WikiLeaks: Coast Guard officer is key U.S. man in Havana


Kansas City: MIAMI — The most effective official in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana may well be a U.S. Coast Guard officer who’s technically a counter-drug specialist but is sometimes approached by the Cuban government for some back-channel diplomacy.

Cuban officials have contacted the Coast Guard officer on sensitive issues such as migration negotiations and Washington offers of aid in the wake of hurricanes, according to U.S. diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy.

Contact between the drug interdiction specialist and Cuba’s Interior Ministry is “generally viewed as one of the more fruitful and positive between the U.S. and Cuban governments,” one of the dispatches noted.

That doesn’t surprise retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Randy Beardsworth, who first proposed basing a drug interdiction specialist in Havana and negotiated the terms with Cuba in 1998, when he was the chief law enforcement officer for the Coast Guard’s Miami-based 7th District.

“Both sides have discreetly and quietly used this relationship to communicate. … It’s in our national interest to understand their bureaucracy. In chaos, who do we talk to?” Beardsworth said.

Five decades of U.S.-Cuba tensions have led both countries to impose tight controls on each other’s diplomats. The countries don’t have diplomatic relations and maintain only “interests sections” in each other’s capitals, formally as attachments to other countries’ embassies.

In the United States, Cuban officials aren’t allowed to travel more than 25 miles from their bases in Washington or at the United Nations in New York without prior approval. U.S. officials in Havana are banned from leaving the city, and can meet only with Cuban Foreign Ministry officials.

But the Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist often travels outside Havana on drug and migration-related trips accompanying officials from the Foreign Ministry, known as MINREX, and the Interior Ministry (MININT), which is in charge of counter-narcotics, migration and domestic and foreign intelligence operations.

“They certainly had unique access, insights into people that we could not even see,” said James Cason, a career diplomat who was the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 2002 to 2005. Now retired, he recently was elected mayor of Coral Gables, Fla.

 

During a 2009 visit to a Cuban port for the repatriation of several would-be refugees whom the Coast Guard had intercepted at sea, a Foreign Ministry official gave the drug interdiction specialist “subtle insights” into Cuba’s approach to bilateral migration talks, which the Obama administration was about to restart after a break of several years, according to one dispatch.

The Foreign Ministry official, Armando Bencomo, told the drug interdiction specialist that the talks should focus on why Cubans want to leave the island and “would help both sides to develop a response to a potential mass migration scenario,” according to the cable.

The dispatch noted that Bencomo’s comments were a sign that Havana would use the meeting to “hammer” at the U.S. wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay. Cuba has long criticized the policy, but the cables didn’t indicate whether Havana indeed attacked the policy at the immigration talks.

During a second 2009 trip to witness the repatriation of Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard, an unidentified Foreign Ministry official told the drug interdiction specialist that in his “personal opinion” Havana might reverse its rejections of U.S. aid after three hurricanes had devastated the island in 2008, another cable noted.

“Yet again, MINREX has utilized the DIS and the repatriation process as a forum” to float an idea past a U.S. official, the cable noted. That way, Cuba can pass a message “and still maintain its public image and propaganda campaign that lambaste the USG for its approach towards Cuba.” USG is short for United States government.

When Interior Ministry officials upbraided the drug interdiction specialist over an incident in 2009, it was taken as a sign that “MINREX, via MININT, is attempting to elicit a response from the USG … to maximize its interaction with USINT and the USG writ large,” another cable noted.

 

What’s more, Cuban officials meeting with the drug interdiction specialist referred to one of the hot-button issues between the countries: a mass exodus of Cubans like the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the so-called “Balsero Crisis” of 1994.

According to one cable after the 2008 hurricanes, a colonel in the Interior Ministry’s Border Guard Troops asked the drug interdiction specialist whether the U.S. government was “planning an operation,” understood as asking whether Washington was concerned about a possible mass exodus by desperate hurricane victims.

The comment raised eyebrows because the colonel “inadvertently suggested himself that there was a fear on the part of the (Border Guard) that at least an increase in Cuban migration numbers was possible,” the cable added.

Cuban officials also use the Coast Guard’s man in Havana to voice complaints about U.S. policies and practices.

One cable noted that a top Interior Ministry counter-drug official had complained that U.S. cooperation on drug interdictions was “often one-sided” and that Cuba wanted to work more closely with U.S. officials in sharing information about trafficking in the region.

Another reported in 2009 that the drug interdiction specialist had received a tongue-lashing from five top Interior Ministry officers at a meeting to discuss an alleged U.S. Coast Guard violation of Cuban waters during the emergency assistance of a U.S.-registered sailboat.

The Cuban officers “questioned whether the DIS has the necessary influence with his bosses at USCG District Seven (headquartered in Miami Beach) to mitigate these kinds of incidents,” the cable added.

Beardsworth said Cuban agents at times also “fooled with” the Havana homes of Coast Guard officers who’d “poked their nose into areas the Cubans considered were not appropriate.” He gave no details, but U.S. diplomats in Cuba have complained of obvious burglaries in which food or worse was left on tables so that the occupants would know that someone had been inside.

But Beardsworth said the advantages far outweighed any problems with stationing a U.S. Coast Guard officer in Havana, which he proposed as a “confidence-building measure” between the countries after a year of graduate studies at Harvard in 1995.

The first drug interdiction specialist was sent to Cuba around 1998, he recalled, and five or six Coast Guard officers — all men — now have completed assignments of two or three years in Havana. All remain on active duty and aren’t permitted to comment on their Cuba experiences.

Cason recalled that while the drug interdiction specialist got to attend the repatriations of interdicted Cuban rafters about once a week and to travel around Cuba on drug-related trips with Interior Ministry officials, other U.S. diplomats could meet no one in the government other than the head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Dagoberto Rodriguez.

Cason said he thought the Cuban government favored the drug interdiction specialist’s relations with its Interior Ministry because it wanted to establish “a military-to-military” relationship, thinking that professional solders could understand each other better and lessen the risks of a crisis.

No doubt the Cuban government was “also trying to penetrate our side” — recruit the Coast Guard officers as spies — Cason added, though the Coast Guard was aware of that and “picked their best people, really sharp.”

The Cubans “always said they just wanted someone to talk to,” Cason said. “But I always asked why not the USINT? That’s why we were there, to talk to them.”

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For Cuba, a real-estate revolution


The New York Times:

José is an eager almost-entrepreneur with big plans for Cuban real estate. Right now he works illegally on trades, linking families that want to swap homes and pay a little extra for an upgrade.

But when Cuba legalizes buying and selling by the end of the year — as the government promised again this week — José and many others expect a cascade of changes: higher prices, mass relocation, property taxes and a flood of money from Cubans in the United States and throughout the world.

“There’s going to be huge demand,” said José, 36, who declined to give his last name. “It’s been prohibited for so long.”

Private property is the nucleus of capitalism, so the plan to legitimize it in Cuba, a country of slogans such as “socialism or death,” strikes many Cubans as jaw-dropping. Indeed, most people expect onerous regulations and, already, the plan outlined by the state media would suppress the market by limiting Cubans to one home or apartment and requiring full-time residency.

Yet even with state control, experts say, property sales could transform Cuba more than any of the economic changes announced by President Raúl Castro’s government, some of which were outlined in the National Assembly on Monday.

Compared with the changes already passed — more self-employment and cellphone ownership — or proposed — car sales and looser emigration rules — “nothing is as big as this,” said Philip Peters, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

Back to the old days

The opportunities for profits and loans would be far larger than what Cuba’s small businesses offer, experts say, potentially creating the disparities of wealth that have accompanied property ownership in places such as Eastern Europe and China.

Havana in particular may be in for a move back in time, to when it was a city more segregated by class.

“There will be a huge rearrangement,” said Mario Coyula, Havana’s director of urbanism and architecture in the ’70s and ’80s. “Gentrification will happen.”

Broader effects could follow. Sales would encourage much-needed renovation, creating jobs. Banking would expand because, under newly announced rules, payments would come from buyers’ accounts.

Meanwhile, the government, which owns all property now, would hand over homes and apartments to their occupants in exchange for taxes on sales, impossible in the current swapping market where money passes under the table.

And then there is the role of Cuban emigrants. While the plan seems to prohibit foreign ownership, Cuban Americans could take advantage of Obama administration rules letting them send as much money as they like to relatives on the island, fueling purchases and giving them a stake in Cuba’s economic success.

“That is politically an extremely powerful development,” Peters said, adding that it could spur policy changes by both nations.

Unique complications

The rate of change, however, will likely depend on complications peculiar to Cuba. The so-called Pearl of the Antilles struggled with poor housing even before the 1959 revolution, but deterioration, rigid rules and creative workarounds have created today’s warren of oddities.

There are no vacancies in Havana, Coyula, the urban designer, pointed out. Every dwelling has someone living in it. Most Cubans are essentially stuck where they are.

On the waterfront of central Havana, children peek out from buildings that should be condemned, with a third of the facades missing.

The housing stock, already run down before the revolution, continued to deteriorate, the U.S. embargo choked off the supply of building materials, and new construction failed to keep pace with demand.

Empty lots dot the capital’s seaside Malecon Boulevard as once-stately mansions regularly collapse after heavy rains. Many of those still standing are merely facades or are propped up by scaffolding and wooden beams.

Blocks inland, Cubans such as Elena Acea have subdivided apartments to Alice in Wonderland proportions. Her two-bedroom is now a four-bedroom, with a plywood mezzanine where two stepsons live one atop another, barely able to stand in their own rooms.

Like many Cubans, she hopes to move: trade her apartment for three smaller places so the elder son, 29, can start a family.

“He’s getting married,” she said. “He has to move out.”

Despite reassurances — on Monday, Marino Murillo, the country’s economic czar, said selling would not need government approval — Acea and many neighbors seemed wary of the government’s promise to let go. Some Cubans expect rules forcing buyers to hold properties for five or 10 years. Others say the government will make it hard to take profits off the island, through exorbitant taxes or limits on currency exchange.

Still more, like Ernesto Benítez, 37, an artist, cannot imagine a real open market.

“They’re going to set one price, per square foot, and that’s it,” he said.

He added, Cubans would respond by setting their own prices, and that might be enough to stimulate movement, he said.

He hopes so. Benítez and the woman he has lived with for nearly a decade broke up 18 months ago. Each is dating someone new and there are nights, they admit, that get a little awkward. Only a narrow bathroom separates their bedrooms.

Katia González, 48, whose parents passed down her apartment before they died (which Cuba allows), said she would consider selling for a fair price. What did she think her two-bedroom just blocks from the ocean, in Havana’s best neighborhood, could command?

“Oh, $25,000,” she said. “A little more, maybe $30,000.”

In Miami, a similar apartment might cost nearly 10 times that, which is what many Cuban Americans seem to be thinking. José and several other brokers in Havana said real-estate transactions on the black market routinely involved money from Cubans overseas, especially Florida.

“There’s always money coming in from Miami,” said Gerardo, a broker who withheld his full name. “The Cuban in Miami buys a house for his cousin in Cuba, and when he comes here in the summer for a couple of months, he stays in that house.”

Murky rules

Technically, this is a violation of the trade embargo that began under President Eisenhower. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, deals or investments with Cubans are prohibited. Receiving money or profit from Cuba is also illegal.

But the rules are muddy in practice. Family transactions — mainly involving recent emigrants — seem to be expanding with a wink from the Obama administration.

Supporting private business is now encouraged under the general license that lets Cuban Americans visit relatives, and in 2009, President Obama established a policy of letting Cuban Americans visit the island whenever they want and send unlimited remittances to relatives.

Beyond that, enforcement against individuals, as opposed to businesses, is practically nonexistent. In the past 18 months, one American was penalized for violating the sanctions, with a fine of $525, according to a congressional report published last month.

One thing that isn’t expected to be a topic of debate in Cuba is exile claims on homes.

Over time, said Antonio Zamora, a Miami lawyer who specializes in foreign investment, families that occupied the homes of Cubans who left the island have essentially become the owners of the dwellings.

Experts say the Cuban diaspora has begun to create a tiered social system in Cuba. Cuban emigrants sent back about $1 billion in remittances last year, studies show, with an increasing proportion of that money financing budding capitalists in need of pizza ovens or other equipment to work privately. Homes would simply expand the bond, experts say, and offers are already arriving.

Ilda, 69, lives alone in a five-bedroom, ninth-floor apartment with views of the sea. A visiting Cuban-American couple — “chic, very well dressed,” she said — recently asked to buy her apartment for $150,000, with little care for any bans on foreign ownership.

“I told them I can’t,” Ilda said. “We’re waiting for the law.”

Even when the law changes, she said, she would prefer a “permuta,” a trade, because she would be guaranteed a place to live.

Nowhere to go

Her fear of having nowhere to go is common. One recent study, by Sergio Díaz-Briquets, a Washington-based demography expert, found that Cuba has a housing deficit of 1.6 million units. The government says the number is closer to 500,000, still a serious problem.

Coyula said money from sales might not be enough to fix the shortage, since there is almost no construction industry, permitting process or materials to build with.

Other thorny issues might have to be revisited.

“Evictions haven’t happened here since 1939,” he said. “There’s a law forbidding them.”

For now, Cubans are trying to grasp basic details. How will the mortgage system work? How high will taxes be? What’s a fair price?

There is even a question of how buyers and sellers will come together.

Classified listings are illegal in Cuba, which explains why brokers such as José, known as corredores, spend their days moving through open-air bazaars with notebooks listing apartments offered or desired.

He already has two employees, and when the new law arrives, whether his services are legal or not, he expects to hire more.

“We have to get coordinated,” he said. “It’s coming.”

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Leahy lifts hold on democracy funds for Cuba


Miami Herald:

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont on Tuesday lifted the final hold on the last part of a $20 million allocation for Cuba democracy programs, ending a bitter three-month fight over the programs’ effectiveness.

The funds are designed to help more than a dozen types of non-government activities, from youth groups to training on computers, communications and private enterprise and support for the communist-ruled country’s lesbian and gay community.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees State Department spending, announced that he freed the final $14 million of the $20 million package after the Department and its Agency for International Development answered his questions about human rights and civil society initiatives in Cuba.

But his statement made it clear he remains concerned about the programs, repeatedly criticized since their start in 1996 as wasteful and inefficient and managing only to provoke Havana into cracking down on dissidents who receive the U.S. assistance.

“The United States has a strong interest in helping the Cuban people improve their lives and protect their rights,” the statement said.  “We also have a responsibility to know how U.S. taxpayer dollars are used and whether programs are effective.”

“For too long this program has been carried out in ways that have been neither transparent nor accountable, and with no way to measure results.  That needs to change, and getting answers about the way these funds are spent is a constructive first step,” he added.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, put a “hold” on the full $20 million April 1 as his committee challenged the usefulness and transparency of the programs. Leahy added his own hold shortly afterward.

Kerry lifted his hold last week, after winning a promise by State and USAID officials that they would send his committee a detailed report on questions such as the programs’ effectiveness and how many Cubans they benefit.

Leahy let it be known on the same day that he had no issues with $6 million of the $20 million but needed more information on the rest.

The two senators expressed private concerns last week that freeing the funds might anger Cuban authorities amid speculation that they could release Alan P. Gross, a USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana.

The 62-year-old development specialist from Potomac, Md., was arrested in 2009 for delivering a satellite telephone to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community so that it could access the Internet independently of Cuban government controls.

Cuba’s highest court heard his appeal last month, and U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed the hope that he would be released soon on humanitarian grounds because his wife, daughter and mother all face health problems

Home sales would be a sea change for Cuba


Miami Herald: Selling an apartment in front of the Habana Libre, excellent conditionThe seller, Marita, is advertising this Havana apartment on revolico.com, an online marketplace that’s kind of like a Cuban Craigslist. She’s asking the equivalent of around $57,600 in convertible Cuban pesos.

Of course, at the moment real estate sales in Cuba are strictly illegal and have been for the past five decades. But that may change soon. As part of sweeping economic reforms unveiled at the Communist Party Congress in April, Cuba plans to allow the buying and selling of homes and cars.

A July 1 article in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, painted the broad brush strokes of the real estate reform: such transactions would be permitted with little government interference beyond getting notary approval, making payment through a state bank and paying an as yet unspecified tax.

The real estate reform has yet to become law, but it’s possible it could when the National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, convenes Monday for a three-day meeting at Havana’s Convention Palace. In any case, the government has said a new law will take effect by the end of the year.

This potential sea change has set off a flurry of activity on both sides of the Florida Straits. For years, Cuban-Americans have been funneling money to relatives to fix up tired properties or for under-the-table payments to “buy’’ a home or sweeten a permuta, or swap, the accepted form of acquiring Cuban real estate.

Now with the possibility of a true real estate market developing, people have been dusting off property titles or trying to find them and have been busy fixing up properties they anticipate putting on the market, said Antonio R. Zamora, a Miami lawyer who specializes in foreign investment.

“A lot of money is coming from Miami — some of it’s speculative,’’ said Zamora, who visited Cuba recently.

Some exiles say they have made under-the-table payments to purchase beach homes or other properties from family or friends with the understanding that some day they will own the homes outright. But they have no official paperwork to acknowledge such transactions.

In these cases, it should be buyer beware, said George Harper, a Miami attorney who left Cuba when he was 17. “That’s all well and good but any deal is subject to what the local laws are.’’

The expected law does not allow foreign ownership. The guidelines announced in Granma said that foreigners and Cubans living abroad can’t own property unless they are permanent residents of Cuba. Cubans will be allowed to own only one home and they can inherit a dwelling, even if the relatives of the deceased don’t live in the home, according to Granma.

Because of the influx of exile money, Zamora said it would be more realistic to “get the name of the foreign relative into the title.”

Phil Peters, a vice president at the Lexington Institute and a veteran Cuba watcher, said that the exile money flowing into Cuba may have an impact beyond investment.

“Now with the door open for Cuban-Americans to visit, to support their families, to invest and to perhaps indirectly buy real estate, it becomes not just an exile community but also an immigrant community with a foot in both places,’’ he said.

One thing that isn’t expected to be a topic of debate in Cuba is exile claims on homes.

Over time, Zamora said, families who occupied the homes of Cubans who left the island have essentially become the owners of the dwellings.

“There’s always been a difference of opinion on residential properties that were taken but now I think most people, with some notable exceptions, have given up on the notion of getting those properties back,’’ said Harper.

He’s been back to Cuba twice since he left as a teenager and visited the home where his family once lived. He found several families in the residence. “From a humanitarian point of view, it would be impractical to kick those people out,’’ he said.

Also expected to change once a property law is enacted is the messy permuta system. Currently, homes that are exchanged are supposed to be of “equal value.’’ But matching up the homes on offer with what people want is often a tricky business.

Sometimes two apartments are exchanged for a large home in a prime area and multiple parties are involved in so-called triangular deals. Although no money is supposed to change hands, there are sometimes under-the-table payments to even up deals or bribes paid to officials to let dubious swaps go through.

Under the new system, someone wanting to downsize from a four-bedroom home with a garage, for example, to a smaller apartment will probably just be able to do the swap and pay the difference in value, said Zamora. “The reform should make the permuta much easier and out in the open,’’ he said.

Besides cleaning up illicit housing transactions, the government has said the reform is designed to help with Cuba’s serious housing shortage.

But Harper said, “The fact that people can buy and sell homes won’t really impact the housing supply. If Cuba had money to build new housing, I think they would have done it by now.’’

Cuba, however, may be counting on real estate owners to expand and improve properties. In its effort to move more people off the state payroll into self-employment, the government has said that renting rooms, gardens and even swimming pools can be considered an alternative to state employment. Permitting home ownership may also encourage home building.

“If people are allowed to sell homes, this is a huge step forward in terms of property rights,’’ said Peters. “It makes assets liquid, a home can be used as collateral.’’

Because of the possibility of freeing up capital when a home is sold, other entrepreneurial activity may be unleashed, Peters said. “This really would be a sign of the Cuban government being serious about letting go of controls,’’ he said.

First new U.S. airport gets go-ahead from Cuba


Cuba Standard: Tampa International Airport is poised to become the first of a series of additional U.S. airports that will be able to offer flights to Cuba.

Miami-based ABC Charters, a company that has been offering flights from Miami to Cuba, has secured landing rights in Cuba for flights from Tampa, the airport said in a press release. Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, told the airport that the first flight from Tampa to Cuba could start as early as Sept. 10.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection allowed all U.S. airports with “adequate customs and immigration capabilities” to host Cuba flights. More than a dozen airports have received approval from USCBP, but Tampa is the first to have secured a carrier service provider with landing rights in Cuba.

Aral said at a press conference in Tampa that ABC would offer once-a-week flights to Havana, with frequency rising to twice a week in October, on American Airlines-provided Boeing 737-800s. ABC Charters currently flies seven times a week to Havana and three times a week to Holguín from Miami, usually in larger jets.

At least two other travel providers are vying to offer Cuba flights from Tampa, including Air MarBrisa and Island Travel & Tours, Ltd.

Tampa is the U.S. city with the second-largest Cuban population, following Miami. There are nearly 140,000 people of Cuban ancestry living within 90 minutes of Tampa International Airport.

In Atlanta, Delta Airlines said it is already licensed to operate charter flights to Cuba. In Fort Lauderdale, Airline Broker Co., which also has a license, is vying to offer twice-weekly flights. Other airports that have expressed interest in offering Cuba flights are Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, San Juan, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

www.particularcuba.com

Southwest Florida International approved for specialized flights to Cuba


Naples News:

Getting to Cuba from Southwest Florida may no longer require a two-hour drive to Miami.

On Monday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection approved Southwest Florida International Airport to operate specialized flights between the US and Cuba. It was one of 12 airports, including Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa, to receive the designation nationwide.

Previously, only three airports were authorized to fly between the US and Cuba: Los Angeles International, Miami International and New York City-based John F. Kennedy International.

But those hoping to visit family and friends in the island nation will still have to make the drive east to fly out of Miami International for the time being. The Fort Myers-based airport is not approved for normalized travel to and from Cuba.

“No carriers are giving us regular service as of right now,” said Victoria Moreland, public affairs director. “But this gives us the possibility to operate charter flights to Cuba for humanitarian relief, religious rights efforts or any other special reason.”

Moreland said receiving this approval gives the airport the opportunity to attract carriers should circumstances require flights to Cuba.

“It means we have the merit to be able to handle that international traffic,” she said.

Local Cubans are hoping that this will soon mean regular commercial flights will operate out of Southwest Florida as well.

“Too many people travel to Cuba from this area. And it’s always a pain to travel to Miami first,” said Irenia Torres, who left Cuba seven years-ago and has lived in Naples for six years.

If Southwest Florida International started operating flights regularly to Cuba, she said she knows people who would fly there monthly.

Until this year, those of Cuban descent were not permitted to travel to Cuba more than once every few years. As part of President Barack Obama’s effort to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country’s future, he directed that all international airports apply to operate charter flights to and from Cuba.

To be eligible for approval, airports must be an international airport, have adequate staffing, equipment and facilities to process international traffic and must have an Office of Foreign Assets Control carrier service provider that is prepared to provide flights between the airport and Cuba. Southwest Florida International received its approval as part of that initiative.

