What You Should Know About Travel to Cuba

May 2005 (reviewed February 2006)

by Steve Eckardt

(Note: complete article runs 2,800 words … easier to read if you print it out.)

A central component of the wall Washington tries to keep around Cuba is the de facto U.S. travel ban — a gross violation of the First Amendment and Americans’ right to travel.

There’s nothing more damning –or revealing– about Washington’s anti-Cuba policy than its Herculean efforts to stop Americans going to to see Cuba for themselves. Or its even more draconian ban on Cubans coming to the U.S. to speak, play music or baseball, show movies, or receive Grammy awards.

Clearly there is only one purpose: to prevent Americans from discovering the truth about Washington’s bogus portrayal of Cuba as a “Stalinist police state.” Indeed, if Cuba were even half as bad as Washington says it is, the U.S. government would pay you to go witness it.

What’s more, Washinton’s long-maintained pretext that it was preventing U.S. travelers’ money from “supporting the regime” completely collapsed in June 2004 when it also outlawed ‘fully-hosted’ travel –where ‘the regime’ pays all expenses for boaters, businesspeople, and other people that it especially wants to welcome.

Now it’s also illegal to cost Cuba money.

At the same time Washington took measures which eliminated over 75% of family visits — this in addition to the 31 December 2003 elimination of the legal avenue for 85% of all other travel, itself already severely restricted. These sweeping measures include:

  • limiting Cuban-Americans to family visits only every three years (no humanitarian or emergency exceptions);
  • redefining “family” to include only immediate members;
  • eliminating the “fully-hosted” category of legal travel entirely;
  • restricting travel for education to semester-long for-credit full-time college or graduate students;
  • completely barring high school students from educational travel;
  • prosecuting people who do NOT spend money in Cuba (spending being the legal basis of the travel ban) under the Trading with the Enemy Act;
  • refusing to renew existing group licenses;
  • barring boaters from sailing to Cuba even if they spend no money there;
  • systematically searching luggage and other harassing of legal travelers;
  • setting up surveillance in foreign airports to catch Americans traveling to the island via other countries;
  • stepping up civil procedures (fines) against people who travel to Cuba;
  • beginning holding hearings for people who refused to pay fines without a trial;
  • placing enforcement of the travel ban under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security.

How much these measures actually succeed depends on how resistance Washington encounters. Truth is that the vast majority of Americans believe it is wrong for the U.S. government to prevent them from visiting Cuba.

This essay is designed both to aid that resistance and to provide information for people interested in traveling to Cuba. Because no matter how diligently the U.S. government works against it, the fact remains that it is still possible to travel to Cuba.

Why the Travel Ban?

Before the latest crackdown –and despite already harsh restrictions– some 200,000 people traveled from the U.S. to Cuba every year, more than 40,00 of them non-Cuban-Americans. In addition to a warm welcome, they were able to experience an entirely different way of life — a socialist society built on human solidarity, one virtually without rape, homelessness, illiteracy, or advertising.

That’s why the U.S. government tries to prevent people from going to Cuba — to stop people seeing for themselves that Cuba’s made tremendous accomplishments, and that all the propaganda about “a grim Communist dictatorship” is a lie (you’ll find no shortage of Cubans voicing their opinions). And because going to Cuba is almost certain to make you an opponent of the U.S. government’s hostile stance.

And yes, despite more than 40 years of the utmost hostility from Washington, Cubans politically understand that the interests of the U.S. rulers and those of the people of the U.S. are diametrically opposed. That’s why along with the many who have cultural and familial ties –people from the U.S. are the most welcome visitors to the island.


Though it’s a real challenge, it’s STILL possible to go to Cuba. Keep in mind that Washington’s complex series of regulations are supposed to intimidate you and make you eventually roll your eyes and give up.

It’s your decision whether they get away with that.

You can skip almost all barriers if you join an organized, licensed trip. Those traveling in a different way (and licensed travelers who want to be savvy) should read the following background.

(Please keep in mind that this is an amateur summary, not legal advice. You should read the actual U.S. government regulations before you travel.)

It’s not illegal to travel to Cuba, it’s illegal to spend money there. It’s unconstitutional to entirely ban travel, so Washington attempts to stop people from seeing Cuba by making it illegal to spend money there. But courts have ruled that would be unconstitutional too – unless the government leaves open some avenues for legal travel.

