The U.S. agency that enforces Cuba sanctions approved 42 new travel and other service providers this year, compared to none in 2009, in what government officials described as a push sparked by changes in the Obama administration policy and the bureaucracy.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) also updated its list of “authorized providers of air, travel and remittance forwarding services to Cuba” four times this year, compared to twice in 2009 and just once in 2008.
The increases were driven both by President Barack Obama’s change in policy to allow more U.S. travel to Cuba and OFAC’s effort to clear up a backlog of applications for new licenses that had been pending for several months, said one knowledgeable U.S. official.
Obama lifted virtually all restrictions on Cuban Americans’ travel to the island last year, overturning a Bush administration ruling that had limited their trips to once every three years.
“It’s a little bit of both, policy and bureaucracy,” said the official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the changes. “The people at OFAC had been spending a lot of time [monitoring] the family travel” under the previous administration.
“Not only is this good for people who have been waiting for years to open their businesses, but it allows the U.S. government to address more pressing matters that affect the entire nation,” said Vivian Mannerud, president of the Miami-based Airline Brokers Co.
OFAC reports showed the agency issued 11 “new approvals” on March 8, March 24 and March 31, two on April 19 and five on its latest update of the list, issued May 14, which now lists 224 companies licensed to offer travel and remittance services to Cuba.
No new authorizations were reported in the OFAC updates issued in 2009, though there were dozens of changes to existing licenses, such as new branches and different addresses.
The increase in new approvals is not linked to the recent hike in U.S. travel to Cuba — more than 20,000 people each month now compared to less than 9,000 before Obama eased the family travel restrictions — according to two travel industry experts.
There are already enough licensed service providers to handle the increased flow, and maybe too many, said Pedro Gonzalez Munné, president of Cuba Promotions in Miami.
Other Cuban travel industry experts noted that most of the companies authorized this year have been in the Cuba travel business for several months, usually operating in conjunction with already licensed companies.
OFAC requires new applicants for licenses to have fully established companies — including office space and telephones — but bars them from conducting Cuba business until their applications are approved months down the road, one official noted.
“That’s very unreasonable and unfair,” the official added, asking for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. “Did OFAC’s delays force some people to do roundabout work? Maybe.”