The ample offering of music-related travel to Cuba has in recent years ranged from explorations into the deep rhythms of rumba led by master percussionists, to trips to jazz and hip-hop festivals, to week-long marathons of private performances. Tour operators have even offered meet-and-greets with Cuban musicians, with weekends in Havana and salsa lessons included.
For Americans, those experiences are now threatened.
The Trump administration announced regulations on Tuesday that prohibit group educational and cultural trips to Cuba, which it deemed “veiled tourism.” The trips are known in State Department language as “people to people travel.” The U.S. government also banned cruise ship travel to Cuba, a booming industry. (142,721 people traveled by cruise ship from the U.S. to Cuba in the first four months of this year, according to The Associated Press). Trips that have already been reserved and paid for will be allowed to be taken as planned.
The new rules, which take effect on Wednesday, will reverse those put in place by former President Barack Obama and could have a wide-ranging impact on U.S.-Cuba music tour operators and the cultural institutions and companies they are associated with.
The restrictions likely will deter American travelers seeking a musical experience in Cuba. They also threaten the livelihood of Cuban artists, promoters, employees and partners of the U.S. travel companies associated with live music on the island, where audiences that include American visitors have become the norm.
Since 2016, after Obama reinstated relations with the island government, cruise ship passengers have flocked to folkloric drumming demonstrations and to bars with bands that remind them of Buena Vista Social Club. Brands such as Blue Note and Putumayo have joined universities and small operators offering music-related Cuba travel. And The Rolling Stones‘ show in Havana in 2016 spawned a new kind of destination concert by U.S. bands, including Blondie, which invited its American fans to join them for “four days and nights of musical fun” in March.
“This is particularly cruel to our Cuban colleagues who have worked so hard to make our projects successful and are now out of a job, and to the hundreds of Cuban musicians whose work we have supported,” says Ned Sublette, a pioneer in cultural relations between the two countries. He first organized a trip to Cuba for the musically curious in 2000 when the Clinton administration put in place the policy of “people to people travel” to encourage democracy through human contact and cultural exchange.
Sublette, who founded his Post Mambo Music Seminars in 2015, says he has scrupulously followed legal guidelines put in place by the Obama administration. He says he has put three group trips on hold since Trump first announced on April 17 that changes would be coming to U.S. policy on travel to Cuba.
Country star Tim McGraw, who had planned a “One of Those Havana Nights” experience over Memorial Day weekend, quietly canceled the trip in the wake of that April announcement.
The “people to people” policy allowed travelers to go to Cuba by joining an established trip organized by a licensed tour operator. There are 11 other categories by which U.S. citizens will still be able to go to Cuba, including study abroad programs, professional meetings and “support for the Cuban people.”
Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, notes that music fans could still be able to travel under the “support for the Cuban people” category, but those trips would have to include activities like donating instruments to a music school or volunteering for a cultural project during their visit.
Under the “professional meetings” category, people in the U.S. music industry should still be able to attend conferences in Cuba, but they should expect to deal with more paperwork than when they were able to travel under the “people to people” provision.
“We will take a major hit on some types of business, but we will continue to operate and navigate these new regulations,” says Laverty. “We will figure out the way to get as many people as possible down to Cuba. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Chaz Chambers, director of Havana Music Tours, says he will continue with plans for a trip to the Havana Jazz Plaza Festival next January, which he says will fall under the “Support for the Cuban People” license. Those on the trip will stay in private houses, eat at privately owned restaurants (paladares) and deal directly with local tour guides and taxi drivers rather than dealing with any state-owned businesses.
“Literally all of the people I work with are in the private sector of Cuba,” Chambers says. “Regular hard-working and enthusiastic people who want a better life for themselves and their families.”
Bill Martinez, a Bay Area attorney who has spent several decades facilitating visas and dealing with logistics to get artists to and from Cuba, says American musicians can still continue to perform in Cuba under the new regulations. But he cautions that the announcement stated that further updates would be forthcoming.
The new U.S. policy challenging American travel to Cuba doesn’t come in a vacuum. A number of airlines that were awarded routes by the Department of Transportation have since dropped service to some provincial airports in Cuba since the Trump administration stiffened business and travel regulations.
Trump has also made it more difficult for Cuban artists to get visas to come to the U.S. Under current “extreme vetting” requirements, applicants must submit documentation of the last five years of social media activity, among other hurdles.
“[These regulations] are increasingly oppressive to our work,” Martinez says. “To our joyful engagement with international artists.”
“In the words of Trump’s tweets,” he added, “Sad.”