There are three channels for legal travel. All of them require a license from the U.S. government to spend money in Cuba. (In the past there was an exception for “fully hosted” travel — where a non-U.S. citizen pays all expenses for an American without being reimbursed. This category has been entirely eliminated as of 30 June 2004 –a purely illegal Executive Branch action, since U.S. law allows to travel to Cuba if money isn’t spent there.)

1) First, there’s a “general license,” where your license exists automatically by your falling into a few select categories: diplomats, full-time journalists assigned by a mass media corporation, or professionals engaged in full-time research. If qualify, you can travel to and spend money in Cuba without having to ask U.S. governmental permission (again, check its regulations). You will need to carry and produce proof that you belong in this category, including a full research itinerary (any of the organized research trips for professionals provide this, for instance those put together by Global Exchang

Cuban-Americans are no longer entitled to a general license; they must apply for a personal license (and are limited to one visit to immediate family members every three years, with no humanitarian or emergency exceptions).

Be aware that the U.S. government has lately been breaking its own rules even on this already very small “general license” category; for instance, in March 2004 it informed a group of 70 scientists that their attendance at a major international medical conference on Coma and Brain Death held in Cuba would be considered a violation of U.S. law. So if you are entitled to a general license, you’ll need to work closely with your U.S. travel provider and perhaps an attorney to make sure you don’t run afoul of bogusly-altered regulations.

2) You can be covered by a group or an institution’s license. The easiest way to do this is by going on a licensed trip. Check with the organizers to make sure they’ve got one, and be sure to comply with the terms of their license while in Cuba (not engaging in purely touristic activities, for instance).

Some universities have licenses that cover their students and professional employees, but you’ll need a letter from the school explicitly stating that you’re personally covered. Be aware that new regulations require that you (a) be a full-time college or graduate student [no high-schoolers]; and (b) attend a semester-long for-credit program (though no minimums for grad students); there is a paper exception for educational programs “in line with U.S. foreign policy,” i.e., counter-revolutionary ones, none of which currently exist to my knowledge.

There are groups with humanitarian aid or religious licenses that might include you if you participate in their mission. Some of them are the Marin Interfaith Task Force of California, the St. Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association, and Caribbean Medical Transport is another. Of course you’ll need paperwork showing you’re covered by their license, and a copy of the license as well.

CubaSolidarity.com will do its best to list any licensed trips its aware of. Check our trips section or contact us. But again, whether you learn of a trip through this website or somewhere else, it’s entirely your responsibility to find out if the trip has a legitimate license –and also to abide by its terms.

3) The final resort is to personally apply for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. government, a lengthy process. Full instructions are available at the OFAC site; allow plenty of time, and be prepared for the likelihood of being rejected. On the other hand, people DO get licenses from OFAC. If you can’t find any other way to go, this is your final option for legal travel.

Remember, none of this has to do with getting permission from Cuba, where you’re more than welcome –this all has to do with complying with U.S. laws aimed against both Cuba and your First Amendment right to travel.

However, you will need a visa from Cuba to visit. If you go with an organized trip, they should take care of that. Otherwise you need to contact the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., or visit their website. Cuban-Americans are no longer required to get a visa, part of Cuba’s ongoing effort to reknit the extended Cuban family.

‘Can’t I Just Sneak There?’

Tens –probably hundreds–- of thousands of Americans have traveled to Cuba without a license through third countries such as Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. However, spending money in Cuba is a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act; and violators are theoretically subject to criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and ten years in prison. In fact in June 2004 Peter Goldsmith and Michele Geislin were indicted under just such charges for organizing the Third Annual Conch Republic race from Key West to Florida, a “fully hosted” trip for which Cuba was paid nothing. This criminalization of travel to Cuba was a grave escalation of Washington’s travel ban, though fortunately Peter and Michele intransigently refused all plea bargains and organized a public fightback that eventually forced Washington to drop charges.

There is no reason to believe that the U.S. government won’t make future efforts to turn traveling to Cuba into a major Trading-with-the-Enemy felony.

But for now the primary danger of illegal travel to Cuba is the impostion of civil penalties –fines which average $7,500.

