After decades of relative isolation between US-Cuba travel, 2016 marked a historic change. In his last year in office, President Barack Obama changed US relations with Cuba in three important ways:
- He issued an executive order allowing individuals to travel to Cuba under the “people-to-people” category.
- He signed a new presidential policy toward Cuba, saying the United States would not involve itself in regime change and would respect sovereignty.
- He ended “wet foot, dry foot,” a decades-old policy allowing Cubans who arrived in the United States without a visa to become permanent U.S. residents.
These new policies marked a new era of boom for Cuba’s tourism. In May 2016, the first cruise ship from the United States called on the island, and by August 2016, the first regularly-scheduled flights to Cuba began.
However, by mid-June 2017, President Trump signed a new presidential policy which, in essence, repudiated his predecessor’s efforts. It refused to recognize the Cuban regime as legitimate and, thus, put the potential for U.S. involvement in regime change back on the agenda. In addition:
- It included President Trump’s intentions to change the Cuban travel policy—by rolling back individual people-to-people travel and returning to the old categories of educational and people-to-people group travel.
- The president also ordered the Secretary of State to come up with a list of Cuban entities—such as the military and security and intelligence agencies—with which Americans could no longer transact. Because of the integration of public and private sectors in Cuba, this would prohibit Americans from using specific hotels, restaurants, and businesses.
Meanwhile, other obstacles were thrown in the path of people-to-people exchange in Cuba:
- In early September, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, swept across Cuba, causing flooding and mass destruction. A US State Department Travel Warning, issued immediately after the hurricane, stated that no one should travel to Cuba until after the recovery. A few days later, however, the department issued a second statement, saying Havana had recovered quickly and, with the exception of the island’s North Coast, it would be fine for people to travel.
- On September 29, 2017, the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of 60 percent of staff from the US Embassy in Havana due to unexplained health incidents affecting US diplomats. The administration stated that, while the Cuban government was not being blamed for these incidents, it was at fault for not stopping them.
- The US State Department also issued a Travel Warning on September 29, advising that no US citizens should travel to Cuba because of these health dangers. Yet no tourists have experienced health problems similar to those of the diplomats, and no other country—including Canada, whose diplomats were also reportedly attacked—has issued a travel warning for its citizens.
These actions, in effect, closed the US consulate in Havana, providing no practical means for Cubans to acquire visas to travel to the United States, regardless of motive. Shortly thereafter, the US expelled 60 percent of Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC.
On November 1, the United States voted against a UN resolution condemning America’s economic embargo against Cuba. The resolution was otherwise approved by a vote of 187-3 in the General Assembly, with Israel and Brazil casting the other “no” votes. Last year, then-President Obama’s administration abstained from voting on the resolution for the first time in 25 years as a means to advance the warming of relations between the US and Cuba.
One week later, on November 8th, the Trump administration announced that beginning November 9, new regulations would ban U.S. citizens from engaging in individual, but not group, people-to-people travel in Cuba and from doing business with dozens of entities linked to the Cuban military and government.
The following year continued to mark ongoing fallout from the health incidents reported by US diplomats in the latter half of 2017. A clear explanation for these incidents continues to remain a mystery.
- On January 10, 2018, the U.S. State Department unveiled a new travel-advisory system, which rates countries from level 1 to 4—1 signifying “Exercise Normal Precautions” and 4 “Do Not Travel.” Cuba has been given a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” rating, which, along with a 4, is the equivalent of the old Travel Warning. In addition, the State Department’s advisory website pointed to the reason for this rating as the “health attacks” aimed solely at U.S. Embassy employees, and only within small sections of Havana.
- The State Department announced, on March 4, 2018, that it would not re-staff the U.S. Embassy in Havana to the level prior to the 60-percent reduction in late September 2017, but would instead apply a “new permanent staffing plan” in which the embassy continues “to operate with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions.” The department was complying with a deadline demanding that, six months after a reduction in embassy staff, it must decide whether to re-staff or reassign embassy employees elsewhere. Citing “health attacks affecting U.S. Embassy Havana employees” as the reason for changing the staffing plan, the State Department also decided to leave the travel advisory for Cuba at 3, or “Reconsider Travel.”
