Sippial shares expertise on recent travel restrictions to Cuba

Photo of Dr. Tiffany Sippial in Cuba, May 2019

Dr. Tiffany Sippial is the director of the Honors College at Auburn University and an associate professor in the Department of History. She is a Latin American specialist and has led four excursions to Cuba – the most recent one being in May 2019, just weeks before the newest travel restrictions took effect. Below, she shares her knowledge of those restrictions imposed by the U.S. on Cuba, and what it means for the two countries.

1.   You recently took a group of people from the university to Cuba. What was that experience like? Were there any indications that US/Cuban relations were strained? 

I had the honor of leading my fourth tour of Cuba last month. The group included Auburn University Honors College students as well as members of the AU faculty and administration. These ten-day tours provide a rich time of learning, exploration, and dialog. Leading these tours has been, without doubt, one of the highlights of my career thus far. I love watching our students push themselves to acquire deeper levels of understanding about themselves and our world as we study Cuba’s history, politics, economy, society, and culture. I applaud their willingness to step out of their comfort zone and open themselves up to new perspectives and experiences. 

The policy shifts announced by National Security Advisor John Bolton in Miami on April 17, 2019 were a regular topic of discussion during our trip. There was an undeniable sense of anticipation in the air. Everyone was waiting to hear the precise measures that the Trump administration would take to tighten the embargo, further limit travel to the island, and cap remittances. Many Cubans we engaged with expressed concern that the Trump administration’s harder line against Cuba would lead to an almost complete reversal of the progress they feel was made five years ago when the Obama administration moved to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and relax the U.S. policy of unilateral sanctions. They referenced somewhat wistfully Obama’s historic visit to the island, the first by a U.S. president in nearly a century, in March 2016. That visit seemed to signal a thaw in the cold war tensions that have defined diplomacy between our two nations for more than five decades. Tourism travel to Cuba remained illegal under the Obama administration, and U.S. travelers were still required to obtain a Treasury Department license for one of 12 authorized categories of travel. Yet, the changes under Obama prompted a boom in U.S. travel to Cuba via regular commercial flights and cruise services. The United States became the second-largest source of travelers to the island after Canada. 

2.   What can you tell us about this travel ban? It appears to mainly applies to ship/boat access to Cuba - do you know why that mode of transportation is banned, specifically? 

Speaking specifically to the new travel ban—though I encourage everyone to take the time to study all of the facets of the policy changes—President Trump announced on June 4, that, effective immediately, U.S. cruise companies would no longer be permitted to sail to the island. The new restriction cut off the most popular mode of travel to the island for U.S. citizens since Obama gave the green light to cruise companies in 2016. The last U.S. cruise liner to dock in Havana, the Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas, sailed out of Havana Bay with its upper decks full of passengers waving to onlookers standing along the capital city’s seawall. While trips to Cuba account for only a small percentage of U.S. cruise company business, the allure of the island allowed those companies to charge rates as much as 20 percent higher for Cuban itineraries than other Caribbean destinations. Shares of Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival all also took a hit in the wake of the new restrictions. Furthermore, an estimated 800,000 cruise travelers were impacted by the new policy. Cruise ships already on route to the island at the time of the announcement were forced to shift their trajectory mid-course and head toward Cozumel, Cancun, or another Caribbean destination. Cruise companies scrambled to offer ship credit or partial refunds to their angry and confused passengers, who immediately began venting on social media. All upcoming cruises will have to bypass the island in favor of alternative itineraries and several have offered full refunds to their customers. The Associated Press estimates that Cuba could lose as much as $130 million in revenue due to the new restrictions on cruises from the United States.

The Trump administration also banned the popular “people to people” category of authorized educational travel for U.S. citizens, which President Obama established in 2016. National Security Advisor John Bolton stated in a tweet that these measures were designed to end “veiled tourism” and keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of the Cuban government, and more specifically out of the hands of the Cuban military. Unlike the immediate nature of the restrictions on cruise ship operations there is a "grandfathering provision" for U.S. citizens who booked other types of travel to Cuba before June 5, 2019. The provision only applies, however, to people who completed at least one travel-related transaction, like purchasing a flight or reserving a hotel or other accommodation, before June 5.

3.    What does this travel ban mean for U.S. travel to the island? 

One thing to make clear is that there are still 11 categories of authorized travel to Cuba. Those categories are: family visits; official business for the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalism; professional research; religious activities; public performances; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of informational materials; and authorized export transactions. U.S. citizens traveling to the island have long been legally required to provide proof that their activities on the island conformed to legal codes. The general sense now is that the level of enforcement and scrutiny of travelers could intensify. To avoid issues when traveling to Cuba, all U.S. travelers should be prepared to present a detailed itinerary of their daily activities on the island that does not include unauthorized recreational or tourism activities. U.S. travelers may also want to consider travel with one of several licensed U.S. vendors who claim conformity with the “support for the Cuban people” travel category. They require their travel groups to bring medical or other supplies to the island, stay in private homes, and center their itineraries on meetings and other interactions with local business owners, educators, and artists. 