Though there’s a reasonable chance you know someone who’s been to Cuba through a third country without any problems, the days of lax enforcement are definitely over. The number of people being fined has increased by more than 12 times in the last year, and there’s every reason to believe it will continue to grow. As mentioned before, U.S. government surveillance at Canadian and some other foreign airports of flights from Cuba is a fact.

Also, you should know that lying to an immigration official or failing to list any country you’ve visited on your immigration form (the white and blue i-94 form usually handed out on the plane) is felony perjury. This is a serious charge (if to-date rarely used) and a harder one to defend against politically since the government can say it’s prosecuting you for lying, not for going to Cuba.


Following September 11th, Washington issued an imperial ultimatum: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” It launched what it calls a worldwide “first war of the 21st century” against anyone it deems an opponent, including –with the militarization of U.S. daily life– its domestic population. It would be foolish to think that the “war on terrorism” won’t include wider and harsher measures against both Cuba and people traveling there without a license.

The above paragraph was written over three years ago, and it describes exactly what is happening now. Thinking you can engage and cleverly outwit the government of the United States in a game of footsie is a misestimation of the world as it is today — even if right now the majority of people who gamble with travel through other countries (especially if they avoid Canada) still do get away with it.

But if you’re tempted by the apparent ease of simply jumping on a plane to Cuba from (say) Mexico, you should consider the fact that –even though Cuba rarely stamps U.S. passports– Mexico will stamp your passport when you re-enter … leaving you with the difficult task of explaining how you entered Mexico twice.

If you are caught, you won’t be jailed –though you will likely be delayed and hassled. What will probably happen next is getting a ‘Pre-Penalty Notice’ from the U.S. government –a form that you must respond to. If this happens, you should immediately contact an attorney (start with Art Heitzer of the National Lawyers Guild). You have 30 days to request a hearing. If you do not do this, you have no right to a hearing or to contest the $7,500 fine you’ll be assessed.

All this should make clear that legal travel, preferably with an organized trip or tour, is the way to go — unless you’re someone who wants to challenge the immorality of current U.S. anti-Cuba travel regulations by publicly breaking the law.

Challenging the Travel Ban

A long tradition of civil disobedience, exemplified by Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., has shown that organizing to break unjust laws can be an important part of a struggle to overturn them. A number of NNOC member organizations, in particular Pastors for Peace and the Venceremos Brigade, have led the way in organizing trips that publicly challenge Washington’s unjust and unconstitutional efforts to ban travel to Cuba.

Every year these two groups take scores of people to Cuba, refusing to ask permission from the U.S. government. The point of these trips is to try to force the U.S. government to either publicly justify the unjustifiable travel ban or back off and allow people to go. For some years these high-profile trips didn’t result in adverse legal consequences, but OFAC has recently targeted all 130 participants in the most recent Caravan/Veneceremos Brigade trip. In any case participants in travel challenges must accept the risk of a a civil hearing and being assessed a serious fine — and want to shoulder the valuable political fight that will be an important part of exposing and resisting these unconstitutional measures.


Hopefully now you have a better understanding of what we said here earlier: that Washington’s complex series of regulations are supposed to intimidate you and make you eventually roll your eyes and give up.

And that it’s up to you whether they get away with that.

Travelling to Cuba requires understanding not only that Washington is hell-bent on preventing it, but also that it is your right under the U.S. Constitution. People not interested in joining in public civil disobedience should find and join a licensed trip. This is your right, one which will only be strengthened by your exercising it.

Meanwhile Washington remains highly vulnerable on its efforts to impose a travel ban. Not only does it violate both U.S. law and the U.S. Constitution, the vast majority of the American people are against it. Whether or not you travel to Cuba, joining with others in a concerted effort to oppose the travel ban will go a long way in taking back this fundamental right. Contact us to find a local group to work with, and/or join the Latin American Working Group‘s efforts to lobby Congress for change.

If You DO Go: Miscellaneous Travel Tips

1) The National Lawyers Guild Cuba Subcommittee maintains a good website that includes a range of useful information, especially on travel. These are the people to contact if you run into legal difficulties. If your need is urgent, call Art Heitzer at 414-273-1040 ext. 12 or e-mail aheitzer@igc.org.

