How to prove that a visit to Cuba was lawful for Suitability Review Panel appeal

Hi there,

I applied to Foreign Service consular position and received a conditional job offer around October 2017 and began the process for submitting SF-86, medical and security clearance. I finished submitting all my information Dec 2017. I did not hear back until Sept 2019 when a different investigator was assigned to my case to gather more information on a trip I took to Cuba in July 2017.

I wasn’t given much context on the information they were looking for so I did my best to present evidence of where I stayed, why I visited, contacts who were also on the trip etc. It wasn’t until the end of that meeting that the investigator shared that they wanted data on whether the trip was legal or not and whether the trip fell into one of the 12 general licenses for visit to Cuba.

Details of the trip:
Originally our group wanted to go for philanthropic reasons and take medical supplies and goods to Cuban people, but we were not able to secure a non-profit to work closely with so we rearranged the trip around the educational general license. We still took items we could distribute to Cuban people we saw in need such as: sanitary napkins, over the counter medicines like aspirin, toys and clothes. I mentioned this on the SF-86. When it came up in the interviews, I also mentioned the educational and cultural exchanges that took place as part of the educational general license.

I just received a letter that the SRP found the trip to be “Criminal, dishonest, or notoriously disgraceful conduct.” and have included a part of the letter below:

“It remains, however, that your travel to Cuba in July 2017 failed to provide ‘full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba’ and other requirements for the general license for travel to Cuba and was, in fact, in violation of U.S. federal regulations governing travel to Cuba in force at the time of that travel.”

There were very specific examples given of evidence from my interview that led them to believe that the trip was “primarily for the purpose of tourism” such as:

  • citing that we stayed in Airbnbs (which our group did not want to be in violation of laws by staying at a hotel owned by the Cuban government and thus being interpreted as supporting the Cuban government)
    -“evidenced by visits to Javira waterfall, the Casa de La Musica Cultural Center, Plaza Mayor, Coral Beach, and a beach bar in Veradero, among other tourist sites. In 2017, U.S. federal regulations prohibited any federal official from approving travel-related transactions either by a general license or on a case-by-case basis by a specific license for travel to, from, or within Cuba for tourist activities.”
    -I was honest that I tried a local beer in Cuba (but the investigator mentioned that I tried a mojito as well which I think he was confusing with a trip to Puerto Rico). Not sure if that is worth mentioning if I decide to appeal.

But the rest of the letter references all the support I gave that demonstrated it was a cultural exchange trip under the educational general license.

In different parts of the letter it did mentioned that I did not provide evidence of a "full-time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities,” and each traveler was required to have a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” Travelers to Cuba for the purposes of “Educational Activities” were required to retain records sufficient to demonstrate that each individual traveler had engaged in a full-time schedule of activities that satisfied the requirements of the general license. You provided no such records, and the description of your time in Cuba does not indicate that you met the requirements for a general license for travel for “Educational Activities”

I am wondering everyone’s opinion on whether I should appeal or not. I believe if I provide a very specific breakdown of how my time was spent in Cuba, I could demonstrate that the trip truly was made for educational exchange purposes and not for tourism as they are led to believe. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I don’t want to come off as dishonest as I had every intention of visiting Cuba by adhering to all laws but I think I did a poor job in providing enough evidence in the SF-86 and the two interviews and I see how it could be seen as dishonest that I make reference to two different general licenses (philanthropy and educational) since the goal was primarily to bring medical supplies but we could not find a community partner to partner with for 100% of the time we spent in Cuba.

Thank you for your time, expertise and opinions.

Just my 2 cents. I had to really read into the requirements before I went to Cuba. The rule is to engage with the Cuban people through an official guide or tour everyday you are there. If you just went to a bar or a museum without first attending a tour for 4 hours (I think that’s the minimum hours per day) then it’s consider an illegal educational permit. You did good in not supporting Cuban government through hotels or bars controlled by the govt but you needed to attend tours everyday in order to support the Cuban people and be in good standing with the required permit. If you can provide a full schedule with the official tours guided by Cuban or company for everyday then you should be good.

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Who organized the trip? Are you still in touch? Can you get records from that organization that will support the legality of the trip.

Trips like this are complicated on many levels and you take the chance of violating the law in many different ways without actually being aware that it has happen. Your best bet is gain their aid in providing the proof AND to show that your intentions were pure.

It appears that you are still in the investigation phase of the process. This is all simply information gathering. No judgements are being made at this point.

