By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: September 11, 2012
AS part of a newly approved “people to people” tour in Cuba last summer, a group of Americans met with 40 blind Havana residents, who welcomed them with poetry and conversation. Then, Cubans being Cubans, four of them pulled out instruments and within minutes, arms and legs were intertwined as Americans and Cubans danced with abandon in the front yard of Cuba’s National Association for the Blind.
“All 16 Americans were crying,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, the tour operator that organized the trip. “Those are moments that only happen a few times in your life, and if you had gone to Cuba by yourself, you wouldn’t have been exposed to that.”
That sort of moment may be harder to come by in the future.
The Obama administration loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba early in 2011, allowing more than 10,000 tourists without familial, scholarly or professional ties to go there using tour operators with what are known as people-to-people licenses. But the trips, which license guidelines say should focus on “educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction” between Americans and Cubans, have faced criticism that they are thinly veiled tourist jaunts devoted to salsa dancing rather than serious pursuits.
As a result, the process for renewing licenses has become more complicated and slower. Several high-profile institutions are still awaiting approval while others have already seen their licenses expire, including Insight Cuba, which was forced to lay off all 22 of its employees last month after filing its first renewal application in March. And now, in the prime time for planning travel to Cuba during its peak season, which starts in November, dozens of other trips are on hold, leaving tour operators fearful that the window of opportunity to visit may be closing for many travelers.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
President Bill Clinton created the people-to-people license in 1999, and it came under fire from conservative Cuban politicians who argued that it allowed travel that was more pleasure than business. The Bush administration eliminated the license in late 2003, and the Obama administration revived it last year. This time around, Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has led the charge against the licenses. And his main complaint appears to be dancing.
In a speech before the Senate last December, Senator Rubio, whose parents were born in Cuba, mocked the itinerary of an Insight Cuba trip because it included visits to several places where people would be encouraged to “dust off their dancing shoes.”
“This is an important part of this trip,” he said, adding that salsa dancing was not “purposeful travel,” as the law required, nor did it square with the president’s stated goal of encouraging the creation of “a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens.”
Senator Rubio also highlighted meetings with Cuban cultural officials, a common feature of these trips, which he said “borders on indoctrination” and threatened to block Roberta Jacobson’s nomination as the top United States diplomat for Latin American until his concerns were addressed.
He rescinded his opposition to her appointment in March. A few weeks later, the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Controls issued new regulations demanding more-specific justification for groups seeking people-to-people licenses. Alex Conant, a spokesman for Mr. Rubio, called it “an overdue and welcome step.”
The changes, meant, though, that many tour operators had to refile applications that they had already submitted, in some cases just weeks before their licenses expired. Insight Cuba had to refile its renewal application, which grew to 174 pages from 10, Mr. Popper said, under new rules requiring that applicants “describe how the educational and people-to-people exchanges you propose would enhance contact with the Cuban people, and/or support civil society in Cuba, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”
An Obama administration official said that the new regulations were not meant to “emasculate the program,” and Jeff Braunger, program manager for Cuba travel licensing at the Office of Foreign Assets Controls, said that his office was doing its best to quickly process all the applications.
But many tour operators say that in practice, the program is dying a slow death. They say that if the licenses are not renewed soon, Americans will not be the only ones losing out. At a time when Cuba has cracked open the door to a market economy, Cubans will also lose opportunities to earn money and a connection to American travelers.
“Don’t forget about the Cuban side of this,” said Jim Friedlander, president of Academic Arrangements Abroad, which organizes trips for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and several universities. “Cutting off these programs really does change the lives of a lot of Cubans who are not going to get to meet these Americans.”
Rita Whitt is one of those Americans. A retired teacher in Key West, Fla., she and her husband had planned a trip to Santiago de Cuba this year with Insight Cuba. They had already completed two visits with the group, and Mrs. Whitt said those trips involved a great deal of meaningful interaction, despite Mr. Rubio’s characterization.
During her last trip, she said, a highlight involved small packages of guitar strings that she gave to street musicians. “They couldn’t believe that an American was giving them guitar strings,” she said. “And that created an opportunity for a conversation.”
“My bottom line is: the best way to spread the notion of peace and democracy is by letting the Cuban people talk to Americans,” Mrs. Whitt said. “If America doesn’t let us go to Cuba, how are we as citizens going to spread that message?”