The U.S. Treasury Department has tightened a few of its restrictions on trips to Cuba by non-Cuban Americans on so-called "people to people" visits, saying that the revisions will "help to deter abuses."
Complaints of abuses of such trips - they must be for "educational" purposes, never for tourism - have dogged the program since President Barack Obama approved it last year in a bid to increase Americans' engagement with regular Cubans.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., drew laughter during a speech in Washington last year when he read the schedule for one such trip, showing salsa dancing sessions every night. Other tours have met with Cuban government ministers and even a daughter of ruler Raul Castro.
Rubio put a block on Roberta Jacobson's nomination as the top U.S. diplomat for Latin American until the Obama administration addressed some of the myriad complaints. Jacobson was sworn in earlier this month.
"I think it's progress ... because the changes require closer reviews of the itineraries," Rubio said. "But I still have concerns about the program in general, because it is difficult to manage and avoid abuses."
Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said the department's Office Foreign Assets Controls which enforces sanctions on Cuba, revised the regulations for those seeking OFAC licenses to organize trips "in part because of reports we received."
He did not detail the "reports" but added that the changes "will provide clarity to applicants and licensees seeking renewals, facilitate OFAC's review of license applications and help to deter abuses by licensees."
The changes apply only to U.S. residents who are not Cuban Americans. U.S. residents of Cuban descent who have relatives in Cuba can travel to the island under a different category, family reunification.
The new wording requires applicants for licenses to explain how their group's meetings with any senior Cuban government or Communist Party official would advance the cause of the people-to-people program.
Previously, the licensees only had to ensure that such government and party officials would not make up a majority of the groups' planned schedules. And OFAC seldom checked whether the groups stuck to the itineraries, licensees said.
The new regulations also require that a representative of the licensee accompany each tour. Some of the agencies awarded licenses last spring were barely legal store fronts created by enterprises already in the Cuban travel business, according to licensees.
Two paragraphs added to the regulations also reinforce the message that tourism trips are illegal and punishable by a fine of up to $65,000.
Less clear is the impact of new wording in the regulations that allows issuing OFAC licenses to organize trips to Cuba to "promote independence (of Cubans) from the Cuban government" - presumably including trips to meet with dissidents.
It's doubtful whether any organization would be interested in planning such a trip. Many of the current licensees for people to people trips either support the Castro governments or favor closer engagement with Cuba.
It's even more doubtful whether the Cuban government would accept such a trip.
President Bill Clinton approved the people to people travel in 1993 but President George W. Bush canceled it in 2003 amid reports of U.S. visitors sun tanning in Varadero Beach and frequenting Havana nightclubs.
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