have a public health system in place which has widespread reach. Inspectors regularly knock on all doors to check water deposits. They correct bad practices such as flower pot bases where water can collect, vases with standing water, they sprinkle anti-mosquito products into any puddles that may form in your patio / around your house, even in some cisterns. The covers for water barrels must be hermetic or you risk a fine. You’ll often see aerial fumigation for mosquitos around certain hotel zones. Or trucks pumping out billows of smoke will sometimes crawl the streets, all in an effort to ensure mosquito populations do not thrive, and that the propagation of the illnesses they can spread is limited.

In the fall of 2001 my brother & sister and I spent several days preparing food for my husband’s birthday party. It was our first year of marriage and we went a little overboard. Only about a dozen guests braved the night of the party as everyone else was holed up at home awaiting Hurricane Michelle. With the power out for 4-5 days afterwards and no backup generator, we had a lot of food to get rid of before it spoiled. The nursing home residents across the street were the recipients of that spectacular donation. We had limited water storage capacity at that house, so were rationing water from Day 1, making sure you only flushed when absolutely necessary. Once the water on roof tanks was depleted, then it was buckets from the small cistern until that ran out. Thankfully, being early November, temperatures were moderate and you could actually sleep at night. Everyone in Cuba remembers Hurricane Ivan from 2004, and I can still picture Fidel questioning Cuba’s weather guru Dr. Jose Rubiera on the nightly news. Fidel kept pressing him, telling him that while the trajectory was that it was going to hit Cuba’s westernmost tip, that it was still possible that it could be drawn off of the coast. I personally thought Dr. Rubiera was respectfully humoring him, saying that while it was possible, it was not likely. When Fidel’s “prediction” came true, well the believers in Cuba were all over that the next day, like it was divine intervention. Fidel was the chosen one again, just like when the white dove landed on his shoulder, a sign for Santeria followers.

I can’t remember if it was during Hurricane Ike or Gustav in 2008, but we’d recently moved into the new house we built just east of Havana, perched on a hill above the water. Cuba turns off the power in advance of the storm so that citizens aren’t risking personal injury or damage to household appliances by downed cables. Without electricity, it can get warm at night in your house, so I decided to sleep on the floor of the living room where a nice breeze was coming in from below the front double doors. It was quite comfortable until the plywood my husband had tied to the inside of the iron bars outside blew in the two inner wooden & glass doors, and the plywood flew into the living room, narrowly missing me where I was sleeping. My husband rushed out and somehow between the two of us we managed to get the doors shut again and then we waited out the rest of the storm. Lesson for next time: tie that plywood to the outside, not the inside of the bars.

Hurricane Irma caught me in Canada attending to some family business. I briefly considered rushing back to Cuba, as we’ve never spent a hurricane apart in 17 years together. But then I re-thought the wisdom of that plan. Several years ago we purchased a backup generator. Our huge cistern has ample water supply, for a month without even rationing for the two of us. We had just switched our propane tanks, so had ample supply of that on hand to cook with. Our house is made of bricks & mortar and is as solid as a rock. No temporary / light roof or anything that would represent a danger to him. Last summer I imported some fabulous Stihl garden tools including an electric chainsaw. My husband was going to be fine, probably the envy of the neighborhood in fact. So I decided to stay in Canada as I would be more helpful there to clients whose plans were going to be altered by the weather. I would have uninterrupted telephone and internet access, which I couldn’t be sure would be the case for my husband in Cuba. So I reminded him (twice, in fact, that doesn’t count as nagging, right?) to stock up on some gas for the generator and agreed I would call him on Sunday to check in. The landline was down, but his cell phone was operating. And all we lost was a cover to one of our water tanks, which he wrongly assumed had been tied down before the storm. He used the chainsaw to trim some trees on our block, so noone’s glass windows were damaged. Our handyman had a date with a tetra pak of rum during the storm so he hadn’t gotten around to hooking up the generator yet, but the gas had been purchased, so that was imminent. He ended up being able to pump water to the neighbors’ roofs as well as ours and kept everyone’s phones & laptops charged by turning the generator on for a couple of hours at a time. We didn’t even experience any food spoilage as the generator’s intermittent use was enough to keep the fridge & freezer cool.

