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Before going to Cuba, understand the rules

                                People walk along the malecon watching the fireworks as part of the celebration of the 500 years of the city in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 15.


    People walk along the malecon watching the fireworks as part of the celebration of the 500 years of the city in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 15.

The changes in recent years on visitation to Cuba have created opportunities as well as confusion. Can you even go to Cuba? If so, can you fly to Cuba? Can you take a cruise to Cuba? The answers — yes, yes and no — may surprise you. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s surprised, because the consequences are significant. Here are the questions we hear most often, answered by two Cuba experts and information from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Question: Doesn’t the State Department prohibit visits to Cuba?

Answer: No. This is incorrect on two counts. First, the rules you’ll need to know for a Cuba visit fall under the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

You can take a more in-depth look at

You can still visit. Traveling with a group probably will be easier because a tour company will know the regulations and steer you away from danger. Danger? What you don’t want is to unwittingly do business with a company that the Treasury Department has deemed off-limits because of ties to the Cuban government.

“We are taking additional steps to financially isolate the Cuban regime,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Sept. 6 statement. “Through these regulatory amendments, Treasury is denying Cuba access to hard currency, and we are curbing the Cuban government’s bad behavior while continuing to support the long-suffering people of Cuba.”

Thus certain hotels, for example, are ­off-limits because they are under the control of the military. To see the list, go to

Q: But didn’t U.S. airlines stop flying there recently?

A: No. It’s true that American and JetBlue will drop flights this month to such places as Santa Clara in central Cuba and Holguin in eastern Cuba, but flights to Havana, which comprise most of the air traffic, continue.

Q: OK, so I can take a cruise to Cuba, right?

A: Wrong. In June, cruises to Cuba were banned suddenly, catching numerous cruise lines flat-footed. That amounted, Cruise Lines International Association said, to a loss of about 800,000 visitors and created havoc for those who had signed up just so they could get a sampler platter of Cuba.

That sudden stop also affects those who make a living or make ends meet by serving tourists. “Cubans have been suffering economically because their livelihood is tied to what American travel organizers can bring to them and their families,” said Manny Kopstein, co-founder of Cuba Travel Adventures Group in the Bay Area, which does philanthropic work in Cuba while providing customized travel.

Q: Maybe I should go now before things change again?

A: December, January and February are good times to visit Cuba — after hurricane season. It’s dry and less humid. But you may have trouble finding a trip if you’re thinking of a group tour. After a slow summer (which is not high season), both Kopstein and Moore are finding demand is high for winter trips.

Q: Do I have to go with a group?

A: You do not. But here’s what Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations say if you’re traveling in “support for the Cuban people,” a new, acceptable, category of travel: “Each person relying on a certain general authorization must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions.” And Code of Federal Regulations 501.601 says that “such record shall be available for examination for at least five years after the date of such transaction.”

If you go as a foreign independent traveler, the documentation is your responsibility. Keeping your paperwork around for five years is also your responsibility. If you’re bad at one or the other, consider going with a group.

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