4.    What does the travel ban mean for the future of U.S./Cuban relations? 

Supporters of a hardline approach to Cuba are celebrating the new restrictions. Advocates of normalizing relations with Cuba see the restrictions as a reversal of progress made under the previous U.S. administration and an infringement on the freedom of movement. For his part, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel echoes the Castro brothers who preceded him in office, maintaining that Cuba will not be intimidated by U.S. policy. On June 9 he cautioned the Trump administration that the implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act threatens peace, solidarity, peaceful coexistence, and friendship. 

History has shown that the weight of the new restrictions will fall not on the Cuban government, but on the Cuban people who are already struggling with food and oil shortages in the wake of the latest crisis faced by their primary supplier, Venezuela. Cuba’s expanding pool of licensed entrepreneurs—which increased from 157,000 in 2010 to 567,000 in 2017—will shoulder the greatest share of the predicted fallout. The entrepreneurs we spoke to on our Honors College tour worry about filling their private restaurants and bed and breakfast establishments in order to pay their mandated taxes. Certainly, travelers from other countries will continue to visit the island, but there is no denying the place of U.S. travel within Cuba’s economic landscape. 

I am so pleased that my Honors College group was able to travel to Cuba and continue to engage in the kind of deep exchanges that are the hallmark of our study and travel programs. Our students were tremendous ambassadors. I am very proud of the way that they represented themselves, their families, Auburn University, and the United States during our stay. In ways big and small, we will continue to build bridges to our neighbors in Cuba. 

5.  Where do the latest changes fit within the landscape of U.S. Cuban relations?

Less than two years after Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, the Trump administration began placing travel-related restrictions on the island. The new restrictions were actually preceded by an October 2017 decision to withdraw U.S. diplomatic personnel from Cuba in reaction to purported “sonic attacks” against several U.S. and Canadian officials working and residing in Havana. The following month, the U.S. Department of State issued a “Cuba Restricted List” identifying more than 80 blacklisted restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that U.S. travelers to the island were no longer permitted to patronize. 

The primary target of the November 2017 “Cuba Restricted List” was the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), the business arm of the Cuban Armed Forces that is involved in all sectors of the economy and is headed up by Cuban General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas. The Trump administration declared that patronizing the entities on the restricted list—due to their connection to GAESA—would “disproportionately benefit" Cuba's security and military services. Trump defended the restrictions as a measure to channel the flow of U.S. dollars away from state entities and toward Cuba’s growing pool of cuentapropistas (self-employed persons) who run private, licensed restaurants and hotels. Concurrent with the release of the “Cuba Restricted List,” the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Commerce Departments also published new restrictions stating that U.S. travelers would only be permitted to secure travel to Cuba through organizations approved by the U.S. government to promote people to people ties.

The latest travel restrictions, announced on June 4, uphold the previous November 2017 restrictions and add several new provisions. The intended target of the new restrictions is largely the same—the Cuban government with special emphasis on the state military complex and GAESA—but the justification for the new measures is spelled out in more explicit terms: to punish the Cuban government for its alliance with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In addition to citing Cuba’s “destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere,” President Trump continues to cite Cuba’s human rights record and one-party political system as other motivations for the tighter restrictions.

The Trump administration has also now activated for the first time Title III of the United States’ trade embargo against Cuba. This particular article of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (also known as the Helms-Burton Act), signed into law by President Bill Clinton, has been suspended by every presidential administration since its enactment in 1996. In other words, 2019 marks the first time in its twenty-year history that this article of the law will be fully implemented. Implementing Title III means that U.S. citizens whose property was confiscated by the Cuban government beginning in 1959 will be able to sue in U.S. federal courts anyone who “traffics” in (i.e. derives any economic benefit whatsoever from) the property in question. The first two lawsuits against a company accused of trafficking in confiscated Cuban property were filed on May 2, by Javier Garcia-Bengochea and Havana Docks Corp. The lawsuits allege that the Miami-based cruise company, Carnival Cruise Lines, has been using ports that belonged to their family without compensation. The measure has drawn loud criticism from Canada and the European Union, whose business owners have invested millions of dollars on the island.

For more information about the “Honors College Study and Travel: Cuba” trip, please contact Dr. Tiffany Sippial at

Interview by Vicky Santos | Director, News & Media Services | College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University 

Last Updated: August 21, 2019