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Hi idkanymore,

Thank you so much for your input - you are giving me hope that there is a possibility to get cleared even though I know it is probably unlikely and will be an uphill battle to convince them the trip was made legally.

If you don’t mind me asking, were you given clearance and was this after you took a trip to Cuba or did you have clearance prior to going and had to submit a request to go prior to your trip? It seems that from other info I have gathered, I have not heard of anyone’s personal experience getting approved for clearance after having already gone to Cuba. They all had clearance previously and submitted for special approval to go and were briefed before and after the trip. If you have a different experience and can shed any light no how you were able to prove to a Suitability Review Panel that a trip you took in the past was legal, I would greatly appreciate it!

Also did you submit names of companies and contacts that actually gave the tours? We did take tours every day and had a full time schedule of activities that were full of meaningful exchanges between our group and Cuban people but most of them were organized in person so I don’t have emails or credit card transactions to provide as evidence. I have photos and museum pamphlets I collected, but not sure if the panel will look on this favorably or not as proof that I actually did those tours on those days. We unfortunately paid everything in cash after we arrived to the island.

Thanks again for your time and any other advice you can lend!

Hi EdFarmerIII,

Thanks for your input. Unfortunately the Suitability Review Panel has made a decision and believes the trip was in violation of the sanctions in place in 2017 and is not covered by one of the 12 general licenses.

I am considering appealing as I believe part of the issue is that I did not make a strong enough case through the SF-86 or investigation to prove the trip had a full-time schedule of activities intended to support independence for Cuban people economically and through meaningful exchanges.

It was a self-organized trip with a group of other Americans (thus making it harder to prove the legality of it from their POV I am guessing). I made sure to incorporate tours and educational exchanges for every part of the trip, and was very careful to not support the gov’t financially, I intentionally did not make an effort to keep in touch with any contacts in Cuba as I did not want that to reflect badly or be questioned later in the process of trying to get clearance.

Any other advice on how to appeal, what to include in an appeal and what evidence I could provide to convince them the trip was made legally to Support the Cuban people, engage in meaningful educational exchanges and secondarily to pass out supplies to people we saw in need would be greatly appreciated. Could part of the issue be that I am trying to demonstrate how it applies to too many different general licenses. Would it be better to just focus on the primary purpose of this trip as support for the Cuban people and evidence on how I did that and remove the educational and humanitarian elements of the trip?

Thanks in advance for your expertise and time!

Very interesting post. You’ve already submitted all the evidence to be considered, so it’s too late to tell you to omit the stop at the beach bar from your submitted itinerary as it’s not germane to the activities covered by your license.

Your activities sound typical for someone who makes licensed travel to Cuba. It almost sounds to me like someone on the Suitability Review Panel has a thing for U.S. travel to Cuba and has decided to jam you up. Or: It has become official policy to scrutinize individual travel to Cuba - under one of the permitted licenses - much more closely.

I’m not trying to “get into politics,” and I hope the moderators will give me a little latitude. But it has been official policy under the current administration to roll back the liberalization of travel to Cuba enacted under the previous administration. Most notably, “people-to-people” travel and American cruise ship stops have both been stopped.

It’s still very easy to legally visit Cuba - you can go to the JetBlue website right now, buy a plane ticket, and be dining in Havana tonight - but it’s up to you to complete the treasury license paperwork and to ensure that your visit complies with the terms of the license. To my knowledge, license holders (U.S. visitors to Cuba) have not had their trips audited - it’s been an honor system with no one checking to see if you meet the terms of the license.

The next logical step for the administration would be to begin strictly auditing those licenses. Sure, you spent 95 percent of your time under the terms of your educational general license, but that hour at the beach bar invalidates all of that. I’m not saying that’s true or fair, but that would seem to be behind the thinking of whoever is in charge of - or giving orders to - the Department of State Suitability Review Panel.

I know someone who went to Cuba in 2019; they have been TS adjudicated favorably but do not hold an active clearance as they have no “need to know.” There was no issue with their travel; they notified their employer ahead of time, received the requisite briefing, and made the trip under a permitted license with no issue.

But your mileage will definitely vary. Every employer or shop may have different rules. I know SCI-cleared people who work on sensitive stuff who are strongly discouraged from traveling abroad anywhere, much less to Cuba. Their employer makes it so difficult it’s not worth it.

