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People-to-People Travel Changes U.S. Citizens’ Views on the Embargo

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Author: Zuleika Rivera


In 2011 President Obama reinstated a category of licensed travel to Cuba known as “people-to-people.” This is the license that took the famous couple, Beyonce and Jay-Z, to Cuba last summer and requires individuals traveling under this license to emphasize exchange with the Cuban people during their time in Cuba. Yet, individuals cannot simply apply for a “people-to-people” license. Only organizations are eligible to apply to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a license to facilitate “people-to-people” travel. OFAC is the agency of the Treasury Department that oversees all of the Cuba sanctions. U.S. citizens can now travel legally to Cuba through those organizations that have obtained a people-to-people license.  However, these trips are not of a tourist nature, rather an educational nature. License requirements mandate that travelers follow a tight schedule of activities that can be subject to OFAC review during the license renewal process. While the license application process can be a long one, this has not deterred many organizations (LAWG has a list of some of these organizations
here) from applying for these types of licenses as it is one of the only ways in which everyday U.S. citizens can have the opportunity to learn about life in Cuba first-hand.

A recent article in TIME magazine highlighted how many U.S. citizens’ opinions toward Cuba have changed due to their involvement in a people-to-people trip. “88 percent said the experience made them more likely than before to support ending the embargo against Cuba.” Many go on these trips drawn by the desire to know about the mysterious little island believed to be, at least in the mainline press, an enemy of the United States. Once they get there most U.S. citizens see something completely different than what they expected and what is popularly portrayed in U.S. media. Many arrive in Cuba thinking it will be a “repressive communist regime” dominated by a 1960s façade,  but this gives a false impression. The reality is that it is hard to find even the most basic goods in Cuba;  and when travelers realize this, it suddenly becomes a reality to them that the embargo is doing more harm than good. Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, said, “Some leave Cuba blaming U.S. policy for the shortages…In day-to-day life, it’s so difficult for the average Cuban. When the travelers go and they see that, and they experience it themselves, it makes sense that they say (the embargo) doesn’t make sense.”  The Cuban government has yet to collapse as a result of U.S. embargo; and while many changes are being made on the island to address corruption and inefficiencies in the economy, it remains clear that our policies are not working and a different approach to Cuba should be taken.

After these trips many of our fellow citizens come back passionate about ending the embargo and desire an improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations. “Some people go back and say they want to write letters to their senators,” said Jeff Philippe, a guide who has taken 34 groups to the island in just over a year for Insight Cuba, which puts on people-to-people tours. “I’ve had several people say to me, ‘I want to make this my personal mission to end the embargo.’” People-to-people travel allows visitors to have an exchange with Cubans and get a glimpse into their daily lives. Travelers with Insight Cuba were given the equivalent of $1 and sent to the local farmers market to see what they could purchase. What they found were overpriced goods that their $1 spending limit couldn’t afford, and the realization that daily life in Cuba is hard when it comes to grocery shopping. Experiences like this really highlight the direct impact of U.S. policies on the average Cuban. Other activities that people-to-people travel promotes truly allow for an exchange of cultures and an understanding between U.S. citizens and Cuban citizens. One of the most common realizations made is that Cuban and American people are more alike than different. And while the Cuban and U.S. governments remain at odds, people-to-people travel opportunities continue to promote dialogue between people and inform a mildly unaware U.S. population about the reality of Cuba and how U.S. policy makes that reality harder.