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Traveling to Cuba: What to Know

Legal restrictions have eased, but aren't gone

When President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic ties after a half-century of glaring at each other across the Florida straits, some cheered the decision; others condemned it.

In any case, it means embassies and diplomats, trade and commerce, tourism and cigars. Right?

Not so fast, says Peter Quinter, chair of his firm’s customs and international trade group at Gray Robinson’s Miami office. He also chairs the Florida Bar Association’s international law section.

“Americans will be able to travel there, just as they do in every other country,” he says. “We’re at the very beginning of a new relationship with Cuba and we here in Florida will be leaders in developing that relationship.”

But it will take some time.

Quinter was preparing this spring to lead about 20 prominent Sunshine State attorneys to visit Cuba to meet with lawyers and Cuban government officials there. The purpose, he says, is to “promote freedom and democracy in Cuba, and international relations.”

Cuba Travel: Who Can Go?

Travel to Cuba is still restricted to 12 categories. The main ones include:
  • academic research
  • journalism
  • family visits
  • religious purposes

But travel restrictions have been eased somewhat within those categories, prompting online travel sites to quickly begin advertising flights, ferry rides and day trips to Cuba. Most people should still travel with groups, Quinter advises.

“People who have never been, they should not do this independently,” he says. “The people-to-people tours organize everything for you. That’s what people should do on their first trip.”

A big issue is money. Travelers need to carry cash (Cuban peso) for hotels, restaurants, car rentals, tour operations and purchases because credit-card processing capability is limited. However, some U.S. credit card companies are moving toward allowing their cards to be used in Cuba.

Cuba will be open to direct investment from the U.S., assuming the embargo is lifted, say C. Ryan Reetz and Pedro Martinez-Fraga, partners at Bryan Cave. Reetz is the managing partner of the Miami office. Martinez-Fraga’s family escaped Cuba when he was a small child. He is co-leader of the firm’s international arbitration team.

Individuals won’t be able to buy stocks, but large institutional investors—investment houses and firms that manage mutual funds and 401(k)s and the like—could see Cuba as more of a financial opportunity.

“As Cuba becomes more and more opened up to investment from the U.S., people will find themselves, understandably, having more interests in Cuba,” says Reetz. “There are many reasons to believe Cuba would welcome investment from U.S. sources.”

Is Cuba Ready?

In order to build a vigorous hospitality industry and strengthen economic ties to the U.S., Cuba would need a financial infrastructure and trade agreements with the U.S. However, U.S. companies that operate everything from hotels to highway toll booths would want to be sure their investments won’t be appropriated by the state, as happened after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

Martinez-Fraga says Cuba has had a good track record with foreign investment over the past decade. “The rest of the world already invests in Cuba,” he notes.

Many Americans just want to know if they can order cigars—or a case of rum. Not yet, Quinter says, though one day that may be possible.

However, U.S. visitors to Cuba are allowed to come home with $400 worth of items, including $100 worth of liquor and cigars. Quinter planned to come back with his share.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of international lawfederal criminal law and criminal defense.

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