A few years after I traveled to Cuba as an American, I received an official subpoena by the US Treasury Department for possible economic sanctions violations.
Four years ago I traveled to Cuba during the Obama administration, when travel restrictions to the island were progressively being relaxed and diplomatic relations were improving.
I decided to write about my Cuba experience online, predicting there would be a flood of American tourists as US flights, cruises, and tours began operating again after many years of arguably “unconstitutional” travel bans to the island for US citizens.
Just as I guessed, tourism soon exploded in Cuba, as Americans rushed to visit for the first time. Many people used my articles to help plan their trips.
But if you managed to travel to Cuba as an American during this relatively short window of freedom, you got lucky.
Because not long after President* “grab em’ by the p*ssy bone spurs” took office, he began rolling back all the old US travel restrictions for visiting the island.
American Tourists Not Allowed
I’d heard rumors of some American tourists getting in trouble for visiting Cuba, and I was aware there was a slight risk, but I went anyway. I believed I fell under one of the authorized travel categories.
And for every odd story of a fine or warning, each year thousands of people traveled there with no consequences. It seemed to be a law with no real enforcement.
Well, my trip to Cuba finally caught up with me, and 3-years after my visit, I was subpoenaed by the US Treasury Department for any & all documentation about my trip.
Last year the government sent me an official subpoena by mail, to an outdated address that I haven’t used in years. I guess they couldn’t check with the IRS where I last filed my taxes from?
Eventually, they sent me an email when I didn’t respond to the physical subpoena sent to that incorrect mailing address. The fact that they knew my blog’s email address leads me to believe that it was my very public blog post that tipped them off about my trip.
Subpoenaed By The Government
So, what’s it like to be subpoenaed by the US government? Well, honestly it’s a bit scary. My first reaction was “oh shit”. Don’t they have better things to do than harass and intimidate individual American tourists?
I mean, I’m a budget traveler who spent a total of about $900 in Cuba over 10 days. Staying with locals and eating at restaurants run out of people’s homes. It’s not like I’m funneling millions of dollars to the Cuban government…
My next thought was, maybe I should just ignore the subpoena like everyone who works in the Trump administration has been doing lately.
But then I remembered I’m not above the law like they seem to be… I’m just a regular dude with no real power, wealth, or connections. Getting picked on by a government run by bullies. Ignoring a subpoena will have consequences for me…
Office Of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)
The Office of Foreign Assets Control is a financial intelligence and enforcement agency of the U.S. Treasury Department. It administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions in support of U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.
By spending my money in Cuba as an American, for example buying food, going on a tour, or paying for accommodation, I was possibly violating the economic sanctions placed against Cuba.
But worse than that, I was telling other Americans about traveling to Cuba through my writing. I believe this is why I, as well as our friends who traveled with us, were targeted.
Because we wrote about our trip publicly and many people were reading it.
Did some of my money end up in the pockets of the Cuban government? Sure. We did our best to avoid it, but it’s literally impossible to not have some of your money end up in their hands.
Just as it would be impossible for anyone traveling to the United States to avoid giving money to the US Government in the process.
Left With A Warning…
So I responded to the subpoena with a letter explaining that my trip was for journalist purposes, along with sending over copies of any remaining documents I had (flight receipts, accommodation information, itinerary, etc.). Remember, this trip was 3-years ago! I didn’t save much.
If you’re not aware, Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba if they fit one of the 12 authorized categories for visiting. They aren’t defined very well, and the rules are super confusing.
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
Because I run a website about travel for a living, I thought I’d fit under journalistic activity. Americans were traveling to Cuba on a regular basis under Obama, and I was covering that news.
It’s ok for CNN to write about traveling to Cuba, but not me? Over a million people have read my Cuba articles, it’s not like this is a hobby.
The government didn’t agree I was a journalist, but rather than fine me, they just left me with a warning. My guess is they wanted that warning to get shared, to discourage others.
“OFAC has decided to address this matter by issuing you this Cautionary Letter instead of pursuing other enforcement responses at this time. Upon issuing this Cautionary Letter OFAC will close this matter without making a final agency determination as to whether a violation has occurred and will not take any further action on the underlying conduct unless it learns of additional related violations or other relevant facts.”
Although personally I don’t think most people have anything to worry about. Just don’t write about your trip to Cuba and end up on the first page of Google!
Support For The Cuban People
I’ve since learned that it would have been better to prepare a trip under the “Support For The Cuban People” category. There are a handful of companies that can help arrange trips this way like:
- Friendly Planet
- Insight Cuba
- Intrepid Travel
The trips involve strict itineraries, with many stops at organizations in Cuba that are supporting human rights in the country. Which is great.
But the problem with traveling on an organized tour like this is it’s not super fun for independent travelers like myself. I don’t want a babysitter when I travel.
I enjoy the challenges of discovering a new country on my own, without being led around by the hand. No offense to those who enjoy group tours, I’m just not one of them.
Travel Bans Are Unconstitutional
For all this talk about Americans having so much freedom, as someone who’s traveled (and lived) all over the world, exposed to many different cultures and systems of government, we definitely have some work to do in that department.
Fun fact, I’m also a citizen of Ireland. And guess what? Ireland doesn’t outright ban its citizens from traveling to other countries…
If the current US government wants to punish Cuba with economic sanctions, fine. But by using a constitutionally questionable loophole that prevents American citizens from freedom of movement, they are actually punishing Americans as well as the Cuban people they pretend to want to help.
I personally have no ill-will to the Cuban people, and think freedom of movement is a constitutional right — should I want to spend my money on tourism in Cuba. If Cuba doesn’t want us there, that’s their right. But they do.
At least they did before we totally screwed up our pandemic response.
Instead my own government is trying to prevent me from traveling to a foreign country, for dubious reasons. The Cuba travel ban isn’t for public health, or for cold-war era national security concerns.
Don’t get me wrong, the Cuban government is really shitty to its people. But so are many other countries without travel bans on them.
As an American, if you would like to regain the freedom of unrestricted travel, as other countries enjoy, remember that we CAN change US foreign policy by electing representatives who will make those changes on our behalf.
Joe Biden has made it clear he will return to the more relaxed Obama-era relations with Cuba if he’s elected President in November.
Here’s to hoping things change next year, and Cuba opens back up for tourism once again, with common-sense rules that are easy to follow.
Because Cuba is a beautiful and fascinating country to explore as a tourist! And the Cuban people really need the financial support of that tourism, too. ★