Getting Back into the US (aka the Fun Part)
If you are traveling to Cuba illegally or on a General License, this is where you may run into a few ‘challenges’; as Customs Agents have been trained to spot travelers attempting to skirt the travel restrictions. Having said that, to my knowledge no one has ever been convicted of violating the embargo by simply traveling to Cuba for tourism. Wait a minute you say; I know of some guy or heard of someone who had their “X” confiscated while coming back from Cuba. True, very true – except the embargo was not the reason. Like most things, the devil is in the details. They were prosecuted for lying – either about the visit or the importation of goods (cigars). That’s right, lying to a Customs Agent upon entry into the US is a federal offense. I would imagine the scenario goes down something like this:
Customs Agent: Have you listed all of the countries you’ve visited during your time outside of the United States?
CA: Are you sure you didn’t go to Cuba?
P: No, no, I didn’t go to Cuba.
CA: Really. Last chance – is there something you’d like to tell me?
P: No, I didn’t go to Cuba.
CA: Then please explain how is it you have two arrival stamps in Cancun with no corresponding arrivals/departures in any other country? How did you accomplish this sir/ma’am???
P: Errrr, ummmm.
Busted! At this point, you have broken federal law – lying to a Customs Agent. You can now be searched, your possessions (like your boat) seized and any contents in your bags (like those cigars you were trying to sneak over) confiscated by customs for lying – not violating the embargo. The old One-Two Step.
Some say the reason no private citizen has even been convicted of violating the embargo for simply traveling to Cuba is it isn’t clear if the travel restrictions are constitutional. The only way to find out is to be charged and tried in court. In every case I’ve seen of a private citizen, two things always seemed to be present; the traveler lied to customs and/or they attempted to bring something from Cuba into the country. I’d be interested in hearing about a case of a private citizen (not on behalf of a company) being prosecuted where neither were true. Seems to me the US can ill afford to have the travel restrictions deemed unconstitutional, hence the 2-Step.
The point here is if you are returning from Cuba illegally, the key is not to lie about it. And for gosh sakes, don’t try to bring back cigars from Cuba – you cannot fool the dogs!!!! On the blue form that asks where you’ve been, clearly write the word “Cuba” and the Customs Agent will likely ask you the purpose of your visit. If you are traveling on a Specific License, that information will be in the agent’s computer system and you will be waived through in short order. If you are traveling on a General License, this is the point you present the information listed above. If you are traveling illegally – keep your mouth shut!!!
You’ve just told the Customs agent you have been to Cuba without a license – now what?? Well, I cannot tell you exactly how the Customs Agent will react; that is heavily dependent on a number of factors – including your appearance, the current political climate, the specific Customs Agent’s experience and that agent’s mood at the very moment you arrive at their station. When I went to Cuba on a General License, the Customs Agent never even lifted his head nor bothered to ask me a single question even though I May be a Terrorist. Go figure. What I can tell you is what rights you have and the formal process in these situations. First your rights; you have the right to shut the hell up! Use it!! I can’t stress this to you in any stronger terms. Don’t lie – ever – to the customs agent; but don’t tell them your life story either. Just like on TV, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
Next thing – relax. The worst thing that can happen to you at this point is you are issued a summons – you will not be arrested (assuming you didn’t lie or attempt to smuggle in a bottle of rum or cigars). The summons is for you to appear in a special court that manages embargo violations – one that no longer exists. That’s right; the court that hears non-business embargo violations was defunded under the Bush administration. So, unless it’s resurrected – you will never receive a date for the summons. Talk about a get outta jail free card.
Here are a few links that may help you plan your visit to Cuba. I don’t endorse or condone any information listed on the sites referenced below. Again, I am not an attorney and your mileage may vary.
|Cuban Embargo Regulations||Official US Department of Treasury Cuban Embargo page containing every regulation on the books.|
|Cuba Education Tours||Includes a good deal of information on the topic, as well as outlines the steps necessary to obtain a General License for the purposes of Professional Research.|
|Frommers||Destination guide to Cuba that covers everything from hotels, attractions and suggested itineraries.|
|WikiTravel||Very in-depth information about the country and its major cities provided by the community of travelers. Click on the Havana link for sights, attractions and Casa Particulares listings.|
|Jan 28, 2011 OFC Cuba Travel amendment||Office of Foreign Assets Control’s ‘relaxed’ Cuban travel regulations. Allows for increased travel to Cuba for the purposes of educational studies and religious activities, the ability for US citizens to contribute up to $500 US per quarter to a Cuban citizen and increased visitation for Cuban nationals. Visitation to Cuban for the purposes of business or Tourist still is not allowed.|
|Currency Exchange in Cuba||Very detailed article from Trip Adviser that includes a good deal of information regarding the dual-currencies in effect in Cuba. Everything you need to know including a breakdown of the CUC and CUP, where to exchange money and special considerations for American travelers.|
Make no mistake about it, getting to Cuba is a bitch for Americans. Whether it’s the tedious licensing procedures, the unnecessarily complicated flight purchase process or trying to find a place to stay – you have to put in a good deal of effort and planning to visit the forbidden island. If you are successful, you will likely be rewarded with an experience of a lifetime. My suggestion is to come up with a reason to qualify for a Specific or General License if you plan to visit Cuba; it can only make the entire ordeal easier. Even if you don’t qualify – I say go anyway! The near toothless consequences and the fact that embargo enforcement is fairly low on our government’s priority list makes the trip a risk worth taking in my opinion. You should be able to travel wherever you want just like most humans on the planet can (yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement). All you need is your carry-on bag, documentation, a wad of cash, a good attitude/open mind and Cuba will deliver.