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Minnesota politicians have been making a lot of trips to Cuba. When can I go?

A thaw in relations has made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba than ever before. But there are still some catches.

Americans have been taking a lot of high-profile trips to Cuba lately. President Obama, professional baseball players, Fortune 500 CEOs, and members of Congress — including much of the Minnesota congressional delegation — have all made it down to the communist island nation in the past year.

If you’re a person who is not any of those things, you might be wondering: “When can I go to Cuba? How might I enjoy the abundant sun, vibrant culture, and refreshing mojitos of the once-isolated island 90 miles from the Florida coast?”

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For decades, enterprising yankees have managed to find ways — not lawful ways — into Cuba. A connection through Mexico City or Cancun — and a request to Cuban authorities to not stamp a U.S. passport — was usually enough to make it to Havana with minimal drama.

But if you want to experience Cuba, and would prefer not to run afoul of the U.S. federal government, the recent detente between the two countries has made travel historically easy. You can pretty much go, if you’re willing to work with a few conditions.

First things first: is it now legal for me to travel to Cuba?

Not exactly. While the U.S. announced a landmark agreement to normalize relations with Cuba over a year ago, that deal didn’t lift the 55-year-old travel embargo to the island. Only Congress can do that by passing a law to repeal the ban.

But current law does give President Obama room to loosen certain restrictions. In January 2015, the White House did just that: it released new rules making it much easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. As in the past, would-be visitors to the island may only travel there for one or more approved reasons, out of twelve:

  • Family visits

  • Official government business

  • Journalistic activity

  • Professional activity

  • Educational activity

  • Religious activity

  • Artistic performances, workshops, athletic competitions, exhibitions

  • Support for the Cuban people

  • Humanitarian projects

  • Activities of private foundations, or research/educational institutes

  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information

  • Certain authorized export transactions

Before 2015, if you wanted to travel to Cuba for one or more of these reasons, you had to apply for a “specific license” from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC). Prospective visitors were required to submit detailed itineraries of their trips to OFAC, which had the authority to approve or deny travel.

The OFAC approval process was slow, costly, and inflexible, favoring tightly-scheduled group tours over flexible ones that granted opportunities to interact with ordinary Cubans. Bringing back much of anything to the U.S. beyond “informational material” was prohibited.

The new rules make travel easier by adding a “general license” option for visitors. People who wish to go — for one of the 12 approved purposes — no longer need to submit their plans to detailed inspection from OFAC. Now, travelers who qualify need to sign an affidavit detailing their plans before booking travel to Cuba in order to be approved with a general license.

Of course, since this has all been done through administrative rulemaking and no new laws have been put into place, a future president could potentially reverse course, putting the more restrictive licensing framework back in place.

Obama’s changes have already facilitated more travel; 160,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2015, up 77 percent from 2014. Most casual visitors not seeing family or engaging in academic, journalistic, or business activity tend to travel with organized “people-to-people” engagement groups, which fall under the umbrella of the “support for the Cuban people” category.

Another bonus? Americans are now approved to bring up to $400 worth in goods back home — including up to $100 for Cuban rum and cigars.

Alright, I can handle the paperwork. How do I get there?

If you want to go by air, your options are limited. Charter flights, some operated by major U.S. airlines, have flown Americans to and from Cuba for decades. Those tickets typically are purchased through a people-to-people group or a travel firm.

But air travel to Cuba is about to get easier — and potentially cheaper, too. In February, the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to resume commercial airline service between the two countries, allowing potential visitors to book tickets directly with airlines.

By later this year — perhaps as early as October — U.S. carriers will be free to operate 110 daily round-trip flights between the U.S. and Cuba. Twenty of those are reserved for Havana, and 10 are reserved for each of the country’s other nine international airports, which service other large cities as well as popular vacation spots.

That set off a tenacious bidding war between airlines, particularly over the 20 spots to Havana, the most popular destination in the country. Every major U.S. airline — from Delta to budget carrier Frontier — has bid on at least one route to Cuba. The list of routes proposed by the airlines heavily favors Florida airports, as well as big hubs like Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, and New York’s JFK airport.

