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U.S. Continues Cutbacks on Flights to Cuba

Jan 16, 2020 | By Peter Kornbluh
U.S. Continues Cutbacks on Flights to Cuba

As part of a series of sanctions against Cuba, the Trump administration has suspended U.S. charter flights to all parts of the island except Havana, making it more difficult for Americans to visit the country. In a statement released on January 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that U.S. charter companies would be forced to terminate their flights to nine provincial airports in March.

“In suspending public charter flights to these nine Cuban airports, the United States further impedes the Cuban regime from gaining access to hard currency from U.S. travelers,” read Pompeo’s statement.

Last fall, the Trump administration terminated commercial air traffic to Cuba’s provincial airports, forcing travelers—primarily Cuban-Americans visiting their relatives—to turn to South Florida-based charter companies to fly to cities such as Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey and Cayo Coco. According to Cuban authorities, more than 550,000 Cuban-Americans visited the island in 2019.

To restrict the charter companies from increasing flights to Havana to accommodate thousands of additional travelers trying to access other parts of the island, the Trump administration also said it would cap charter flights at 3,600 per year.

The flight suspensions appear to be part of a strategy of “maximum pressure” the Trump administration plans for Cuba this year, according to acting assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Michael Kozak. In an interview with the Miami Herald in late December, Kozak warned “there will be more actions aimed at restricting their sources of income. We’re looking for ways to restrict, restrict, restrict their freedom of action until they change their ways.” 

On January 2, the State Department levied its first sanctions of the year against Cuba, banning Cuba’s minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Leopoldo Cintra Frías, and members of his family from entering the United States, citing Cuba’s “serious human rights violations” in support of the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Administration officials also sought to cast the new ban on charter flights as a way to pressure Cuba to cease its support for the embattled Venezuelan government. But travel providers and advocates of normalized U.S.-Cuba relations criticized the new restrictions as a politically motivated policy that would impede the support and resources Cuban families receive from their relatives in the United States. “Canceling these flights might take cents out of Cuban government accounts, but it takes dollars out of Cubans’ pockets, food off the table of Cuban families and once again tries to divide the Cuban family for domestic political gains,” said Collin Laverty, who runs a leading tour provider, Cuba Educational Travel.

The administration’s punitive efforts toward Cuba suffered a setback last week when a federal judge dismissed two lawsuits recently filed under the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act against two cruise line companies. Title III of the 1996 law—commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act—permitted U.S. citizens with claims to confiscated properties in Cuba to file lawsuits against U.S. and foreign enterprises in Cuba whose businesses made use of those properties.

Since the law was passed during the Clinton administration, every president, including Trump, has suspended implementation of the Title III clause to avoid antagonizing allied nations whose companies operate in Cuba. As part of its stepped pressures on Cuba, however, last May the Trump administration allowed Title III lawsuits to be filed.

In August 2019, the Havana Docks Corp. filed lawsuits against MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line for making use of waterfront areas nationalized after the 1959 revolution. But in two “motion to dismiss” orders, which were reported by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, federal Judge Beth Bloom ruled that the property concession owned by Havana Docks had expired in 2004—years before either cruise line had begun to use the properties for docking purposes.

The “Plaintiff’s claim involving a time-limited concession,” Judge Bloom ruled, “does not give Plaintiff the right to sue for activities that took place years after it no longer has an interest in the property.”

The ruling is likely to bolster the cases of Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which have sought dismissal of similar lawsuits.

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