Can a Visit To The New Cuban Embassy In Washington, DC Be Considered A Violation of U.S. Sanctions?

U.S. Sanctions and Visiting the Cuban Embassy

After more than 53 years of hostility beginning with the outbreak of the Cuban revolution, diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Cuban government are going to be restored.[1] The normalization of the relationships between the two countries began on December of last year and culminated on April 2015 when, for the first time after half of a century, the leaders of the two countries, Barack Obama and Raul Castro, met at a historical summit in Panama. The last step of this political process is represented by the achievement of the two administrations of a formal agreement in order to re-establish their respective embassies in both countries. In this sense their respective interests sections are going to be transformed into full and effective diplomatic missions.  In fact, the current Cuban office located in a century-old mansion in DC (2630 16th St., NW) will become the new embassy of Cuba.

Currently the American sanctions against the Caribbean island are still in force and provide a hard system of limitations for travelling to Cuba, with some narrow exceptions covered by general licenses.[2] This means that U.S. people travelling to Cuba are required to respect those restrictions until Congress decides to remove them. President Obama has used his executive authority to ease the restrictions, but some sanctions relief will require legislative action.

Given these restrictions, is visiting the Cuban embassy treated like travelling to Cuba itself? Are there any sanctions consequences for U.S. persons who visit the new embassy to participate in a purely social event? Responding to these questions may require answering a question of international law.

According to the Vienna Convention of 1961, the premises of a diplomatic mission “shall be inviolable.[3] This statement simply expresses that agents of the receiving State are prohibited from entering into the mission.  Contrary to popular belief, the land an embassy sits on is not actually considered a part of the sending State. No reference is made in the Vienna Convention to the concept of sending State extraterritoriality, despite being commonly considered in the media as valid legal concept. In other words, even if an international treaty recognizes a special status to embassies, the physical space on which diplomatic missions operate should be legally considered as belonging to the territory of the receiving State. Hence, the land on which the Cuban embassy sits will be considered the United States.

For this reason, a U.S. person can likely enter the new Cuban embassy for any social event, without violating U.S. sanctions prohibiting tourism. This not on the basis of the authorizations provided by the general licenses covering travel, but as a consequence of the non-extraterritoriality of the premises of the diplomatic mission.

Disclaimer: Blog posts should not be relied upon as legal advice and are only provided for informational purposes.  Information contained in blog posts may also become outdated with the passage of time as laws change and U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives evolve.

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[1] The first U.S. trade embargo was implemented in 1960. The diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba broke off definitively in 1961 during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

[2] The sanctions are contained in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. Currently, general licenses cover travel-related transactions arising from: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials.

[3] Art. 22, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.