- On March 30, 2018, the United States announced it would process Cuban immigrant visas at its embassy in Georgetown, Guyana since the headquarters in Havana continued to be paralyzed. And a few months later, on September 10, President Donald Trump renewed the Trading with the Enemy Law for another year, thus extending the application of economic sanctions to Cuba.
- On August 23, 2018, after a mandatory six-month review of the Cuba travel advisory, the U.S. Department of State downgraded its travel advisory rating for Cuba from “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” to “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.”
Despite this, by 2019, Cuba faced a difficult period with significant negative repercussions for its tourism sector. The restrictions imposed that year by the United States led to a 10% reduction in the number of visitors to the island. Some of those restrictions included:
- On March 11, the United States updated the List of Restricted Cuban Entities, including five entities (four of their hotels) accused of being “controlled by the military” services. These entities include: Gaviota Hotels Cuba, Habaguanex Hotels, Playa Gaviota Hotels, Marinas Gaviota Cuba and Fiesta Club Adults Only.
- On May 3, the Trump Administration renewed Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which since it was signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, had been postponed every six months by successive administrations. With this measure, it allowed US citizens whose properties were nationalized in the 1960s to sue in court anyone, regardless of their nationality, who “traffics” in those properties.
- Only a month later, on June 5, the Treasury Department announced the elimination of the group people-to-people travel category, which effectively eliminated the US cruise tourism to the island. The “individual” people-to-people sub-category of travel had been eliminated since November 2017.
- On October 25, the US government announced that it was suspending commercial airline flights to the interior of the island, allowing landing only in Havana. On December 10, this measure came into force.
In March 2020, COVID-19 had struck the island, and like many countries around the globe, the Cuban tourism industry went into lockdown. In addition to the devastation due to COVID-19, this year also marked the final political blows from the Trump administration for US-Cuba travel. This included:
- On January 10, the United States government announced the suspension of all charter flights to Cuba, except for trips to the José Martí International Airport, in Havana.
- On August 6, Cuba was included in Level 4 of the State Department’s Travel Alert System, and shortly after, it announced the suspension of all private charter flights between the USA and Cuba except those authorized to Havana.
- In September 2020, the Trump administration extended the Trading with the Enemy Law and the blockade policy against Cuba for one more year. The administration also announced the creation of a List of Prohibited Accommodations in Cuba to which properties under government management were added, and new entities were included in the List of Restricted Cuban Entities, thus reaching 230 entities.
- This same month, the administration prohibited American travelers from bringing home bottles of Cuban rum and cigars for personal consumption. They also barred travel for reasons of attending or organizing professional meetings or conferences, public performances, and sports competitions.
- In January 2021, as a final blow from the Trump administration, Cuba was designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
The incoming Biden Administration in January 2021 brought new optimism for US-Cuba normalization efforts. In April of the previous year, Joe Biden had announced during his campaign run that, if elected, he would “promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights,” lauding Americans “and especially Cuban-Americans” as the “best ambassadors for freedom.” Yet despite the entry of the new administration, the promised policy shifts towards Cuba normalizations have yet to be seen.
- In March 2021, Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary announced in a brief that “A Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.’’
- Then on May 14, 2021, the Biden administration renewed the December 2020 determination that Cuba is “not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts.”
- On June 2, 2021, five senators submitted a letter to Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, requesting that the Biden administration restore cooperative efforts in relation to the environment and climate change. The letter asks to re-establish “dialogue with the Cuban government on marine conservation, climate change, and other urgent environmental issues” and revoke the Trump-era policies “which have severely restricted scientific and professional exchange between the United States and Cuba”.
(Timeline information through 2018 provided primarily by Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, Inc., and co-coordinator of RESPECT, a U.S. professional association of tour operators, travel agents, non-profits, and other travel providers with 160 members dedicated to promoting responsible and ethical travel to Cuba. Additional information provided by CREST.)