US students continue sailing trip to Cuba despite faltering bilateral relations

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Ocean Passages Cuba sailing

Ready for Rough Sailing: Participants of Maine’s maritime educational program Ocean Passages ready their 130-foot sailboat as it heads to Cuba. Photo from Ocean Passages.

This fall, 15 young Americans enrolled in a maritime expedition from Portland, Maine to Cienfuegos, Cuba have been learning that politics, like sailing, require strategic navigation through choppy waters. Their leaders say they could be setting a precedent for other Cuba education tour operators.

“We’re just trying to go and make friends in Cuba and experience the culture, teach them about sailing, and learn some stuff ourselves,” trip participant Evans Clark said during a phone interview from Charleston, S.C., one of the ports where the crew docked for supplies.

Sponsored by the Maine-based maritime education program Ocean Passages, the crew is on a “gap semester” program catered to students taking a break between high school and college. Among other topics, participants learn about Cuba’s ecology, culture, and geopolitics while living on a historic 130-foot sailboat that transports them across the U.S. East Coast and around Cuba. The crew left New England on Sept. 9 with plans of docking in Washington in mid-October to lobby Congress for increased U.S. engagement.

But on Sept. 29, the State Department issued a travel warning for Cuba in response to mysterious sonic incidents that left at least two dozen embassy staffers and family members in Havana with medical ailments such as hearing loss, dizziness, and headaches. The State Department contends these incidents were the result of sonic weapon “attacks,” and while it has not directly blamed Cuba for launching such attacks, it does hold the government responsible for protecting the safety of its diplomats. In response, it withdrew about 60 percent of its Havana embassy and expelled 15 officials from the Cuban Embassy in Washington.

Cuba has repeatedly denied involvement in these incidents, which the U.S. government considers attacks with a sonic weapon. Recently, high-ranking officials have accused the U.S. of withholding information on the investigation and questioned whether the alleged “attacks” are scientifically possible.

Rather than turn back as U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties soured, the Ocean Passages crew stayed the course to tell Congress why engagement is important.

Ocean Passages Cuba sailing

Lobbying for Greater Engagement: Ocean Passages students meet with the staff of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) to explain why they will visit Cuba in spite of the U.S. travel warning for the island. Photo from Ocean Passages.

“We make a point to stop in Washington on the way there and back because even in calmer times, it’s a place where there’s always things to learn. We can also share what we’ve learned on our way back,” said Ocean Passages Counsel Steve Schwadron.

Schwadron says participants’ willingness to do so saved some of the organization’s programming, but the organization took a financial hit from several partnering institutions that backed out when they learned of the travel warning.

Maine-based community college the Landing School, a national leader in boat building education, cancelled what would have been its third outing with Ocean Passages to offer boat building workshops to Cubans in Cienfuegos. Then the University of Southern Maine backed out of a memorandum of understanding that Ocean Passages was helping to broker with the Cuban government for a maritime study abroad program.

“These instances, while poignant, are also happening to many other worthwhile programs,” said Schwadron.

Ocean Passages Cuba sailing

Docking in Cuba: The Maine-based maritime educational program Ocean Passages has a special U.S. government license to dock in Cuban waters for up to six months. Photo from Ocean Passages.

American travel associations such as the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel (RESPECT) are closely following these developments while planning a survey to measure the financial impact of similar tour operator pull-backs. They say it’s too soon to begin polling, especially considering the Trump administration recently issued new regulations that restrict U.S. business and travel in Cuba. Under the new rules, U.S. travelers on “people-to-people” educational trips must travel with an authorized travel group that has its own representative on the trip.

“It will be in December and January when the real impacts are visible,” said CREST Executive Director Martha Honey, noting that the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic crisis unfolded during Cuba’s low season for foreign visitors.

Bob Guild, co-founder of RESPECT and vice-president of Marazul, the nation’s oldest Cuba tour operator agrees.

“We ourselves have cancelled groups, and individuals who have cancelled, but we’ve also had new groups requesting to go despite the travel warning. So it’s really hard to put a cost on it,” he said. He also noted that major airlines and cruise ships are reminding travelers that there are no confirmed cases of U.S. civilians injured by sonic occurrences in Cuba. Instead, they’re assuring passengers that millions of foreigners are still safely traveling to Cuba.

One of the biggest concerns, however, is liability insurance.

“Some schools needed to cancel not because the students, professors or parents were worried, but because they have risk assessment managers who automatically say the school can’t go if State Department puts up a travel warning,” Guild said.

He said concerned institutions and tour operators should ask insurance companies for a waiver, and that could buy them more time to make a decision. Many programs, especially academic ones, aren’t scheduled to leave for Cuba until early next year.

Chase Poffenberger, executive vice president for Academic Travel Abroad, which works in partnership with major educational and media institutions such as Smithsonian, National Geographic, and New York Times says waivers are one of several ways her organization does its due diligence.

“We ask the traveler to acknowledge that he or she has read the warning and is comfortable proceeding before any money is at risk,” she said. Including the warning in pre-trip materials and asking participants to sign a travel warning acknowledgement form are ways to make sure clients know the risks, Poffenberger added.

Meanwhile, Schwadron wants to remind Congress, as well as globally conscious educators and tour operators, why these educational Cuba programs are vital to sound diplomacy.

“We’re not just darting in and out. We become part of the community,” he said. “We’re being viewed as a good neighbor.”

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