US travel ban on Cuba increasingly irrelevent

Issue 

As debate over the travel ban on US citizens visiting Cuba continues in the US Congress, many US citizens remain afraid of visiting their largest Caribbean neighbour.

Most are probably unaware that Washington has virtually abandoned the policing of individual travel to Cuba.

In 2003, the US Treasury fined 240 individuals, most for attempting to import Cuban cigars. However, in 2009 only three individuals were fined for Cuba-related transactions.

Yet, as Cuban tourism continues to grow, less than 2% of tourism traffic is accounted for by US citizens.

US citizens are staying away despite there being virtually no risk that they will be caught or fined for visiting their closest — and safest — tourist destination. Because of the heavy regulation of direct flights to Cuba, most independent US travellers simply pass through Canada or Mexico.

The Cubans, helpfully, issue visas on a loose slip of paper, so no stamp is placed in your passport.

The bans on US citizens or residents travelling to Cuba have been in place for almost 50 years, despite being opposed by most of the US population and, in recent years, also most Cuban-Americans.

The bans are enforced by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), a body which supervises US sanctions on a number of countries, including Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Burma and Cuba.

However the shift in OFAC activity in recent years, regarding Cuba, has been from travellers to internet transactions and from individuals to companies.

At the same time as only three individuals were fined for travel offences, the corporate focus increased. OFAC records state that 99 fines for corporate violation of US sanctions in 2008 netted US$3.5 million, while 27 fines in 2009 netted a huge $772.4 million.

That figure includes some fines levied for trading with other countries, such as in 2009 all the big fines were for companies doing Cuba-related business. Credit Suisse was fined a massive $563 million, Lloyds $217 million and the ANZ bank $5.75 million. In the case of ANZ, this was for transactions involving both Sudan and Cuba.

A lawyer for the US blockade-busting group "Pastors for Peace" said they had successfully contested several "fine for travel" cases.

In 2008, most of the 31 individuals fined for Cuba-related offences were purchasing Cuban cigars on the internet. In 2009, the three fined individuals included one purchasing cigars on the internet, one for a financial transaction and a third for a property transaction.

Additional restrictions on travel were introduced by the Bush administration in 2004, including measures that blocked many student groups and limited family visits by US citizens of Cuban origin.

As a result, US visitors to Cuba almost halved between 2003 and 2004.

The Obama administration removed many of the additional restrictions on family visits, it is not yet clear to what extent this has overcome the general fear of travel to Cuba, instilled by the Bush Administration measures.

Despite the low numbers of US visitors, North American tourism in Cuba has grown strongly. Canadians have, for some time, been the biggest single group of tourists, and their numbers swelled to over 800,000 in 2008.

Meanwhile, that other North American country, Mexico, has been sending twice as many tourists as the US.

Robert Whitely, of US Tour Operators, has predicted that "at least 850,000 Americans [i.e. US citizens] will go to Cuba in the first year" after the travel ban is lifted.

However, the abandonment of policing travellers means that the way is pretty open right now.

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