The Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) last week updated its Cuba FAQs with this perplexing little blurb that can only charitably actually be called an “answer” or the “A” in FAQ.

68. May a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction export or reexport to Cuba items that include U.S.-origin content, but are not 100 percent U.S.-origin?

Persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction may engage in all transactions ordinarily incident to the exportation or reexportation of 100 percent U.S.-origin items from a third country to Cuba, consistent with the export licensing policy of the Department of Commerce. Items that are not 100 percent U.S.-origin would require OFAC authorization, which would be subject to certain statutory restrictions.

This is nothing more than a paraphrase of section 515.533(a)(1) of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. In fact, the FAQ might have been more clearly stated and just as useful if it was written this way:

68. Do you really mean what you say in section 515.533(a)(1)?


Of course, the FAQ neatly dodges the ugly truth that if the item is 99 percent U.S.-content, then you will need a license from both BIS and OFAC to reexport that item from a foreign country to Cuba. You want real export reform? Here’s where you start. There is no need in this instance, or ever in any other instance, for two federal agencies to decide whether something can be exported. Of course, you could avoid the double license requirement by shipping the item from the third country to the U.S. before exporting it to Cuba in which case you will only need the BIS license. This workaround further illustrates how absurd the double licensing requirement is here.

There is a second ugly truth that the FAQ dodges. Both the FAQ and section 515.533(a)(1) imagine that the phrase “100 percent U.S.-origin items” actually means something and can be determined to be true or false with respect to any given product. Nowhere in OFAC’s rules, or FAQs, or website, or presumably even on scraps of paper on the floor of OFAC’s basement is there any guidance as to how to determine U.S. content. Anyone who has ever struggled with this issue in its many contexts (including customs country of origin rules) will realize that there are a number of ways to analyze such a question, based on tariff shift rules, substantial transformation rules or the FTC’s “substantially produced in” rule. And often, if not almost always, each of these rules will result in a different country of origin for a product.

Take this example: apples grown and packaged in the United States are packaged in boxes made in the United States with cardboard imported from Canada. A substantial transformation rule might say that the box was U.S. origin; a tariff shift rule might say that it was not; and the substantially produced test would also probably say that it was not. Under the tariff shift rule, BIS licenses the reexport; using the others then both may have to license the re-export.

Here’s a harder case: take the same example above but with the box made in the United States with U.S. cardboard made from U.S. trees and printed with ink made in the United States, although one of the chemicals in the ink is imported from China. Probably under all the tests described above, the packaged apples would be 100 percent origin. Still, there is a Chinese chemical in the ink on the box. Without BIS or OFAC committing to any of the three tests described above, this is not a 100 percent origin U.S. product.

That being said, there are probably no 100 percent origin U.S. products (short of unpackaged agricultural produce without foreign-produced pesticide residue). In that case, you always need both licenses for re-exports and there was really no need at all — unless there was some desire to confuse — for Cuba FAQ 68.