MIAMI (AP) -- Travel companies say they are getting permits once again to take Americans on cultural trips to Cuba after the U.S. government tightened requirements following complaints that the tours were skirting a ban on outright tourism to the Communist island.
A month after travel companies complained of delays in processing their so-called people-to-people licenses under new restrictions for organized group travel to Cuba, at least 20 have now been granted.
U.S. travel operators say they have kept most of their itineraries intact, but some have added additional programming and eliminated others after Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized the programs as essentially being cover-ups for tourism.
"We're just grateful that we received the license and we can begin operating our programs again," said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, one of the groups chastised by Rubio in a Senate floor speech last December.
The Obama administration reinstituted the cultural exchange licenses over a year ago, allowing organizations to take U.S. citizens to the long-forbidden island for educational activities that promote contact with ordinary Cubans. The idea behind the program is that such interactions can help foster understanding between two groups divided by Washington's 50-year economic embargo and promote civil society and independence from Cuban authorities.
But after granting dozens of licenses allowing thousands of Americans to travel to the communist country, the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control issued new requirements in May, forcing many travel operators to resubmit their applications and provide piles of detailed documentation justifying every aspect of their trip.
The stiffer requirements for came after Rubio delivered a speech deriding groups that had been granted the licenses for included activities like salsa dancing and a trip to the Cuban Ministry of Culture in their itineraries. For months he also held up the Senate confirmation of a key diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen, until reaching a quid pro quo with the White House leading to the tougher guidelines, Rubio's spokesman has acknowledged.
"As the summer went on and some of these companies were not being renewed we got to a point where we assumed it was not going to happen, at least not before the election," said Adam Vaught, the Cuba program director at Geographic Expeditions.
Approximately 160 people-to-people licenses have been issued, according to a Treasury Department official. Twenty of those were renewed or granted within the last month and a half.
"We hope that the administration is carefully reviewing the itineraries of these groups and enforcing the new requirements to ensure that these trips are not being used for tourist activities, which remain illegal, or for meetings with Castro regime officials, which is immoral while the Cuban people continue to suffer unspeakable abuse," Rubio's office said in a statement. "Sen Rubio will continue monitoring these trips and push OFAC to uphold its duty to enforce the law."
While U.S. citizens are forbidden from traveling to Cuba for tourism, more than 2 million travelers, mostly from Canada and Europe, visit the island as tourists each year
Popper said the six programs his organization had been running, which include a focus on Cuban art, music and society, were all reauthorized, though a separate trip to participate in a marathon was not. His group submitted their application for renewal in April and was then asked to provide more information in June. The license was finally approved in late September.
Visitors traveling with Insight Travel won't, at least for the immediate future, be taking any more trips to the Casa de la Amistad, or Friendship House, where Popper said they had gone to meet with speakers, sometimes from within the Cuban government, to listen and ask questions about Cuban history, economy and other issues.
Rubio criticized the group for this and several other of its activities, including salsa dancing at night and a trip to the Cuartel Moncada, which he highlighted as the barracks where Fidel Castro launched the revolution.
Popper said they actually visit a school for special needs children that is now located the old army barracks, and that salsa dancing is something they previously advertised as something travelers could do in their free time in the evenings, but was not an organized part of the program. He said the trip to the Friendship House had helped stimulate a conversation between Cubans and Americans, and that travelers had been free to ask whatever questions they wanted.
"They would say, `How can you validate the way you are running the economy when we see dilapidation in the buildings?"' Popper recalled. "It was a great dialogue. It was in the true spirit of the licensing category."
He said they ultimately decided it was better to eliminate any areas of controversy to preserve the overall program.
Peggy Goldman, the president of Friendly Travel, which also just recently received its license renewal, said they added extra hours of programming to make sure they complied with the requirements.
"I think this is great news for Americans who are curious about Cuba and for Cubans who are ready to welcome us," Goldman said. "I hope the program can continue a long time until such time the embargo is finally lifted. That's when people will be able to go to Cuba and lay on the beaches."