In 1977 James Parsons remarked that many of us are geographers because the discipline gives us the latitude to explore the world around us and get to know at least one culture or environment other than our own. Fieldwork is central to many a geographer's mission. Geographers engage in fieldwork to obtain data otherwise unavailable, yet overcoming difficulties is par for the course. Sometimes the barriers are linguistic, or foreign cultural customs must be navigated. At other times the difficulties rest in gaining access to remote and inaccessible study sites, and on occasion large political hurdles must be surmounted. Given the current geopolitical climate, imagine the difficulty conducting fieldwork in Syria, Iran, or North Korea. Some researchers would add Cuba to that list.
Numerous scholars see Cuba as fertile ground for research on topics ranging from music, to religious syncretism, and even to baseball or quaternary studies of karst. Yet those same scholars balk at actually going to Cuba. A common perception is that the U.S. government forbids Americans to set foot on Cuban soil--or, if Americans are not forbidden to travel to the island, that the thick bureaucratic red tape makes such a trip impractical. The popular alternative is to travel through a third country and hope that one is not caught. Although a travel and export ban is indeed imposed on U.S. citizens, most of the negative perceptions are highly exaggerated. The purpose of this field note is to assist scholars who wish to navigate the complexities of legally traveling to Cuba for research.
UNITED STATES-CUBA RELATIONS
In the early 196os, as Fidel Castro and his cadre of revolutionaries consolidated power in Cuba, nationalized foreign-owned businesses, and sought to export the Cuban Revolution, tensions between the United States and Cuba escalated. On 20 October 1960, following eighteen months of mutual political grandstanding and heated rhetoric, the U.S. government imposed an export ban on most nonhumani-tarian goods to Cuba. After the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated to such an extent that the administration of President John F. Kennedy imposed travel restrictions on U.S. residents and citizens. Over the subsequent three decades Congress obliged U.S. presidents to renew the travel ban every six months. In 1977, under President Jimmy Carter, the administration let the ban lapse, but President Ronald Reagan reinstated it in 1982. Fourteen years later the U.S. government further clarified the export ban and travel restrictions. Although the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 does not actually prevent U.S. citizens and residents from traveling to Cuba, it prohibits unauthorized activities that benefit the Cuban government economically or commercially.
Within the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulates all travel between the United States and countries with strained diplomatic relations, including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. According to OFAC documentation published in 2012--which excludes officials of the U.S. government--the following are authorized for travel-related transactions in Cuba: Cuban Americans visiting members of their immediate family; journalists; individuals engaged in humanitarian activities or cultural exchange programs; and full-time, professional researchers. In 2006 the U.S. Department of the Treasury started aggressively prosecuting individuals and businesses that violate the export and travel ban. As recently as 2009 the penalties ranged from fines of U.S.$250,000 to ten years in prison (Bellows 2009). Regardless of the party occupying the White House, travel between the United States and Cuba travel is strictly regulated, and trips for the sole purpose of pleasure or tourism remain illegal.
The official OFAC Web site provides an up-to-date document identifying permitted types of travel to Cuba under general and specific licenses (2012a). …