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US clamps down on Cuba tours

CMC

Sunday, September 16, 2012 | 12:50 PM    

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UNITED States authorities have begun disrupting tours for American travellers on “people-to-people” trips to Cuba.

The US Treasury Department said it has renewed only a handful of the one-year licenses required for the tours this summer, with dozens more renewals still pending.

As a result, several of the entities awaiting renewals already have cancelled or delayed planned “people-to-people” tours.

An estimated 10,000 Americans visited Cuba in the past year under the 140 licenses for “people-to-people” travel issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in charge of enforcing US economic sanctions on Cuba and other nations. Cuban-Americans travel under separate family reunification licenses.

The “people-to-people” trips, akin to cultural or educational travel, are required by law to foster “meaningful interactions” between the visitors and Cubans.

Jeff Braunger, OFAC program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing, said his agency “revised” its criteria for granting “people-to-people” licenses in May in part “because of reports we received concerning travel under the licenses. These changes provide clarity to applicants and licensees seeking renewals, facilitate OFAC’s review of license applications, and help to deter abuses by licensees,” Braunger told reporters.

OFAC spokesman John Sullivan said his agency is working to quickly resolve renewal applications that were returned for additional information “but not necessarily rejected.”

Supporters of “people-to-people” trips to Cuba say they improve understanding between the two nations and put money in the pockets of private citizens on the island.

Approved by the US Congress in 1992, the “people-to-people” trips to Cuba were broadly allowed by President Bill Clinton, halted by George W Bush because of alleged abuses and then reopened by Barack Obama in January 2011.

The luxury travel firm Abercrombie & Kent said it quickly sold out 13 tours, at about US$6,000 per person per week, but had to postpone the offerings after running into license problems.

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