** Disclaimer. Travel to Cuba, particularly unlicensed travel to Cuba, raises issues of civil law. While we believe we have accurately portrayed the legal situation below, none of this constitutes legal advice. **
Can US citizens and residents still go to Cuba?
Yes. President Trump has just made it harder (as of November 2017) but there still exists many options for individual and group travel to Cuba. This article explains more about them.
But can we still fly there from Seattle?
Yes. Sadly Alaska Airlines are ending their daily flight in mid-January 2018 because numbers have dropped significantly. We hope one day they will start up again and we ask you to write to encourage them. A simple email via https://www.alaskaair.com/feedback will do.
However a number of US airlines continue to fly to Cuba and you can get connecting flights from Seattle. These are American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United. American Airlines will most likely be the cheapest from Seattle.
Is it safe to travel to Cuba?
Yes. Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world to travel in. That’s part of why it is so attractive as a vacation destination for the 4 million, and growing, visitors from the rest of the world.
But what about these “sonic attacks”?
About 20 US diplomats in Cuba have reported hearing problems which they believe were caused by some kind of acoustic weaponry. The Cuban government denies any involvement and has investigated and also allowed the FBI to investigate in Cuba. Not only have the investigations failed to identify the culprits but they haven’t identified how the “attacks” were done or even what exactly was done to these diplomats, since their symptoms vary. What would a team from “Criminal Minds” or “CSI” make of this tale? Some Canadian diplomats have experienced the same symptoms. The Canadian government has not blamed Cuba nor advised its citizens not to travel to Cuba. Over one million Canadians visit Cuba each year.
The only thing we can definitely answer is who benefits from these events? It is the most reactionary sectors of the Cuban American community and the US administration who want to cut almost all links between the US and Cuba.
What about the hurricane risk?
Hurricanes can hit Cuba in the September to early November period, just as in the rest of the Caribbean and southern USA. Cuba has an outstanding record of preparing for and recovering from hurricanes. The authorities go out of their way to move their own people and visitors to safety. No tourist has died in a hurricane in Cuba. In fact anybody is safer in a hurricane in Cuba than, as we have recently seen, in Puerto Rico or Florida.
OK so how can I travel to Cuba?
The first thing to say is that US citizens legally need a license to travel to Cuba. Cuba is the only country in the world that US citizens need a license to visit. Some powerful people in the US are really frightened by the idea of US citizens visiting Cuba and have been for over 50 years. President Clinton was the first to allow travel to Cuba under license. President Bush largely stopped that. President Obama eventually massively expanded the possibilities of licensed travel and now President Trump has imposed some new restrictions. This page will talk about some of the possibilities for licensed travel and also explain the options for unlicensed travel, since why should we need a license to visit our Cuban sisters and brothers?
LICENSED travel to Cuba
As part of the U.S. Government’s legal embargo of Cuba, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC, an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department) requires that US Citizens and residents who desire to legally travel to Cuba do so with a license. This is a complicated topic, but effectively it just means that when you book a direct flight from the US to Cuba, in order to purchase the ticket you have to tick one of 12 categories of travel that constitute a General License to travel to Cuba. For further information please see: https://www.cubatravelservices.com/plan-your-trip/who-can-go/
Many of the options can be undertaken through group travel to Cuba as a delegation or study tour, and many groups offer such trips. You can find them easily on the Internet.
The Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee works with two groups conducting licensed trips to Cuba:
1. The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace
They organize some licensed delegations to Cuba which are advertised on their website. They also organize delegations for existing groups that desire assistance to visit Cuba. We recently worked with IFCO to help a group from New Hope Baptist Church in Seattle to visit Cuba. Their groups typically stay at the Martin Luther King Center in Havana but other options are possible.
2. The US Women and Cuba Collaboration
But can an individual travel under a general license?
An individual can travel under many of the license categories, for instance if you are going to a professional conference, or you are a professional journalist. However note that you can’t take your partner or family along under such licenses unless they too are going to the conference etc.
If you are a Cuban American, or more precisely if you have a relative in Cuba, then you can go as an individual or family with no problem.
Can I go as a tourist for a vacation?
The official answer is NO. Traveling to Cuba as an American tourist outside of the license categories is a civil offence punishable, in theory at least, by a large fine. However under Obama many people made creative use of the licensing regulations. They traveled to Cuba under the “People to People” visits category whose definition was very loose and there was never any monitoring. Trump has closed that loophole. People to People visits are now only possible in groups, accompanied by a representative of the organization arranging the group, with a full-time schedule, though no minimum size is specified for a group.
There is however another category “Support for the Cuban people”. Individual and family travel is still allowed under this but with conditions. You have to stay in a Cuban home – “casas particulares” – rather than a tourist hotel, and you are supposed to only eat at private restaurants – “paladares” – rather than state restaurants, and take private taxis rather than state taxis. This is actually what many individual US visitors to Cuba largely did anyway. The extra catch from Trump is that you are also supposed to engage in activities that “support the Cuban peoples’ independence from the Cuban state”. That is Trump speak for subtly engaging in activities that will help overthrown the Cuban revolution in the medium term. If that is your intention we suggest you stop reading this article and find some other country to go and ruin.
