Obama administration Cuba policy changes could mean direct flights from Tampa International Airport

01/17/11 Seán Kinane
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The Obama administration announced a slight easing of restrictions on Americans when it comes to travel and remittances to Cuba. In addition, direct flights to Havana from Tampa International Airport are likely to result. U.S. Representative Kathy Castor made the announcement in West Tampa Friday evening.

"Great news for the Tampa Bay area, and families, and businesses, and our fabulous Tampa International Airport. President Obama this afternoon has announced a broadening of travel to the island of Cuba."

The Obama administration loosened some restrictions on what it called purposeful travel and on sending money, or remittances, to Cuba. Castor says these changes will benefit the Tampa Bay region in three ways.

"One, it will ease the financial burden on families that, right now, they want to travel to Cuba, have to Miami International Airport and often pay a lot more money and it's inconvenient. Two, the White House has expanded educational exchanges and cultural exchanges, and religious organizations and churches now will be able to travel to Cuba and back. And third, this is vitally important for jobs and the economy here in the Tampa Bay area. We need this shot in the arm and with this expansion of the ability to travel from Tampa International Airport to Cuba and back we can focus on promoting travel and tourism."

This year, Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda says he plans to take a reunion of his 1954 baseball team to Cuba. He stressed the savings of flying directly from Tampa.

"It's $300 to $500 for each person when you go from here to Miami to go to Havana and back. So that saves the individuals the money, the stress, and it certainly helps the family. This is what life is about, it's about family and we want to thank you for working so diligently and so hard with families. All of your constituents applaud you and we welcome this from President Obama."

State Representative Janet Cruz represents parts of West Tampa and Seminole Heights.

"The families that live here in West Tampa get in a car, oftentimes in a caravan in a van to take the trip together all the way to Miami for hours so that they can leave from Miami to Cuba so they say to tell you 'thank you very much'. That they can leave their home here in Tampa and go to their old home in Cuba."

But because of the continued embargo, most Americans will still be forbidden by the Obama administration from the freedom to travel to one of Florida’s nearest international neighbors. In a statement, the White House says the changes plus the continuation of the embargo are steps toward a goal in which Cuba “respects the basic rights of all its citizens.”

Representative Castor:

"The exchanges will help because it's person to person. The government on the island of Cuba is still tyrannical and harsh and they have...there's a great deal of improvement when it comes to human rights on the island but I think we've learned now that these travel restrictions haven't worked. When you break up the family ties, when you don't allow families or churches to travel back and forth, that's very harmful and remember, Cuba is the only country on the globe where an American citizen cannot travel. We are barred by law traveling to Cuba and that's an infringement on the rights of American citizens."

So, why does the Obama administration continue the cold-war relic embargo of Cuba? Castor would only say that she feels easing travel and remittance restrictions for a certain ethnic group furthers the administration’s goals toward the island nation.

"This is a step. This is a very important step."

Currently only three airports in the US have direct flights to Cuba: Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. President Obama is now allowing all US international airports to apply to provide licensed charters to Cuba. Castor believes Tampa International Airport is at the top of the list.

"What the White House expressed to us today is that we, Tampa International Airport is Exhibit A. We will be first in line, mostly because of our population. We have the market that will support those flights. Some other airports across the United States, they may try but they simply don't have the market. It makes the best business sense here in Tampa because of our population."

In a statement, Tampa International Airport said it had received approval to provide air charter flights between Tampa and Cuba. Hillsborough Aviation Authority chair Al Austin said, “These new flights will open up economic development opportunities for the entire community.” Castor says the region could benefit from direct flights from Tampa to Cuba.

"Can we say it's going to create thousands of jobs right off the bat? Probably not, but the Tampa International Airport is the best airport in the world. We will compete very well with Miami so when folks are looking to where they're going to depart to travel to the island, they will, if they've ever been to Tampa Airport, they will come here and that will help our airport grow. They've struggled with international flights but this is good news today, there'll be more international flights out of Tampa International."

Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano said they will begin meeting with air charter companies and working with the Federal Authorities” to meet the new requirements for direct flights to Cuba.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Cuba

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