Starting on Friday, the U.S. government will officially make it a lot easier for citizens to travel to Cuba, spend money and do business there. And smoke 'em if you got 'em, cause it'll also be legal to light up a Cuban cigar in the United States.
But there's a catch: Cuba won’t officially be open for U.S. tourist travel. At least not yet. A senior Obama administration official said Thursday that the new policies are “not meant to facilitate tourist travel to Cuba.”
That's the official line. In practice, however, restrictions are being relaxed to the point where visiting the island is now easier than ever — if you know the secret words.
Officially, there are 12 conditions for authorized travel to Cuba. One of those reasons — “support for the Cuban people” is your golden ticket to the island.
A former U.S. Treasury official consulted by Fusion said that's the government’s way of basically telling you, with a wink, that it's fine to travel to Cuba as a tourist. After all, if you’re going to travel to Cuba and spend money at a restaurant or local business, you’re ostensibly supporting the Cuban people.
“Capitalism supports the Cuban people,” said the official, who wished to remain unidentified.
But don’t expect a return to the Havana nights reminiscent of a scene from “Guys and Dolls.” Another former Treasury official played says it’s likely — at least in the near-term — that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) would still remain relatively strict.
“You're going to have to demonstrate that you're spending the bulk of your time actually doing ‘support,’” the official said. “It'll be OK to go eat lunch at a restaurant, but visitors are definitely going to have to demonstrate some kind of verifiable program or project.”
Still, there are a number of elements to the new policy that make travel easier. For one, people who meet one of the 12 conditions for travel will no longer have to apply for a specific license. Their travel will be authorized by general license.
Here are the 12 categories for which people can get approved for travel:
- 1) Family visits;
- (2) Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
- (3) Journalistic activity;
- (4) Professional research and professional meetings;
- (5) Educational activities;
- (6) Religious activities;
- (7) Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- (8) Support for the Cuban people;
- (9) Humanitarian projects;
- (10) Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
- (11) Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials;
- (12) Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Senior Obama administration officials told reporters last month that travel to Cuba explicitly for tourism will remain prohibited until Congress lifts the ban.
“The ban has to be lifted by Congress,” one senior official said. “But the President is doing everything that he can with his authority to facilitate travel within the limitations of the law, and we believe that that will lead to a significant increase in travel.”
There are other signs the Obama administration is preparing to take a more relaxed approach toward travel to the island.
On a conference call Thursday morning, one senior administration official said it’s possible that booking airline tickets to Cuba online would become a reality in the foreseeable future. The person buying the ticket would need to certify that they qualify for one of the 12 approved categories, but the online booking process would make government enforcement much more difficult.
The most immediate changes for U.S. travelers heading to Cuba: They’ll be able to bring back up to $400 of general goods, including $100 of alcohol and tobacco-related products. That means bringing back Cuban cigars will be legal, though it is still illegal to resell them in the U.S. U.S. travelers to Cuba will also now be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island.
“This does change the travel service provision dramatically,” a senior U.S. official said on the conference call Thursday.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.