September 19, 2015: I'm watching Pope Francis arrive in Cuba, in advance of this visit to the US. I tried to go to Cuba 3 years ago, shortly after Pope Benedict visited, to sing in one of the polyphony courses I do around the world. It was an idea before its time: the US Department of the Treasury wasn't having it.
Here is my non-travel tale from 2012:
Cuba: the Pope [Benedict] didn’t have a problem getting into the country, but this lowly American alto couldn’t make it happen.
This tale of non-travel amidst my usual travelogues begins late last year when I learned of a thrilling opportunity to sing polyphony in Cuba, at an international workshop organized by Andrew Van Der Beek, who lives in England and runs the Lacock courses in Europe.
The course is in Havana, under the direction of the Spanish conductor Carlos Aransay, starting on Palm Sunday April 1 and ending with a FREE concert in the main cathedral on Holy Saturday on the 7th.
Here is the course description:
“A week for singers of all ages and nationalities in the historic centre of Cuba's capital city. The course will be directed in English and Spanish, and will end with a public performance in Havana cathedral. The general aim is to explore Cuba's musical heritage with a leading specialist conductor, in a relaxed and convivial setting.
"Our concert will be in Havana cathedral on Holy Saturday, so we begin with Alonso Lobo's Lamentationes Sabbati Sancti, one of the most sublime and vibrant settings of these powerful texts. The year 2012 is an important one for Cuba: the 400th anniversary of the apparition of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint and dedicatee of the church where we will be rehearsing. We will commemorate the event with two hymns to the Virgin: Ave Maria by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), one of the most beautiful settings I have come across, widely performed in Latin America; and Salve Regina by William Byrd, the five-part setting. Early English choral music is virtually unknown in Cuba, and this is just stunning with its canons and quick ascending scales.”
Wow. Choir nerd heaven. (I had no idea that the Pope would be in Havana just days before the course started.)
The wrinkle for me is that Americans cannot travel independently to Cuba because of the economic sanctions enacted 60 years ago. President Obama relaxed some of the restrictions in Jan. 2011, allowing for some travel under very specific, spelled-out provisions that are in keeping with “U.S. policy.”
And so I began my saga to try to attend this workshop.
Rest Easy: Our Wire Transfer Officers Are Very Alert
The first indication that this was not going to be easy was when I tried to wire the down payment for the course to Andrew. I was wiring the money from Chase, and I had put in the note “Havana” because I was registering at the same time for a second course Andrew is running, in Italy, and I wanted him to be able to distinguish the two down payments.
Now, I knew that I would have to apply for a license to travel to Cuba, which was going to be my next step, when my bank Chase called to basically say they had confiscated my $234 dollars, which they could neither pay to the beneficiary (Andrew) nor return to me unless I got a license from the Treasury department. They followed up with this email:
Please be advised JPMorgan Chase is required under the U.S. Treasury dept. Asset Control regulations to hold wire transfer funds USD $236.50 due to the reference Cuba . This reference may be associated with Cuban Sanctions. The funds are now in a JPMorgan Chase Blocked funds account. Chase cannot release the funds to the beneficiary nor can we return the funds back to you unless you obtain a license from the Treasury office. In order to obtain this license you should apply to the following address or website.
All triggered just because I put “Havana” in the notation. Comforting to know that Chase officers are not asleep at the wheel. But I was still surprised, because I was paying pounds sterling to an Englishman in England! Not much supporting of Communism in that.
Licensed to Travel
An American needs to apply for a “license” to travel to Cuba from the Treasury Dept., the Office of Foreign Assets Control to be specific—not the State Department—because the policy sanctions against Cuba are specifically economic.
The T-Dept. has a good website that spells out the sanctions, and spells out what provisions you can apply to travel under. There is a general license, and they specific provisions.
I applied under “31 CFR § 515.567 Public Performances, Athletic and Other Competitions, and Exhibitions,” which seemed to be dead-on for my situation.
“You may request a specific license authorizing certain travel-related and additional transactions incident to participation in a public performance, clinic, workshop, athletic or other competition, or exhibition in Cuba. The event must be open for attendance and, in relevant situations, participation by the Cuban public.”
Instead, my application to travel to Cuba for this workshop was denied because the performance provision does not “contemplate” the specificity of this international workshop.
(Side note, “contemplate” is a very active verb for a provision. Who knew our government was such a fan of personification.)
Such is the downside of bureaucracy: it leaves no room for common sense interpretation.
I know that an international workshop of singers who are not in any sort of permanent group is not specified in the provision, but the spirit of this activity is absolutely within the spirit of the provision.
I felt so strongly that my request was actually within “U.S. policy” I appealed my rejection. There is no formal actual appeal, you just reapply again, and try to emphasize anything that will show that your request fits within the provision. In the appeal I played up being a Roman Catholic, going to sing a FREE concert on HOLY SATURDAY, for my fellow Catholics in Havana.
I made that new application on December 27, and three months later they still had not made a determination, which basically ran out the clock on me.
I respect that there are national interest situations that put the good of the country above the individual’s rights and liberties. And so I didn't go.
I am glad that my European musician friends will be in Havana next week, bringing the sublime music of polyphony alive amid the ancient stones of the Cuban capital cathedral.
Up next for me: Petitioning to to get my confiscated funds back. A least there’s a specific form on the OFAC website to apply. Bureaucracy at its most efficient when you need it.