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How Can US Citizens Legally Travel to Cuba?

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Musical power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z jetted down to a tropical and somewhat-forbidden destination last week for their fifth wedding anniversary: Cuba. Because of travel restrictions to the country, the couple’s trip raised the eyebrows of some U.S. lawmakers, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a Cuban American and vocal critic of U.S. travel to Cuba. Rubio announced he wanted a full explanation of the trip, though it apparently was properly and fully licensed as a cultural trip by the U.S. Treasury Department. 

When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, relations between the U.S. and its southern Caribbean neighbor were severed. The U.S. enacted a hard-line trade embargo that restricted travel, and to this day U.S. citizens looking to visit Cuba have to acquire permission from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC). OFAC “prohibits persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States from engaging in transactions in which Cuba or a Cuban national has any interest whatsoever, direct or indirect, including transactions related to travel,” reads the official documentation on Cuba sanctions, available here

Travel restrictions stemming from the embargo have eased over the years, however, particularly during the Clinton and Obama administrations. (George W. Bush reversed a number of Clinton’s measures, which Obama then reenacted.) Today, travelers do not need pop star-worthy connections to hop a plane and visit the island, though mounds of paperwork and patience likely are required. Today, Cuba travel restrictions are as lenient as they have ever been—more people and types of trips, such as cultural, academic, and religious, are eligible to receive the proper licensing.

In particular, the “people-to-people” license has brought more legal U.S. travelers to the island. First created by Clinton and then reinstated by Obama, the licenses make it possible for conceivably any curious traveler with the funds to visit Cuba legally with a licensed tour operator. The tours have to be booked solid with a “schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba,” as the Department of Treasury guidelines state. In short, travelers should not expect many idle beach hours.

The “people-to-people” license falls under the “specific” license category for travel to Cuba. Citizens can apply for a “general” or “specific” license depending on the purpose of their trip, details of which are available in the PDF “Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-related Transactions Involving Cuba” available here on the Department of Treasury’s resource page. 

“General” licenses include visiting “close relatives” who are Cuban citizens, licenses for journalists, research, educational and religious licenses, as well as certain commercial marketing licenses. “Specific” licenses include reasons such as academic seminars or conferences and visiting “close relatives” who are neither Cubans nor employed by the U.S. Interests Section, which exists in lieu of an embassy or consulate in Cuba.

The OFAC recommends hopeful travelers begin the license application process no later than 45 days before their scheduled departure. Applicants can take care of the paperwork online, but then have to print, sign and send the final application. For the logistics, visitors must make sure their transportation is via an authorized service provider. The official list of such providers is available here.

There are tales of sneaking across the border, often by catching a flight from Mexico or Canada, but Department of Treasury documents have some ominous-sounding text on the subject: “Th[e] restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada … Travelers who fail to comply with Department of the Treasury regulations could face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.” Still, a quick online search will pull up plenty of hits about tips and tricks for making it happen scot-free. There’s always the chance someone like Marco Rubio might want answers, though.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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