US announces new Cuba policies as RESPECT launches plans

Left to right: Cindy Domingo, Bob Guild/Co-coordinator of RESPECT, Caridad Morales/Issues Committee Member, Walter Turner/Co-Coordinator of Respect.

By Cindy Domingo, Chair – Cuba and the Bolivarian Alliance Issues Committee

The inaugural meeting of RESPECT, an association of travel agents, tour operators, non-profits and other travel service providers to Cuba, took place in Havana, Cuba on September 29-30 in the midst of new announcements by the Trump administration that are a major setback for US-Cuba relations.  RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) is the most organized entity of its type, with over 150 members, and is dedicated to practicing and promoting ethical and socially responsible travel to Cuba. 

The meeting was attended by 70 US participants and many Cuban representatives from an array of Cuban government agencies and organizations.  WILPF joined RESPECT last year during its public launch and was represented at the Havana conference by members of WILPF’s Cuba and the Bolivarian Alliance Issues Committee.  RESPECT’s statement in opposition to the US State Department’s position encouraged US peoples to continue traveling to Cuba and not to be deterred by the recent US efforts to discourage travel.  RESPECT emphasized that it is still legal to travel to Cuba under the 12 categories as designated by our government.  US airlines including United, Delta and Jet Blue, who have carried over 500,000 visitors from the US to Cuba this year, also announced they will continue flights as scheduled.

US Statement Department Rolls Back Relations

The September 29th US State Department release announced the following measures:

  1.  60% of non-emergency staff from the US Embassy in Havana are being withdrawn
  2.  Effective immediately, the US will suspend issuing US visas to Cubans indefinitely
  3.  Advising US citizens to avoid travel to Cuba claiming concern about the health of US citizens who travel there

After the announcement, the State Department also expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington, DC, claiming that the US had reduced their diplomatic staffing levels in Havana and that the Cuban government had failed to prevent “attacks” against the US staff in Havana.

In response, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs cautioned the US from taking hasty steps that will affect bilateral relations on many issues that the countries are working on.  In addition, Barbara Stephenson, President of the US Foreign Service Association, the union that represents US diplomats around the world, expressed opposition to any decision to withdraw US diplomats from Cuba and stated, “We have to remain on the field and in the game.”

The justification for the State Department’s announcement is unexplained health problems that 21 Havana-based US diplomats have reported. The Cuban government points out that the claims of US embassy employees stemmed back from during the Obama administration when the Cuban government pledged full cooperation in the investigation.  In a press statement by Josefina Vidal, General Director for the US at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she stated, “I would like to reiterate Cuba’s willingness to continue active cooperation between authorities of our two countries, to fully clarify these events, which requires more efficient involvement on the part of the United States.”

History of RESPECT

RESPECT was formed last December 16 on the one year historic announcement by the Obama administration that opened up relations between the US and Cuba governments and re-established both their Embassies.  (Prior to the reopening, both governments had Interests Sections sponsored by the government of Switzerland.)  Members of RESPECT agree to uphold 17 principles in organizing travel to Cuba that were framed by the internationally agreed-upon UN Sustainable Development Goals and respect for Cuba’s path to sustainable development as determined by the Cubans themselves.  The Havana RESPECT meeting was held during the UN’s declared week of Sustainable Tourism.

RESPECT conference organizers worked closely with ICAP (Cuban Institute for Friendship) to construct a program that reflected the commitment of the Cuban government to sustainable tourism, especially in light of recovery from the devastating hurricane Irma and the continued impact of climate change that has brought on an increase of progressively stronger hurricanes over the last 20 years. 

Top ranking officials of the Cuban Civil Defense reviewed the history of the intensity and damage of hurricanes to the Cuban economy and livelihood, especially in the last 10 years.  Cuba’s response to hurricanes has been embedded in the entire Cuban society, in order to reduce the impact of these disasters.  These steps include:

  1. National education and preparedness at all levels of Cuban society with detailed plans in both the urban and rural areas.  In fact, last May 2017, the entire country went through a dress rehearsal in response to a hurricane making it the 31st time the country has done this exercise.
  2. Implementing an early notice system which is important to safeguarding of peoples, lands, crops, animals and water.  The issue of water is particularly important, given that Cuba has experienced a drought since 2014.  Cuba’s ability to create a more comprehensive aquaduct system throughout Cuba has enabled the country to have its reservoirs at 68.4% capacity, as a result of the torrential rainfall brought on by hurricanes. 
  3. Complete up-to-date information before, during and after hurricanes is provided to the population.   Because of the organized integrated preparedness system of Cuban society, information flows smoothly from top to bottom in light of these disasters.  Using radio systems, Cubans have access to information at every moment as the hurricane approaches and moves through Cuba. 
  4. Lastly, Cuba’s policy of universal access to healthcare, education and social programs allows for countrywide preparedness and recovery for all.

Of course, even with Cuba’s organized response to hurricanes, severe damage occurred. Because of Irma, ten lives were lost, mainly due to collapsed buildings, bringing the total to 54 deaths in the last 10 years and $31 million in damages over the last 20 years as a result to hurricanes passing through Cuba. A total of 40,000 tourists and 12,000 domestic workers were evacuated to safety in preparation for Irma, with 45,000 of those people located in the northern coast. This was the first time Cuba has done an evacuation of this magnitude in the northern part of Cuba utilized highly by the tourist industry.

The Civil Defense speakers emphasized that recovery from Irma will continue, but 100% of all communications in the country has been reestablished in less than three weeks after the hurricane and all the hotels damaged in the northern coast should be open by the start of the high tourist season beginning at the end of November.

Other presentations that day focused on the need for the protection of Cuba’s art and culture and the environment and the steps the Cuban government is taking to do so. The presentation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was cancelled due to the US State Department announcement as Cuban officials worked to focus on the repercussions of the policies.


The second day of the conference was spent with participants discussing the strategy and plans to institutionalize the work of RESPECT.  Most important to RESPECT is expanding its membership to include other travel providers who are bringing the over 500,000 US visitors to Cuba since Obama opened up relations with Cuba.  This expanded association can play an important role in further opening up travel to Cuba, as well as bringing in continued needed dollars to the Cuban economy. 

For more information on RESPECT and its work or to share ideas about expanding RESPECT’s membership, please contact Cindy Domingo at or RESPECT Co-founder Bob Guild at  Please feel free to share this article.



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