We’ve been trying to set some time apart for a short vacation ourselves this year in low season and I was anxious to get back to Cuba. My sister was questioning the wisdom of that decision after some of the international coverage she’d seen after Irma departed Cuba. But the areas I’d seen in Havana were those that are always prone to flooding, and I wasn’t surprised by much of the footage that made it to our news sources in Canada. Our lights in Old Havana were back on within 2 days. At home in Mirador de Marbella after 3 days. So on Friday I landed back in Havana and can confirm myself that life is truly returning to normal here. Yes, there were quite a few uprooted trees and some remain to be removed from sidewalks (we even saw a huge one still leaning against a house), but the major cleanup has already taken place. The majority of electrical services have been restored. The hardest-hit provinces were Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, and recovery efforts there will be delayed a little longer as some of their infrastructure will take more time to repair. We took a motorcycle trip to Artemisa on Sunday with friends. The avocado season was cut short here – people were giving avocados away so that they didn’t rot after falling off of trees. By the way, Cuban avocadoes are spectacular, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them. The tunnel to 5th Avenue, which had flooded to its roof, has re-opened. The tunnel to Eastern Havana is not open yet, so we’re taking the ring around the port to get to work every morning still. That’s a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

We’ve had friends from Miami visit as recently as yesterday and they report that there are still some areas in their city awaiting the return of electrical services after Irma, which struck there with less intensity than in Cuba. Status updates from our ground handlers and tourism/hotel operators report that with the exception of Cayo Coco (which was hardest hit, and lost its airport), the large majority are already fully operational. The recovery of the causeways to Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria was exceptionally fast. The Malecon remains closed while they repair some areas of the sea wall that were damaged. But all the flooding has receded. From some of the images accompanying international reports on Irma in Cuba that are still being released, you might be led to believe otherwise. Venezuela sent aid, and in record time. Yesterday we saw a boat of supplies from the Dominican Republic, and this morning we jokingly said that it may have to return with supplies donated from Cuba after Hurricane Maria. Cuba has sent over 700 doctors to neighboring islands in the wake of the hurricane. The solidarity of sister nations in this region is commendable. Especially when some of the largest contributors to climate change are our industrial neighbors to the north, who do not wish to recognize their role and social responsibility.

Once again, in the face of adversity, Cuba has risen to the occasion and taken extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, visitors and resources, while at the same time showing great concern and committment to its history of international solidarity and humanitarian gestures. Organization, discipline, and preparedness mean that we are less likely to die during or after a hurricane in Cuba than our neighbors to the north. To the tireless electrical and telephone workers, public health personnel and military organizers who go to great lengths to alleviate discomfort during and once the storm has passed, our sincere thanks.

For those of you considering travel to Cuba anytime soon, it’s highly encouraged. It’s one of the best ways to offer your support and solidarity to a country whose economy increasingly relies on the tourism sector. Cuban officials are taking recovery efforts very seriously, and they’ve made extraordinary headway already. Our ground handler is taking a group of travel company supervisors and diplomats to Varadero this weekend so they can see the recovery efforts for themselves first-hand. Bank accounts have been set up for anyone wishing to make donations to the recovery efforts, as the recovery of infrastructure is undeniably expensive. Just this morning we heard that a Dutch bank refused to send a EUR wire transfer donation to Cuba, citing the US blockade. This is very disheartening, as the US government’s influence is clearly overextending its reach when we’re not even talking about a transaction in US funds. Facebook temporarily blocked Mariela Castro’s account when she published the bank account information for potential donors, and later apologied for the the mistake. Cuba calls the blockade “genocide”, and while that term is shocking and even unbelievable to some, what else would you call it? Certainly not a humanitarian gesture. To end on a positive note, three cheers for Cuba. Despite much hardship and some formidable challenges, you continue to rise to the most difficult of occasions and consistently put the safety and well-being of your population in the forefront. Cuba va!