U.S. publishes eased travel, remittance regulations

Two weeks after announcing an easing of some travel and remittance restrictions, the Obama Administration published new regulations in the Federal Register that bring U.S. travel sanctions back to the relatively liberal Clinton years, while adding three new aspects.

As a result, the largest U.S.-Cuba travel providers — C & T Charters, Global Exchange, Holbrook Travel, Insight Cuba and Marazul Charters — are preparing to resume people-to-people travel programs and open new ones.  

The new rules broadly expand religious and academic travel, allowing members of religious groups as well as academics and full-time students to travel to Cuba, without having to apply for a specific license in Washington.

While “people-to-people exchanges” are allowed again, the wording of the new regulations is so broad that the scope of travel will depend on the interpretation by bureaucrats. This is where pro-embargo forces in Congress will try to limit the impact of the new regulations, according to some observers.

“That is where I believe pro-embargo elements will concentrate their activity,” said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer with extensive Cuba experience. “In particular they will press the Obama Administration to require unrealistic people-to-people components to successful license applications.”

In another important change, all U.S. citizens and residents are now allowed to send up to $500 per quarter to any person in Cuba, except “prohibited officials of the Government of Cuba.”

What’s more, U.S. residents can now apply for a specific license to send money to “individuals or independent non-governmental entities to support the development of private businesses, including small farms.” This step could boost ailing small businesses in Cuba, as relatives and friends in the United States might provide startup capital or investment; the government in September announced it planned to issue 250,000 licenses for “self-employment.”

In a hark-back to the Clinton years, the broader public can now travel to Cuba for “educational exchanges not involving academic study,” under the auspices of an organization that “sponsors and organizes such programs to promote people-to-people contact.” Such organizations can also sponsor or co-sponsor workshops and clinics in Cuba. As during the Clinton years, these organizations must apply for a specific license with Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). 

According to a document circulated by the Treasury Department the day before publication, the new rules are intended to “increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.”

The specifics:

•”Accredited U.S. graduate and undergraduate degree-granting academic institutions” can now sponsor travel by faculty and staff under a new general license. Under a specific license, universities and colleges are now allowed to sponsor “academic seminars, conferences or workshops” in Cuba for their faculty, staff and students to.

•As part of such activities, U.S. religious groups and universities are also allowed to open bank accounts in Cuba. However, “nothing in these amendments authorizes U.S. financial institutions to open or use direct correspondent accounts of their own at Cuban financial institutions,” the OFAC document adds.

•Students are now allowed to “participate in academic activities” in Cuba that are accepted for credit toward their degree, under a general license. Students can travel under a general license of either their own university or college, or that of another academic organization. The 10-week minimum duration of a program and restriction to graduate students are lifted.

•Religious groups can now travel under a general license, as long as the “travel-related transactions [are] incident to religious activities.” Religious groups can now send money without limitation.

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