I hate connecting flights. Will I be able to fly direct from MSP?

It may be a longshot, but it’s possible. Sun Country Airlines, which already operates charter flights to Cuba, bid on three routes out of MSP.

The Mendota Heights-based carrier, perhaps the smallest one to bid on a Cuba route, proposes taking passengers directly from MSP to Havana, the beach town of Matanzas, and the inland city of Santa Clara. These would be the only direct routes between Minnesota and the island. (Delta, the largest operator at MSP, did not bid for a direct flight from the airport.)

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which ultimately decides who gets which routes, will likely prioritize areas with large Cuban-American populations, and places with potential for outsize economic engagement with Cuba.

On April 12, several members of the Minnesota congressional delegation — Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Reps. Tom Emmer, Erik Paulsen, Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson, and Betty McCollum — sent a letter urging the Department of Transportation to grant Sun Country the Minnesota-to-Cuba direct routes.

On second thought, maybe a boat would be more pleasant.

Good news — people who would rather travel by boat have expanded options now, too. Later this year, Carnival Cruise Lines’ volunteer tour outfit will begin ferrying passengers from Miami to Cuba for weeklong trips.

Perfect. But once I get there, where can I stay?

If you’re not traveling with a group, there are plenty of hotels you can book online. Starwood Hotels, the global lodging giant which operates Sheraton and Westin hotels, just signed a deal to operate three hotels in Cuba — which could reduce friction for U.S. travelers looking for top-notch accommodations.

If you’re less picky, a popular option is to stay at a casa particular, a bed-and-breakfast-style accommodation that is often much cheaper than a hotel. (Only some take online reservations.)

Another option that could potentially save you time, effort, and a few pesos: in March, ahead of his trip, Obama gave a “special authorization” for Airbnb to freely operate in Cuba.

Getting back to the rum and cigars, can I use my credit card in Cuba?

Nope. If you go, you’ll have to bring cash: thanks to the embargo, U.S. debit and credit cards don’t work in Cuba. Curiously, you can use a U.S. card to book Cuban accommodations online — some travelers say that enterprising Cubans route the transactions through a third country, like Spain. Requests to OFAC for comment on the legality of this were not answered. 

Once you’re on the island, you can exchange your U.S. dollars to the Cuban convertible peso, which is the de facto currency for tourists (ordinary Cubans use a different currency, simply called pesos). Cuba charges 10 percent for converting U.S. dollars, so some U.S. travelers bring Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange at the usual rates, without the special U.S. dollar surcharge.

You know what? Forget it — this is way too much work. I’m just going to head down to the liquor store, pick up a bottle of fine Cuban rum, and make my own mojitos in the backyard.

Not so fast. Congress will need to repeal the trade embargo before you can enjoy Cuban goods stateside. But luckily for you, Minnesota’s elected officials are on it.

Sen. Klobuchar and Rep. Emmer have legislation in their respective chambers of Congress that would end the trade embargo. If approved, Cuba could begin exporting its goods to the U.S., and vice versa.

Distributors of potentially popular Cuban products — like rum — have already positioned themselves. Pernod Ricard, the French spirits company, plans to distribute Cuban-made Havana Club rum in the U.S. — though it will have to distribute it under the name “Havanista” thanks to a trademark dispute with Bacardi — once the embargo ends.

In a recent conference call with reporters — when both lawmakers were in Cuba for Obama’s visit — Klobuchar and Emmer expressed cautious optimism that momentum is building on Capitol Hill in favor of lifting both trade and travel restrictions.

At the same time, Emmer acknowledged that moving such a significant piece of legislation — and one that remains very controversial — in an election year will be a tough ask. Expect Minnesota’s members of Congress, who are vocally supportive of lifting the embargo, to push legislation when the 115th Congress convenes in 2017.

Until then, though, if you’re willing to put a little more legwork into a trip, a Cuban experience is easier than ever to enjoy.