What does Trump’s Cuba announcement mean for American travelers? While Trump’s Cuba policy shift is a downer, it’s not a full-stop prohibition. Here’s what you need to know—for now, at least.
Those who keep tabs on the United States’ Cuba policies had been waiting for the Trump administration’s shoe to drop since January 20, though truth be told, it took longer than many of us thought it would. The idea that Trump would permit the Obama-Castro détente, brokered by Pope Francis, to endure was inconceivable. The only question was: Exactly how much would Trump roll back?
The answer came last Friday… sort of. In a nearly hour-long speech given in Miami, Trump announced a return to a ‘Get tough’ posture, arguing, “It’s hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration’s terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime.” He went on to add that “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” seemingly unaware of the fact that just ten days earlier, Airbnb had announced that Cuban hosts in its network had earned more than $40 million in the two years it had been on the island. That’s not an insignificant sum in a country where the average monthly salary is equivalent to approximately $17 USD.
In the speech, Trump announced that “effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” But in the hodgepodge remarks that followed this bold statement, what became increasingly clear was that Trump’s policy, which he vowed would “seek a much better deal for the Cuban people and for the United States of America,” was not a wholesale scrapping of the December 2014 détente announced jointly by Presidents Obama and Castro, nor of the significant inroads that were made subsequently.
Beneath all the blustery tough talk about forcing President Raúl Castro’s hand, demanding that the Cuban leader release political prisoners, return American fugitives living in Cuba, and “Open yourselves to political and economic freedoms,” a statement that ignored entirely Castro’s economic reforms of the past five years, there were parts of the Obama-era policy that would, in fact, remain intact. For one: The US Embassy in Havana would not be shuttered, nor reverted to its pre-2014 status as an ‘Interests Section.’ For another: Travel by Americans to Cuba could continue, albeit under adjusted circumstances.
In the days that have followed Trump’s Cuba policy changes, analysts, experts, and pundits have all tried to parse the president’s words in an effort to understand what they really mean for American travel to the island. The biggest players in commercial travel—Airbnb, JetBlue, and Carnival Cruises among them—emitted cautiously worded press releases that seemed to suggest even they weren’t sure of their standing after Trump’s word salad of an announcement.
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This is problematic because, for all the talk about Americans descending upon Cuba in droves, this has not, in fact, been the case. Even before the Trump announcement, Americans were confused about how to travel to Cuba, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by Allianz Global Assistance. With Trump introducing even more complicating factors, that confusion will become still more acute, and will likely keep all but the most curious Americans (and those of us with family there) away from the island.
If you didn’t make it to Cuba before the Trump transition, or if you did but, like most people who visit, you can’t wait to get back, last week’s policy shift announcement is a downer, to be sure. It is not, however, a full-stop prohibition. For now, at least, here’s what you need to know:
The honor system era, brief as it was, is over.
Americans who traveled to Cuba under the Obama-era commercial travel regulations were required to fall within one of 12 approved categories of travelers. They were also supposed to keep detailed records of their activities, accounting for almost every minute. No one seemed to be checking, however, to verify whether a traveler actually, say, had a living family member in Cuba, whether they were attending a professional conference, or participating in a humanitarian project. The past two and a half years have operated largely on an honor system, and that era is now over.
Individual people-to-people travel will soon be off-limits.
For travelers who understand that the most meaningful experiences and contacts are enjoyed when you’re on your own and making decisions for yourself, rather than as part of a tour group with a programmed agenda, this element of the Trump Cuba policy is the most devastating. Individual people-to-people travel will soon be off-limits, and Americans’ travel to Cuba will be restricted to group tours offered by US government-licensed operators or to cruises.
Booking accommodations will likely become a big problem.
The major piece of the Trump announcement was an ultimatum issued to the Cuban government and military: Any transactions, business or travel-related, that ultimately funnel funds to the Cuban military will be verboten. This may not seem like a problem with respect to travel, but given that many Cuban hotels are owned by the state and military, Americans who go the hotel route, as opposed to a casa particular (a Cuban B&B) or Airbnb will likely face even more difficulty booking than has already been the case recently.
None of these changes is actually in effect yet.
If you were already planning a trip to Cuba prior to Trump’s June 16 announcement, the pending changes shouldn’t affect you. The US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, has been charged with the task of issuing new regulations and enacting them, but neither Trump nor OFAC has revealed a hard and fast timeline. OFAC has said, however, that any Americans who booked commercial flights or accommodations prior to the June 16 announcement will still be allowed to travel.
If you’re still keen to visit Cuba, you can! But pay attention to developments at OFAC and seek the guidance of a travel agency like Marazul, which specializes in Cuba and will have up-to-date information about policy developments impacting travelers.
Curious about travel to Cuba? See what else Cuba offers beyond the classic cars and colorful facades: Photos from Cuba beyond the Cadillacs.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a bilingual journalist whose geographic areas of expertise are Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. She also co-authored the international bestseller Pope Francis in His Own Words, and has authored or contributed to Michelin Havana, Fodor’s Puerto Rico, DK Eyewitness Mexico, and MOON New York State.