Analysis: U.S. Cutting Back On Commercial Flights to Cuba
In a significant escalation of President Trump’s economic pressure on Cuba, the U.S. government is drastically curtailing U.S. commercial airline flights to the island. After a 45 day “wind-down period,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo instructed the Department of Transportation on October 25 that “there would be no further scheduled air services between the United States and Cuban airports, except Havana.”
While commercial air traffic to Jose Martí International airport in Havana will continue for now, after December 10, hundreds of JetBlue and American Airlines flights to provincial cities such as Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Camaguey and Santa Clara will be canceled. The termination of air services will hinder thousands of future U.S. travelers, many of them Cuban-Americans planning to visit their relatives on the island during the holiday season.
Since President Obama authorized the restoration of commercial air traffic in 2016 as part of his policy of positive engagement with Cuba, approximately 3.5 million travelers have been flown to the island aboard U.S. carriers. In 2018, more than 620,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba, in addition to some 500,000 Cuban-Americans who traveled to the island to visit family relatives.
The influx of U.S. visitors has stimulated the growth of a significant private sector in Cuba—private restaurants, Airbnb rentals, guide and transportation services, among other entrepreneurial enterprises—catering to an American clientele. But the Cuban private sector has suffered significant losses since the Trump administration began to curtail travel and dismantle the Obama-era rapprochement between Washington and Havana.
Since taking office, President Trump has incrementally closed the open travel policies of his predecessor. Last June, the administration abruptly halted cruise ships from docking in Cuba, preventing 800,000 future travelers who had already booked passages from seeing the island. The administration also banned people-to-people tours, one of the most popular methods of organized travel to Cuba.
To date, these punitive measures have not affected the Cuban-American community in Florida—a voting bloc that Trump is attempting to woo as the 2020 election campaign begins. But the flights now being terminated have been filled predominantly by Cuban-Americans visiting their relatives in the provinces. Moreover, the new measures are scheduled to go into effect at the beginning of the Christmas season—the peak travel time for family visits to the island.
Not only has the administration moved to curtail U.S. travel, but also business and tourism travel from other nations. On October 21, the Commerce Department quietly rescinded Cuba’s ability to lease aircraft from U.S. aviation companies. Without those planes, officials at Cubana de Aviación, the Cuban state airline better known as Cubana, announced that they would be forced to suspend flights to and from a number of countries, among them Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.
According to Secretary Pompeo, the decision to eliminate the flights is part of “the administration’s policy of strengthening the economic consequences to the Cuban regime for its ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its support for Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela”—a government the Trump administration is seeking to remove from power.
Both American Airlines and JetBlue issued statements of compliance in response to the cancellation of flights. "We will continue to comply with federal law, work with the administration, and update our policies and procedures regarding travel to Cuba as necessary," American Airlines said in an official response.
But travel providers and Congressional advocates for a policy of positive engagement vigorously protested the new measures. “Travel between the U.S. and Cuba benefits Cuban families, Cuban entrepreneurs and many U.S. companies and these measures will greatly harm a lot of people,” stated Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel. “Ending flights to cities that are mostly frequented by Cubans traveling to see loved ones is another blow to Cuban families on both sides of the Florida straits.”
Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), who just returned from a fact-finding mission to Cuba, denounced the flight cancellations as “a stupid political stunt.”
“It is absurd that this administration is taking away the freedom of American travelers to fly wherever they want,” McGovern stated. “Our disagreements with the Cuban government should be handled through diplomacy and dialogue, not obsolete and unpopular restrictions from the Cold War that isolate us from our allies, embolden hardliners, hurt the people of Cuba, and undermine American companies that have made significant long-term investments to support these flights.”
Rep. McGovern is sponsoring the “Freedom for Americans to Travel To Cuba Act,” along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which has been introduced in the Senate and in House of Representatives. If passed, the legislation would immediately lift all restrictions on the ability of U.S. citizens to freely travel to the island.
The Trump administration’s punitive efforts to squeeze the Cuban economy come as the United Nations General Assembly prepares, later this week, to vote on an annual resolution condemning the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Last year, 189 U.N. members voted in favor of the resolution titled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” Only two nations—the United States and Israel—voted against it.