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Serving: United States

Travel to Cuba requires jumping a few hoops

Interested in doing some business with Cuba?

Potential for agricultural trade appears to be improving but travel restrictions still create a few roadblocks for Americans.

“Texas agriculture interests should consider doing business with Cuba,” says Cynthia Thomas, with the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance in Dallas. “Texas has a significant advantage because of location.”

Thomas was part of a panel discussing the challenges and opportunities for increased Cuban trade at a seminar recently, held in conjunction with the Amarillo Farm Show.

Available ports also add to the advantage. “Texas already will ship $20 million worth of powdered milk, replacing New Zealand because of shipment times and shipping costs,” Thomas says.

“But you need government approval to travel to Cuba,” she says. That approval comes through the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Thomas says prospective Cuba travelers must explain their business and products that qualify for export.

“The process could take four to six weeks,” she says.

“You also must state that you will have a full work schedule on each trip. That includes days booked solid, usually eight to five. You need to have your business meetings set up before departure.”

She recommends having material available to describe your company, produce and why it would be cost effective to trade with you.

“The embargo has created an information void,” she says. “So you need to provide as much information as possible about your business. Truthfulness is central to Cubans and you will get this in return. Also, meetings start on time.”

Travelers also must keep a daily log of all expenditures in Cuba. Expenses may not exceed $185 per day, including hotel, food and transportation. She says some exceptions may be allowed. The Havana Hotel, for instance, has an $85 per day limit.

You can leave home without your American Express Card. “You must carry cash,” Thomas says. “U.S. law does not allow you to use a credit card or an ATM card.”

Getting there is not a big problem, once the paperwork is done. Travel is available by charter flights daily from Miami. “With a license to travel to Cuba you may also travel through third countries,” Thomas says.

“Travelers may take a private or corporate plane to Cuba but must obtain an export license for the plane from the U.S. Department of Commerce.”

Thomas says travel agents can help obtain visas for about $90 each. Those take two to three weeks for processing.

She says American businesses will work through Alimport, a central purchaser established in the early 1960s for agricultural products. It deals with vendors through the world and they are very knowledgeable buyers. “It is good to know Spanish but most Alimport staff know English,” Thomas says.

She says prospective Cuba travelers and agricultural traders will start with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Industry and Security (202-482-4811). “You begin by applying for an online pass code, called a SNAP application, for your business and yourself.”

It takes about two weeks to receive the code. “The Department of Commerce telephones with the information.” The application is online.

“You need a description of your products and prices. Expect 10 business days for the license to be issued. Recently it has taken longer. Alimport takes your business seriously once you have received the Commerce license.”

The financial arrangements for sale are relatively simple. “U.S. law requires that Cuba pay cash before they actually receive products. Alimport has insurance for products once loaded onto vessels and until you are paid.”

Once in Cuba, Thomas says travelers may rent cell phones and may access the Internet for about $6 an hour.

Take along comfort items. She says toilet paper, for instance, is in short supply outside hotel rooms. “If you plan to smoke, take matches.”

She also recommends a travel alarm clock and possibly an electric plug converter in older hotels.

She says tipping government employees is illegal but they appreciate company logo pens or caps. U.S. health insurance policies will not cover travelers to Cuba. Thomas recommends contacting International SOS (800-523-8930) or Travel Guard (877-248-8992.


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