Some people will definitely be able to make positive creative use of this category, perhaps linking up and volunteering with community organizations and NGOs in Cuba that genuinely benefit the people. Also some Cuba travel specialists are saying that as long as US travelers focus on engaging in activities with the Cuban people, and make sure to document this, they will be covered. We hope they are right but….
Will the US government check up on what I do in Cuba?
They may. Under Obama they never did. Under Trump they haven’t yet but that may change. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which is part of the US Treasury department can write to you for up to 5 years after your visit demanding to see the evidence that proves that you fulfilled the terms of your license. If you were part of a licensed group that probably won’t happen and if it did your group organizers will/should have documentation. But if you travelled alone you need to make sure that you have kept the required documentation. If you get the OFAC letter and you are worried that your documentation isn’t good enough you should consult a lawyer BEFORE responding.
Note – under the Bush Administration, OFAC actively harassed American travelers to Cuba; so actively in fact that they had almost no time to undertake their principal task which is pursuing the financial transactions of terrorists.
So can I only stay in certain places in Cuba?
Aside from the special conditions of the “Support for the Cuban People” category, there are other restrictions. Casas particulares are always fine, as are community center or church accommodation. Many hotels are fine but some aren’t. These are hotels that are run by companies linked to the Cuban military. The US State department published a list of off-limit hotels and companies for US visitors https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/cuba/cubarestrictedlist/275331.htm though if your reservation was made before November 9th 2017 you are fine.
And here it gets tricky because these companies/hotels are off limits for some categories and not others. If you are traveling with an organized licensed tour they will be sure to respect the rules. If you are traveling on your own you need to be aware of the list and steer clear of it, especially for accommodation. And you can buy your Cuban rum and cigars (which YES you can now legally bring back to the US with you) from most shops, but not quite all. If it sounds ridiculous it is because it is ridiculous.
Ethical travel to Cuba
A group of travel organizations and other entities have recently formed an organization called RESPECT, http://www.prweb.com/releases/2016/12/prweb13923886.htm "Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel," which has adopted guidelines whose "aim is to make US travel to Cuba part of the global movement for ethical travel . . . particularly important in supporting Cuba’s goal to become a sustainable destination for mutual learning and benefit.” We encourage Cuba travelers to use providers that adhere to these principles.
U.S. citizens and residents who travel to Cuba without complying with the licensure requirements (described above in LICENSED travel to Cuba) do so in contravention of U.S. Federal law. Nevertheless, many people choose to follow this course. Before the Obama Presidency, most non-Cuban American travelers to Cuba went unlicensed. But since you couldn’t (and can’t) get on a direct US-to-Cuba flight without a license, they traveled through a third country – Canada, Mexico, Jamaica etc. Perhaps the most popular route is via Cancun, Mexico. First you book and fly a regular flight to Cancun, then upon arrival you will transfer to a Cubana or Interjet flight to Cuba.
People who do this are breaking the civil law of unlicensed travel to Cuba and could end up with a big fine. The dilemma for such travelers is what to do when you have to fill in the customs form on return that asks which countries you visited. Do you just say Mexico or do you say Mexico and Cuba. Probably many people lie, but be aware that being caught lying to a customs official is a more serious crime than unlicensed travel to Cuba.
If you tell the truth you might get an interrogation from the customs official and/or you might get the OFAC letter later. And you might not. Under Obama you didn’t. Under Trump in the future??? Also be aware that if you are a Green Card holder rather than a US citizen, that if the official realizes that you have been unlicensed to Cuba they might deny you reentry.
Is there an organized way to travel to Cuba without a license?
YES!!!!!! And traveling as a group, openly and defiantly asserting your right to travel to Cuba, is actually the safest way to go. It also provides some amazing experiences that you would never have as an individual. There are two organizations that take such annual trips to Cuba.
The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace www.ifconews.org
Don’t be put off by the name – they take people of all faiths and none. They have organized an annual Caravan to Cuba in July for 25 years. Typically this involves 10 days of cars traveling on multiple routes through the US to public events about Cuba and then a 10 day visit to Cuba via Mexico City. In Cuba they are a study tour with no voluntary work. They see their work as advocacy and political education within the United States before and after they go. Participation in the US routes is encouraged but not obligatory if you don’t have the time or inclination. Normally numbers are 30-50.
* Please note that the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization organizes both un-licensed and licensed (see previous section above) trips to Cuba. *
The Venceremos Brigade.http://venceremosbrigade.net/
This group goes in July for 2-3 weeks. They do some unskilled voluntary work in agriculture or construction while they are there but principally it is to learn about Cuba. They have been traveling every year since 1969. 2019 will be their 50th anniversary and will probably be an unusually large group. Normally numbers are between 20 and 50. They travel via Toronto.
Neither group stays in hotels or private residences. Rather they stay in churches or community centers. So don’t expect a luxurious trip, but both groups take people of all ages. And if there is any problem at the airport on return or follow up from OFAC, they will ensure that you get legal representation, probably pro-bono. There are no guarantees, but no caravanista or brigadista has ever had to pay a fine.
Seattle-Cuba Friendship Committee politically supports and recommends both groups. We have members who have been with both groups. However we specifically organize around the Pastors for Peace Caravan, hosting one of the Caravan routes and sometimes helping raise money for supporters to go on the Caravan. If you want to know more about either of these options we invite you to get in touch with us and meet former caravanistas and brigadistas.
And however you travel to Cuba – expect to have a great time.
For more information contact Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee: