On December 17, President Barack Obama ordered a restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba — the most significant shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island in more than half a century. In the days following, many of us assumed Havana's glamorous beaches — off-limits since 1961 — were back on the docket for winter travel. But don't count on making the Caribbean nation your next adventure any time soon.
"Travel to Cuba will expand as a result of this," says Michael J. Montgomery, adjunct professor at Oakland University in Rochester, MI, and former U.S. Diplomat serving as the State Department's action officer for the Cuba Embargo in the eighties. "But not exactly the tourism side."
There are 12 types of legal travel to Cuba, the same 12 that existed before Obama's announcement. They are: Family visits; official business of the U.S. government; foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; and exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials.
What's changed is that Americans traveling to Cuba for one of these reasons no longer need to apply to the U.S. Government for a license — many of which were denied. You can simply go to Cuba and upon re-entry into the U.S., you'll need to verify that you were in Cuba for one of the 12 approved reasons. All travel outside of the 12 reasons is still prohibited.
"The categories are broad enough that a substantial amount of Americans will begin traveling to Cuba for organized activities like Habitat for Humanity, and through that will do a certain amount of tourism," says Montgomery. "But there's still no category for ‘Hanging out on the beach.'"
What happens if someone goes to Cuba and doesn't fit under one of the 12 categories? "I'm not sure how the practicality of this is going to play out, but in theory, they could be in trouble," says Montgomery. "No one should ever travel anywhere illegally, it's just a bad idea."
Of course, Americans have traveled routinely to Cuba — nearly 100,000 a year according to Cuban government statistics — in the past. The Cuban government allows Americans to circumnavigate the licensing regulations all together by purchasing tourist cards (instead of visas) on inbound airplanes from Canada and Mexico. "These people were subject to prosecution before Obama's announcement, and will remain so after," says Montgomery. "I think it's been seldom and selective, but it remains a possibility."
For now, those itching to experience Cuba should stick to the 12 categories, or wait longer. "The embargo was pretty absolute in 1961, and was gradually eased," says Montgomery. "These 12 travel categories certainly weren't available in the eighties. They were narrower and much fewer. There will continue to be a gradual broadening."
And then there are other concerns. Obama's announcement doesn't resolve Cuba's human rights issues, or neutralize their cartels, or negate the fact that they continue to support the repressive regime in Venezuela, not to mention the actions in Iran. "It's more of a symbolic announcement at this point," says Luis Fleischman, Ph.D., senior adviser to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C. and the author of Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States. "The basic defects and negative elements in Cuba have not been addressed. I, myself, would not want to travel there."