Cashing in on Cuba: Why the U.S. tourism industry isn't waiting for
Congress to lift the embargo
Cuba Libre? It took capitalist motives to beat the embargo and make
travel to the communist country a reality
Tourists in Havana, Cuba, March 20, 2016. (Credit: AP/Ramon Espinosa)
When Juan Santamarina's two uncles from Cuba recently visited the U.S.
for the first time, the travel experience was exceptionally . .
"It was a pretty simple process to get their five-year visas, as if they
were flying to anywhere else, which is remarkable," Santamarina, chair
of the history department at the University of Dayton, told Salon.
"After so many years, we're finally beginning to see the U.S. having
more normal relations with Cuba — more like the relations with other
It was just 20 years ago that President Bill Clinton signed a law
strengthening the embargo imposed in 1960. But since President Barack
Obama lifted restriction on family travel and money transfers from the
U.S. to Cuba in 2009, the process of normalizing diplomatic and trade
relations between the two countries has picked up the pace. In the past
seven years, two-way travel restrictions have been lifted, diplomatic
ties have been restored, prisoners have been swapped and more U.S.
business delegations have been exploring the streets of Havana. And U.S.
companies eager to do business in and with this long
off-limits market have been leading calls to end the 56-year-old trade
Now after the Obama administration used its executive powers to lift
some trade restrictions in September and renewed calls to lift the
embargo, companies in the tourism sector have decided the time to try to
gain a foothold in Cuba is now. They're working around the embargo,
which Congress has failed to rescind. Among other things, the
legislation, a lingering vestige of the Cold War, requires Americans
traveling to Cuba sign an affidavit promising that they aren't going to
the island nation on vacation — Cuba is the only destination in the
world for which this is required. But that isn't stopping the airlines.
On Wednesday, JetBlue will become the first U.S. carrier since the 1950s
to offer commercial routes to Cuba. The inaugural flight will depart
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, filled with Cuban-born Americans heading to
the central Cuban city of Santa Clara. Other airlines will soon follow
and by the end of the year regular direct routes are likely from Miami,
Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia to and from nine Cuban cities.
Although there are still only 12 approved reasons for U.S. citizens to
travel to Cuba, they can now be defined broadly enough to accommodate
almost any type of tourism, according Samuel Engel, vice president for
the Aviation group of ICF International, a global advisory firm. "You'd
have to be pretty uncreative not to find a way to put yourself into one
of the 12 categories in order to fly to Cuba from the U.S.," Engel told
Salon. What, for example, constitutes "educational activities," or
"support for the Cuban people," two of the authorized reasons to visit Cuba?
In other words, the gaps in the embargo's fine print are big enough to
sail a cruise ship through. Indeed, earlier this year, Carnival became
the first U.S. leisure travel company since the 1950s to offer cruise
packages to Cuba by carefully categorizing the tour as a cultural
"The Obama administration's steps to broaden and more generously
interpret the 12 authorized categories have punched a beneficial, big
hole in that barrier," Fulton Armstrong, a research fellow at the Center
for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in
Washington, D.C., told Salon via email. "Commercial flights make that
travel more irreversible, and they lock in the interests of powerful
political voices — the airline industry and others — in favor of travel."
Earlier this year, Connecticut-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts signed
deals with three state-owned hotels in Cuba after the U.S. Treasury
Department gave it the go-ahead. And last week, AT&T became the first
U.S. telecom to sign a deal with Cuba's state-owned phone companies to
offer mobile roaming service to customers who travel to Cuba.
The doors the Obama administration has opened will be very difficult to
close, and they may even compel the reluctant Republican Congress to
lift the embargo. One stumbling block to that may soon be resolved
if negotiations to settle claims on properties appropriated by the Cuban
government are resolved. Human rights in Cuba still remains a big
sticking point, but advocates of normalizing relations can point to
America's engagement with other authoritarian states across the globe,
such as Egypt, China or Saudi Arabia, and question why a neighbor just
90 miles south of Miami is held to a different standard.
And so while the GOP-led Congress is unwilling to remove the embargo, a
majority of Americans favor ending it, according to a poll earlier this
year. It's telling that since 2012 the number of people taking charter
flights to Cuba has grown fivefold, to a half million travelers last
year, according to Engel: Americans are unlikely to dissuaded from
traveling to Cuba, embargo or no. The moves being made by JetBlue,
Starwood, Carnival and AT&T are sound business decisions: There's an
underserved demand and a new market: So no one should be surprised
that capitalism is bringing the de facto end to the embargo of communist
Source: Cashing in on Cuba: Why the U.S. tourism industry isn't waiting
for Congress to lift the embargo - Salon.com -