And going to my earlier post, being a FSO at the Department of State means you are necessarily closer to politics than if you had a TS clearance to do some coding for a small subcontractor in the boonies. If an administration decides “we’re going to make travel to Cuba very hard again” - which is their right - the Department of State is going to be one of the first places impacted.

I think you need to enlist a security clearance attorney. Also reach out to the American Foreign Service Officers Association, the professional association of the U.S. Foreign Service. I suspect they will have a lot of insight into the Suitability Review Panel, how it works, who controls it, etc.

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If your friend is not active, there’s no issue. This travel would come up when he gets another cleared position. He will be required to self report the issue at that time and THEN he will find out if it is an issue.

Hey Online.Holly,

Bummer to hear you are in a similar situation. When I first received the letter telling me I was found unsuitable for Dept of State after having gone through so much time and effort invested in this process, I felt so hopeless and defeated.

Wanted to provide an update in case this is helpful to you or anyone else who sees this post. So I went back and forth for a while between submitting an appeal or not and finally went forward since I knew later on I would be upset if I didn’t try everything to make this dream come true. I spoke to a ton of contacts who work for various govt agencies needing different levels of clearance and received a ton of different advice. In my situation an attorney didn’t seem financially realistic so I decided not to pursue one, sorry I can’t help you more there.

I wrote in total a 17 page appeals letter/addendum stating in great detail the purpose of my travel to Cuba, all the government sites I used when planning my trip and educating myself on how to visit Cuba legally and reiterated that to the best of my understanding of the general licenses, my trip was not in violation in anyway to my knowledge. I provided every piece of evidence I had from emails showing the trip was planned months in advance before changes were made to Cuba restrictions in June 2017, all receipts, including Airbnb and flights mostly, and a very important piece that I think was missing from my SF - 86 and interviews with investigators was a detailed breakdown of how I spent my time in Cuba. On average I spent about 8-10 hours most days engaged in educational activities that support the economic liberty of Cuban people while providing meaningful exchanges that uphold democracy. I made sure to get across that this was the purpose of my trip and not tourism as they had concluded.

After I sent this in, (still with deflated hope that it was a futile effort), I received a response surprisingly faster than expected (5 business days) that they have deemed me suitable and told me to reach out to the Registrar about being placed on the registry. That was mid March when Covid began disrupting US life so I have been following up regularly and haven’t heard much but I wish you luck on your appeal!

If you don’t mind me asking - what position were you conditionally offered and what did they say was the reason you were found unsuitable?

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@FSOHopeful, thanks for following up. I am happy you were able to make the system see the light. Honestly, I am surprised.

Your post and the followup from someone similarly situated really does make me think that the leadership at D/State has decided - regardless of the law or of common travel practices over the last few years - that travel to Cuba again signifies disloyalty an is conduct contrary to American interests. It would not surprise me to learn that the person setting policy on this matter is a 28-year-old former Center for Security Policy intern.

Like I said above, some positions are more insulated from politics. If you are an app developer in Colorado being considered for a secret clearance, your employer Xyz Company probably doesn’t care about your travel habits and you are just grist in the mill for a DCSA adjudicator who treats every case more or less the same.

Working as an FSO, you are much closer to the center of power. When travel to Cuba was liberalized a few years ago, the people wielding the levers of power at State thought travel to Cuba was awesome. Now the people wielding the levers of power at State think travel to Cuba is worse than being a member of ISIS.

Unfortunately, that means that candidates who are bright and curious about the world get jammed up for their (completely legal) travel to Cuba while dumb hicks who have never left the country move up the ladder quickly.

Hi there,

I am glad to hear your appeal was approved. I am applying to the Rangel and Pickering fellowships and have great interest in becoming a Foreign Service Officer. I am sure I will run into the same problem during the security clearance. I traveled to Cuba in December 2018 through the people to people category. Could I please contact you to see how you were able to appeal the DOS decision?

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Hello FSOHopeful,

I’m glad to hear that the appeal worked out for you. I’ve received the same notice from the Suitability Review Panel and I do plan to appeal to better demonstrate that my travel to Cuba was educational in nature rather than for the purposes of tourism.

It would be great to speak with you in greater detail in order to understand how to best communicate this message (i.e. better understand what your 17 page addendum focused on). Please let me know if you may be open to a discussion. I’m happy to share contact info as needed.

Thank you

@FSOHopeful is there anyway I can talk to you offline? I’m currently undergoing secret clearance and a bit nervous about 2 trips to Cuba (2017 and 2019). I have been granted interim clearance.