Today, the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments published their revised regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba, following President Barack Obama’s historic December announcement of restored diplomatic relations with the island after over half a century of hostilities. Effective January 16, these changes mark the first practical steps in delivering on Obama’s executive action.
In a Fact Sheet, the U.S. Department of the Treasury spelled out each regulatory amendment to the Cuba sanctions. While U.S. tourism on the island remains illegal, travelers will no longer need to seek advanced authorization from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for their trips, so long as they can certify that they are traveling under one of the 12 existing authorized categories, including journalistic, humanitarian, religious, and educational activities. U.S. citizens will also be allowed to use their U.S. credit and debit cards and to import up to $400 worth of goods acquired on the island for personal use (limited to no more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco products).
Notably, telecommunications companies will be authorized provide “efficient and adequate” services necessary to connect Cuba to the world under a new general OFAC license. Additionally, U.S. airlines will be permitted to schedule regular flights to Cuba without specific OFAC licenses, pending a U.S.-Cuba agreement on aviation standards. United Airlines has already announced its intentions to begin regular service to Cuba from Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas. American Airlines, which already operates charter flights from Miami and Tampa, Florida, will likely look to expand its services as well.
Although these measures are intended to usher in a new era of contact between Americans and Cubans, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate boom in tourism, which continues to be restricted. The economic embargo is still in effect, and most trade remains illegal. According to Robert L. Muse, a Washington DC-based lawyer who wrote a blueprint for normalizing relations with Cuba via executive action in the Fall 2014 issue of Americas Quarterly, “A couple cannot go to Cuba to educate themselves on a subject like Cuban music. They can only go under the auspices of an organization that arranges a structured educational trip.” Moreover, travelers will still have to acquire visas from the Cuban government and will be constrained by what the island’s meager tourism infrastructure can offer.
At meetings with Transportation and State Department officials in Washington DC yesterday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin raised the issue of establishing a direct air route between his city and Cuba. Nagin did not receive any commitments or a timeline for a response from federal officials.
President Barack Obama repealed the 2004 Cuban-American travel restrictions back in April. However, U.S. citizens are still prohibited from traveling to Cuba without licenses. In an interview appearing in the new Americas Quarterly, Senator Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, calls for “opening up travel to Cuba for all Americans.” Since June 30, Continental Airlines has re-started its charter flights operating between Los Angeles and Havana every Tuesday.