Claudia Morales, a waitress at World Bakery and Cafeteria, a Golden Gate-based Cuban cafe, agreed that she would visit Cuba if it was less of a hassle to travel there. Morales left Cuba with her family at age six and has yet to go back.

She would like to fly there with her Cuban husband who came to the US when he was 15.

“We just haven’t had the time or the money to go to Miami and then fly there,” Morales said. “I’ve heard you need at least $1000 to cover flights, customs and taxes before you can even step foot in the country.”

Southwest Florida International is still far from operating regular, commercial flights to Cuba but the new designation gives it the opportunity to make the quick, 40 minute trip if the need arises.

“If and when the restrictions on flights ease up, the airport will be fully equipped and prepared to handle the travel,” Moreland said.

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New US rules promise legal Cuba travel for many


HAVANA – The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.www.cubaluxuryrent.com

Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department’s wrath.

“This is travel to Cuba for literally any American,” said Tom Popper, director of a tour operator, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.

But it won’t all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.

So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush administration clamped down what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.

Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm about the new policy.

“President Obama and the administration continuously say they don’t want more tourism and that’s not what they’re trying to do. But that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was born in Ft. Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.

“The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian regime,” he said.

If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers, he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.

In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums. Architecture aficionados could explore Havana’s stately, but crumbling cityscape.

“Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba — legally!” trumpeted a recent press release for one would-be tour operator.

“You can go on forever,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who represents several groups that have applied for licenses to operate the trips. “The subject matter is virtually limitless.”

Many approved tours will likely be run by museums, university alumni associations and other institutions. They will target wealthy, educated Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.

Tens of thousands went each year under people-to-people licenses from 2000 to 2003. Anyone is eligible if they go with an authorized group.

Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors from the United States annually, though most are expected to be Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That makes travelers from the United States the second biggest group visiting Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.

Academic and religious travel from the U.S. is also increasing.

The guidelines published by the U.S. Treasury Department say people-to-people tours must guarantee a “full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction” with Cubans.

But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time is gone, possibly making it difficult to police whether tours will follow the spirit of the law.

“It’s more liberal than in 2000-2003 in a lot of senses,” Popper said.

Still, it’s a far cry from the pre-revolution days when Havana’s mob-controlled nightclubs and casinos were a playground for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Greta Garbo. Back then, cheap ferries and flights from Florida meant tourists could party through the night and leave in the morning without bothering to rent a room.

Academic visits already under way give an idea of what may be allowed.

A recent group of Iowa State University students who came to study sustainable food and development had an itinerary packed with activities like visits to farms, a coffee plantation and an environmental reserve. They also managed to stroll Old Havana on a guided tour, visit an art museum and take in a performance of “Swan Lake” by Cuba’s acclaimed National Ballet.

Agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft said the cultural experiences were key for students to understand Cubans and therefore an integral part of their study.

“We didn’t come here to be on a Caribbean beach; we came to be on farms,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I didn’t even pack a bathing suit.”

When the Bush administration shut down people-to-people visits in 2004, it cited allegations the rules were being abused.

“You had these groups going down and they would miraculously end up in Varadero (a popular beach resort) or at Hemingway’s home, or they’d end up at cigar factories,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It wasn’t something that was easy to defend when the State Department made inquiries.”

The Obama administration would almost certainly come under pressure from anti-Castro members of Congress if a rash of Americans start posting Facebook photos of themselves smoking Cohibas and sipping Havana Club on the beach, Kavulich said.

So college kids looking for a bacchanalian spring break should probably stick to standbys like Cancun and Daytona Beach.

U.S. officials vow to weed out frivolous trips.

“If it is simply salsa dancing and mojitos, no. That doesn’t pass the purposeful-travel criteria,” a State Department official involved with the policy said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

If the new travel rules are politically sustainable, they have the potential to be “a big business opportunity,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which offers licensed flights between Miami and Cuba and is expanding in anticipation of a surge of travelers.

“Hopefully (the U.S. government) will be issuing the licenses in a timely way and processing them quickly, and people will be able to begin going down. And we hope we can help them,” Guild said. “It’s a significant change.”

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