On Thursday, a group of American protesters stood at a fence near the Guantanamo prison and demanded its closure. The activists, among them Cindy Sheehan, held a press conference in Havana before heading to the eastern end of the country to march on the military base. How do you get to Cuba to stage a protest?
Fly in from the Bahamas, or another nearby country. The U.S. government keeps tight restrictions on any financial dealings with Cuba, which include travel to and from the country. The Treasury Department does grant travel licenses to certain people, like journalists, athletes, and Americans with immediate family in Cuba. But the feds aren’t likely to make exceptions for peace protesters. Without a government license, the activists have to buy a round-trip ticket to Cuba from a third country, like the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic.
When they get back to the United States, they’ll be asked which countries they visited on their trip. If they’re honest, they could be in trouble. When more than two dozen activists returned from a similar march in late 2005, they gave the U.S. customs officials a full accounting of their trip, including a list of the names and addresses of everyone who participated. The treasury sent threatening letters to nine of the activists a few months later, but none of them have heard anything since. (In theory, the government could levy fines and bring criminal charges against anyone who breaks the rules.)
If you don’t want to sneak in from a third country, you have to apply for a government license. Anyone who’s visiting family, traveling on official government business, or working for the news media can get one, although they’ll also need permission from the Cubans. (Havana has often denied entry to reporters from the Miami Herald, for example.) Special licenses are sometimes given out to students, freelance reporters, religious groups, performers or athletes, and people working on projects to aid “the Cuban people.”
There’s also an exemption for “professional research,” which includes attending international conferences that happen to be in Cuba. The organizer of this most recent protest told the Associated Press that Cindy Sheehan and the other marchers were eligible for a travel license because they are “professional human rights activists,” and would be attending an international conference in Guantanamo on Wednesday. One of the 12 protesters did, in fact, fly direct from Miami on a government-approved airline.
Once you arrive in Cuba, it’s easy enough to travel to the city of Guantanamo, all the way at the eastern tip of the island. From there it’s a short trip to a Cuban military checkpoint, where both the 2005 and 2007 protest marches were stopped. The American checkpoint—and the fence around the prison—are several miles farther away, down a road surrounded by landmines.
Not everyone needs to pass through Cuba to get to the prison. Soldiers’ spouses and journalists, for example, can get permission to take a direct flight to the facility without ever crossing into the rest of Cuba.
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Explainer thanks Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, Matt Daloisio of Witness Against Torture, and Charles Savage of the Boston Globe. Thanks also to reader Caroline Godkin for asking the question.