HAVANA (AP) — When the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions to Cuba, the thought was that Americans were going to pour into the forbidden island on legal cultural exchanges.
But if backers hoped to foster greater understanding between people on both sides of one of the Cold War's longest lingering disputes, critics saw an opening for rum-slurping beachgoers to toss around dollars and prop up the communist government. They wanted it stopped.
Score this round for the critics.
Several U.S. travel operators complain that, just over a year after the U.S. re-instituted so-called people-to-people exchanges to Cuba, applications to renew their licenses are languishing, forcing cancelations, layoffs and the loss of millions of dollars in revenue.
Many say that's due to a deal struck between the White House and a Cuban-American senator, something the lawmaker's office proudly acknowledges.
The new requirements, which went into effect May 10 as many yearlong licenses were coming up for renewal, have forced travel operators to fill out piles of paperwork to justify their itineraries, and provide painstaking details on visits already taken.
"We have to essentially justify every minute of every day as a legitimate people-to-people activity," said David Harvell of the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies. He said his group's renewal application, still unfinished, runs several hundred pages, and the extra paperwork has forced cancellation of six upcoming trips.
The dispute comes down to the nature of the visits allowed by law.
American tourism to Cuba is prohibited by Washington's 50-year economic embargo, but U.S. citizens are allowed to come on religious, educational or cultural visits so long as they are covered by a license.
The Obama administration reinstated people-to-people exchanges in April 2011, and the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces the embargo, has granted travel operators 140 licenses for everything from tours of Cuban schools to visits to cigar factories and musical venues.
Key requirements are that the trips give participants a chance to interact with ordinary Cubans and that they be educational in nature. That means seminars and workshops rather than salsa and mojitos.
But critics say many travel operators have abused the system.
Insight Cuba, which has brought more than 2,000 Americans here since the summer of 2011, boasted itineraries including a "Havana Jazz Experience," an "adventure into Cuba's enthralling music and art scene" and tours of the island's scenic tobacco country.
That brought the group a rebuke from Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, in a speech on the Senate floor in December. The Cuban-American called the people-to-people program a "charade" that "borders on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials," and demanded the Obama Administration enact stiffer controls.
"This is nothing more than tourism. This is tourism for Americans that, at best, are curious about Cuba and, at worst, sympathize with the Cuban regime," Rubio said.
It is not clear how many Americans have taken advantage of the people-to-people exchanges, but the number is certainly in the thousands.
For months, Rubio held up Senate confirmation of a key diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen, until the White House took action on people-to-people. Alex Conent, a spokesman for Rubio, acknowledged a quid pro quo was reached in March, leading to Jacobsen's confirmation and toughened Treasury guidelines that he called "an overdue and welcome step."
Tour operators say Rubio's claims are unfair and will hurt ordinary Cubans, including new entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of a limited free market opening under President Raul Castro to set up private restaurants and other small businesses.
"Detractors of travel always talk about how the regime is propped up by Americans going there, but what they never talk about is the effect American travel has on the Cuban people," said Tom Popper, Insight Cuba's director. "These travelers are not going to the beach. They are engaging with people on a personal level, and that creates hope and understanding, and it creates an economic benefit that is unique. To take it away is almost cruel."
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