Tiffany A. Sippial: Are U.S. Citizens Still Allowed to Travel to Cuba?

Today we welcome a guest post from Tiffany A. Sippial, author of Celia Sánchez Manduley: The Life and Legacy of a Cuban Revolutionary, out now from UNC Press.

Celia Sánchez Manduley (1920–1980) is famous for her role in the Cuban revolution. Clad in her military fatigues, this “first female guerrilla of the Sierra Maestra” is seen in many photographs alongside Fidel Castro. Sánchez joined the movement in her early thirties, initially as an arms runner and later as a combatant. She was one of Castro’s closest confidants, perhaps lover, and went on to serve as a high-ranking government official and international ambassador. Since her death, Sánchez has been revered as a national icon, cultivated and guarded by the Cuban government. With almost unprecedented access to Sánchez’s papers, including a personal diary, and firsthand interviews with family members, Tiffany A. Sippial presents the first critical study of a notoriously private and self-abnegating woman who yet exists as an enduring symbol of revolutionary ideals.

Celia Sánchez Manduley is now available in paperback and ebook editions.


Are U.S. Citizens Still Allowed to Travel to Cuba?

As a specialist in the history of Cuba, the number one question I receive from colleagues and friends is: Are U.S. citizens still allowed to travel to Cuba?

I encourage everyone to take the time to study all of the facets of recent Cuba travel policy changes. President Trump announced on June 4 that, effective immediately, U.S. cruise companies would no longer be permitted to sail to the island. The new restriction cut off the most popular mode of travel to the island for U.S. citizens since Obama gave the green light to cruise companies in 2016. The last U.S. cruise liner to dock in Havana, the Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas, sailed out of Havana Bay with its upper decks full of passengers waving to onlookers standing along the capital city’s seawall. While trips to Cuba account for only a small percentage of U.S. cruise company business, the allure of the island allowed those companies to charge rates as much as 20 percent higher for Cuban itineraries than other Caribbean destinations. Shares of Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival all took a hit in the wake of the new restrictions.

Furthermore, an estimated 800,000 cruise travelers were impacted by the new policy. Cruise ships already on route to the island at the time of the announcement were forced to shift their trajectory mid-course and head toward Cozumel, Cancun, or another Caribbean destination. Cruise companies scrambled to offer ship credit or partial refunds to their angry and confused passengers, who immediately began venting on social media. All upcoming cruises will have to bypass the island in favor of alternative itineraries and several have offered full refunds to their customers. The Associated Press estimates that Cuba could lose as much as $130 million in revenue due to the new restrictions on cruises from the United States.

The Trump administration also banned the popular “people to people” category of authorized educational travel for U.S. citizens, which President Obama established in 2016. National Security Advisor John Bolton stated in a tweet that these measures were designed to end “veiled tourism” and keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of the Cuban government, and more specifically out of the hands of the Cuban military. Unlike the immediate nature of the restrictions on cruise ship operations there is a “grandfathering provision” for U.S. citizens who booked other types of travel to Cuba before June 5, 2019. The provision only applies, however, to people who completed at least one travel-related transaction, like purchasing a flight or reserving a hotel or other accommodation, before June 5.

As recently as 10 January 2020, the Trump administration extended the scope of these travel restrictions by suspending charter flights between the U.S. and most Cuban destinations except Havana. Charter operators have a 60-day period to discontinue flights. The move is part of a continuing effort to restrict the Cuban government’s ability to continue to finance Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government by “impeding the Cuban regime from gaining access to hard currency from U.S. travelers,” the State Department noted. Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ general director for the U.S., have labeled the newest restrictions as another “vicious attempt to pressure Cuba economically to bend our political will and step on our sovereign rights.” Airline employees in both countries have expressed doubts about the ultimate impact of the restrictions. Cuban airline employees note that travelers on the island will simply use domestic airlines to conduct their in-country travel, undermining the intent of the newest restrictions. U.S airline officials report a spike in U.S. ticket sales to the island over the last week, as anxious travelers scurry to secure flights in the event that the Trump administration decides to impose a full travel ban.

One thing to make clear is that there are still 11 categories of authorized travel to Cuba. Those categories are: family visits; official business for the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalism; professional research; religious activities; public performances; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of informational materials; and authorized export transactions. U.S. citizens traveling to the island have long been legally required to provide proof that their activities on the island conformed to legal codes. The general sense now is that the level of enforcement and scrutiny of travelers could intensify. To avoid issues when traveling to Cuba, all U.S. travelers should be prepared to present a detailed itinerary of their daily activities on the island that does not include unauthorized recreational or tourism activities. U.S. travelers may also want to consider travel with one of several licensed U.S. vendors who claim conformity with the “support for the Cuban people” travel category. They require their travel groups to bring medical or other supplies to the island, stay in private homes, and center their itineraries on meetings and other interactions with local business owners, educators, and artists.

I hope that U.S. citizens who are interested in traveling to Cuba will not be deterred by the recent policy changes. There are still many avenues available to visit the island, and any one of them is well worth pursuing.



Photo by Wade Berry

Tiffany A. Sippial, associate professor of history at Auburn University, is the author of Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920. Follow her on Twitter.