Sunday, March 8, 2009

Particular vs. General Travel Licenses

Once the Obama Administration decides to use its authority to allow non-touring travel to all Americans, regardless of ethnicity or national origin, an important nuance is whether to employ specific or general licenses. Specific licenses require an application to OFAC in which an organization must justify how its proposed program of travel qualifies under existing regulations. The license can cover a particular trips or a kind of trip being sponsored by that organization. General licenses are not applied for. Organizations and individuals wimply qualify to use them based on who and what the are and/or the purpose of their travel. For example, Cuban American travel at times was a general license under President Clinton and became a specific license under President Bush. Professional journalists and professional research currently qualify for general licenses.

Specific licenses require keeping an unnecessary and costly OFAC bureaucracy in place. Even during Clinton, the process was time consuming, expensive and arbitrary and significantly narrowed the number and range of actual travelers. Legal offices in educational and cultural institutions had to be brought into the process and played a conservative vetting role, probably leading to the demise of many aspirations. People at the grass roots were intimidated or discouraged by their ignorance of how to proceed.

Even with a more liberal mandate from the President and State Department (a default "yes" as existed under Clinton), the culture of any supervisory bureaucracy is to exercise its authority in a "responsible fashion". It will take OFAC a while to recover from eight years of Bush, and to replace/control staff members with an anti-engagement political bias. Tim Geithner's appropriate deputy will have to monitor closely what is taking place and probably will have to bring in a knowledgeable person with the right goals to directly supervise Cuba license requests and hear appeals from people who are denied or jerked around. (I also can't think of a better place to reduce government bloat than by downsizing OFAC's Cuba staff.)

Specific licenses also force legal visitors into group travel. This should be a problem for those who believe Cuba's intelligence and propaganda apparatus takes advantage of group trips with prearranged itineraries. It also enables Cuba to easily channel all higher priced US business to three preferred state companies. Over the years, the Americans who had the most varied and spontaneous encounters with Cuba were those who traveled without OFAC licenses and took public transportation or rented cars to traverse the island and stayed in casas particulares (two bedroom bed and breakfasts)

Ideally a general license is based on intention and credentials and takes the traveler at his or her word. They do not require pre-trip itineraries or post-trip reports. No one is scrutinizing whether a day at the beach was included in the time as long as the visitor can say with integrity (if anyone asks) that the trip included a significant component of education, religious interaction, humanitarian assistance, cultural exchange, sports or "support for the Cuban people".

There is one bureaucratic step back that allows a more objective criteria for a general license but no larger OFAC role. Qualification could be defined as going with or on behalf of a registered 501c3/501c4 not-for-profit organization or as writing for a community newspaper or an on-line blog, or as a professional or recognized volunteer in a related field, etc. This will also push toward group travel, but there would be more space.

Whether a general or specific license approach is followed, qualification should be extended to family members and companions.

There will be some cheating or pushing the envelope on general licenses but it doesn't matter if what one is really trying to inhibit is large scale commercial resort tourism. There will be lots more cheating in general as an Obama administration is not going to be able to enforce what Bush couldn't, especially in the past two years. Travel via third countries is just too easy and morally acceptable. The more the information spreads that OFAC has given up on blocking it, the more people will simply go. (A GAO report last year cited estimates of 120,000 annually.)

General licenses will also eliminate the problem of what to do about publicized civil disobedience by Pastors for Peace and the Venceremos Brigade since they will qualify whether they want to or not. Clinton and Bush couldn't do anything about their travel. Is a liberal civil liberties inclined Administration more likely to be repressive?

It is clear from discussions among Cuba activists, that the idea of "travel challenges" is entering more into the mainstream. If the Congress or Administration have not acted on travel by July, there will be grreater overt exercise of the right to travel, and even more covert non-cooperation. Many of the people involved will be former supporters of, and donors to, the Obama campaign, 84% of whom want normalization according to the October poll.