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Trading with Cuba: Too soon to mix up the Cuba Libres?

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  • October 05, 2015

Now that the Obama administration has loosened its restrictions on Cuba, you’re ready to sell your widgets to a Havana factory, right? Not so fast! Although you may be able to do some things in or with Cuba that you couldn’t previously, be sure you know what you can and cannot do before committing to any trade in or with Cuba. 

As you may know, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) maintains the US sanctions and embargoes on various countries. In 1960, after the Cuban government nationalized American-owned oil refineries in Cuba, the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba. At the time, all exports to Cuba were forbidden except for food and medicine. The embargo was expanded over time and eventually prohibited almost all trade with Cuba or Cuban citizens. Similarly, most travel to Cuba was effectively cut off due to a prohibition on travel-related transactions—if you can’t spend money, you can’t get there and stay there. Some limited travel-related transactions were permitted if you obtained a specific license which was extremely hard to get. Although many U.S. citizens got around the ban illegally by traveling through Mexico or the Bahamas and not getting their passports stamped in Cuba, there was no way to travel directly (or legally) to Cuba other than charter flights limited to those with a specific license.

The Obama administration has been gradually relaxing the Cuban embargo and re-establishing relations with Cuba. The administration relaxed some of the prohibitions in January 2015 and even more on September 18, 2015. Although the US is moving toward allowing more freedom in its trade with Cuba, most commercial restrictions are still in effect. A link to OFAC’s Cuba Sanctions page is available here. Here are a few of the things a U.S. citizen or company can do in 2015 in Cuba that they couldn’t do before:

  • You can legally have a presence in Cuba to open up an office or warehouse…but only if it is for an authorized activity. News bureaus, exporters of certain agricultural products, providers of telecommunications and internet-based services, educational entities, religious organizations and certain travel service providers are authorized. Unfortunately, you cannot yet open up a McDonald’s franchise in Cuba.
  • In an effort to increase Cuban citizens’ connection to the outside world, telecommunications companies and internet-based service providers can now conduct some business in Cuba, including maintaining a business presence in Cuba, importing, servicing, training, repair and replacement of consumer communications devices like cell phones.
  • Travel to Cuba remains limited to twelve specific purposes, including, among other things, government business, educational activities, visiting Cuban family members, journalism, professional research, religious activities and humanitarian projects, etc. A general license applies (you no longer have to ask for pre-authorization) for authorized travel. And a close relative can now accompany an authorized traveler to Cuba. Unfortunately for the beach crowd, travel is not yet authorized for tourism.
  • Ships, including cruise ships, may now travel from the U.S. to Cuba carrying authorized travelers. Remember, tourism is not yet authorized.
  • Air travel, previously the only legal way in for authorized U.S. travelers, is still limited to charter flights as no U.S. commercial airlines are permitted to fly to Cuba. Even those flights, however, are still limited to the 12 types of authorized travelers.
  • U.S. persons may now provide goods and services to Cuban individuals who are outside of Cuba, provided no goods or services are going to or from Cuba itself. Similarly, U.S. banks can now maintain accounts for Cuban individuals while those Cuban individuals are outside of Cuba.
  • Likewise, if you are an authorized traveler to Cuba, you are now able to open a bank account in Cuba to access funds for authorized transactions while in Cuba. Authorized U.S. travelers are now allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba.
  • You are permitted to pay Cuban lawyers for certain legal services relating to transactions authorized by or exempt from the Cuba sanctions. Similarly, U.S. lawyers may now receive payment from Cubans for certain legal services (so long as the Cuban citizen the lawyer is representing is not himself or herself on the U.S. sanctions lists).
  • And, perhaps of most interest to some travelers to Cuba, authorized U.S. travelers to Cuba can import up to $400 worth of goods acquired in Cuba for personal use, including up to $100 of alcohol or tobacco. Cohibas anyone? (We’ve actually done the math for you. A box of Cohibas is reportedly about $135 to $200 USD for a box of 20. You’re going to need to smoke half the box in Cuba to bring the other half home).

Unfortunately for those of you dying to open up a hotel on the Playa Sirena, leisure travel has not yet been authorized, nor has general trade or opening most commercial businesses in Cuba. And alas, you still cannot purchase your Cuban cigars in the U.S. Additionally, before engaging in the activities generally permitted above, make sure you know the details of what you need to do to stay compliant with U.S. law. 

It’s hard to say what will happen in 2016—or even in 2017 when the Obama Administration is no longer governing—but for those of you dying to vacation where Andy Garcia was born, one can only hope.

For information regarding additional changes to the Cuban embargo or to determine whether your proposed transaction with Cuba is authorized, contact our Sanctions team:

Annette K. Ebright                                     Eric H. Cottrell                  
annetteebright@parkerpoe.com            ericcottrell@parkerpoe.com
(704) 335-9069                                         (704) 335-9850