2) You’ll have a much richer experience if you read as much as you can about Cuba and its history before traveling there. But unless you want to arrive with a false assurance of inside knowledge, avoid the smug dreck of cynical Americans currently making money as travel writers with the REAL story on Cuba (Christopher Hunt is one example, though hardly the worst; P.J. O’Rourke’s writings are breathtakingly shallow, inaccurate, and cynical.) The best thing to read is material by actual Cubans, certainly including Fidel Castro. Read the daily newspaper Granma and check out the books listed in the resources section of this website. There are a number of good guidebooks; a personal favorite is published by Moon Travel.

3) Keep in mind that you’re not only going to a Third World country, but a small one with few resources –which makes the accomplishments of Cuba’s socialist revolution all the more impressive. In the rest of the Third World, more than 35,000 people –mainly children– are killed by poverty every day, all for easily preventable reasons like nonexistent health care or water treatment. But in Cuba, as the billboard says, “Two hundred million children sleep in the streets every night –not one of them is Cuban.”

Utopianism –whether in terms of Cuba or the world– stands in the way of clarity, and therefore should be avoided. Don’t expect Cuba to look like the U.S. or the tourist areas of Cancun. The recent film ‘Suite Havana,’ winner of the Critics’ Prize at the New Latin American Cinema Festival, is recommended to see before you go. It’s an unflinching look at the difficulties (and the dignities) of life in an embargoed Third World country.

4) Havana: As a writer at Havana Journal puts it, “Havana is the heart and soul of the Cuban nation. It’s not just the decision-making and economic center of the island but has also been a political and cultural reference point in the Americas for centuries.”

The capital city is 500 years old, contains nearly 20% of Cuba’s population, and is wonderful. You could happily spend weeks (or the rest of your life) there. Just realize that there are some people in Havana who look toward the capitalist consumer fantasy; it is the magnet for Cubans looking for a way out of Cuba’s reality.

In any case, it’s good to get out of Havana and see the rest of Cuba.

5) In tourist areas you’ll meet hustlers who’ll say anything to get dollars, though they’re mild compared to the aggressive beggars and scammers routinely found in tourist centers in most other Third World countries. Go ahead and have conversations with these folks if you like, but remember why they’re talking to you.

Please don’t buy cigars on the street; you’ll be purchasing stolen property. Also, illegal drugs are definitely not welcome in Cuba.

Abiding by Cuban law is an act of solidarity with its people.

Don’t be shocked to see some apparent prostitutes in tourist areas. While they neither are driven by starvation nor function on the utterly-degraded three-minute level of U.S. prostitutes (an evening of dancing and a good meal, a tip, and sometimes who-knows-maybe-something-else is more like it), their existence is not a good thing. There are also those who would simply like the benefits of having a relatively well-to-do friend in the U.S. In any case, guys: Cuban woman hitting on you in Havana are unlikely to driven by love at first sight.

Blame this phenomenon on the impoverishment of all Third World nations and, additionally for Cuba, Washington’s crushing blockade. And blame especially the penetration of capitalism into Cuba through the tourist industry. Be aware that of the past several years Cuba has made substantial progress in regaining the politico-economic territory it was forced to cede after the collapse of the Soviet bloc (see ‘Battle of Ideas vs. Lure of Dollars’).


Though Cuba has uniquely freed itself, it still lives within the framework of the ruling international economic system. And though the vast majority of Cuban people keep fighting to transform not only themselves and their society but the world, a few get tired of living in the trenches, especially when the prospects of other people making a revolution like theirs sometimes seems remote.

It’s absurd to think it’s possible to create an island utopia in a world of savage inequality –and even more ridiculous to blame that impossibility on the Cuban people. They’re doing the best they can –and have accomplished far, far more than anyone else. They’re the only country that’s eliminated illiteracy and homelessness –and the country that has more doctors and teachers, and publishes more books per capita than any other nation.

Though the island isn’t utter paradise –and the U.S. government tries to make it very hard to get there – there’s still no place in the world like Cuba.

Go see for yourself.

Steve Eckardt
(whose opinions are solely his own and are definitely not professional legal advice)

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The Center for Constitutional Rights has produced a14-page pamphlet about travel restrictions which you can download free now.

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