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Obama Administration Pushes for Deal to Start Flights to Cuba by Year’s End

Obama Administration Pushes for Deal to Start Flights to Cuba by Year’s End
White House aims to loosen travel restrictions for individual U.S.
travelers despite congressional ban
By FELICIA SCHWARTZ, JACK NICAS and CAROL E. LEE
Aug. 17, 2015 9:13 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration is working to reach a deal with Cuba
by year’s end that would allow travelers to fly on scheduled commercial
flights between the countries, U.S. officials say, chipping away at a
travel ban without requiring Congress to lift it.

The agreement would allow airlines to establish regular service between
the U.S. and Cuba as early as December, officials said, marking the most
significant expansion of economic and tourism ties between the U.S. and
Cuba since the 1950s, when Americans regularly traveled back and forth
to Havana.

The Obama administration is also exploring further steps to loosen
travel restrictions for Americans to the island nation despite the
decades-old congressional ban, officials said.

The twin moves, which follow the formal reopening last week of the
American embassy in Havana, underscore the White House’s intent to
solidify one of President Barack Obama’s major foreign policy
achievements by making the Cuba shift nearly impossible for a future
president to reverse.

Only Congress can lift the long-standing U.S. travel and trade embargoes
imposed against Cuba in the 1960s following the rise of Fidel Castro to
power. But Mr. Obama has executive authority to grant exceptions to
them. He announced several last December—such as allowing Americans to
use credit and debit cards in Cuba and expanding commercial sales and
exports between the two countries—and is considering others.

One way is to allow individual travelers to visit Cuba independently of
a tour group, so long as they say their trip is intended to pursue
cultural exchange, a practice known as “people-to-people” travel.

U.S. laws authorize citizens to travel to Cuba only for specific
purposes, including business trips, family visits or the
people-to-people exchanges. By loosening restrictions on those
authorized categories of travel, the administration in effect can chip
away at the travel ban.

“The one logical thing they could do is let individuals create their own
people-to-people program and not force them to go on expensive package
tours,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University who
has written extensively about U.S.-Cuban negotiations. “If they do that
and it’s possible to book an ordinary flight instead of go on a charter,
lots more people would go to Cuba.”

Deepening both U.S.-Cuba economic relations and the two countries’
cultural and tourism ties is part of how Mr. Obama hopes to ensure that
the move toward normalization doesn’t unravel under his successor.

The White House has taken the same approach to the nuclear deal with
Iran, which Congress is set to vote on next month and is likely to be
implemented by Mr. Obama exercising his veto authority.

The White House hopes Mr. Obama’s Iran and Cuba policies follow the same
political trajectory as his health-care law. The idea, administration
officials have said, is that like the health-care law, the Iran and Cuba
initiatives will become so embedded in American policy over Mr. Obama’s
final 18 months in office that undoing them would be too difficult.

The president’s policies on Cuba and Iran have been widely criticized by
Republican candidates running to replace him, while most Democratic
contenders, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, support
them.

“In the eyes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his former secretary
of State, the Cuban people are suffering because not enough American
tourists visit the country, when the truth is the Cuban people are
suffering because they live in a tyrannical dictatorship,” said Sen.
Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) in a speech in New York last week.

Other opponents say increasing American travel to the island would
primarily benefit Cuba’s military and intelligence services. “Tourism to
Cuba’s regime is what oil is to Iran,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a
director of the pro-embargo U. S-Cuba Democracy PAC, on Monday.

Mr. Obama hopes that the re-establishment of U.S. relations with Cuba
becomes so integral to American travelers and business leaders that it
would be too politically risky for any president to revoke. That, in
part, relies on expanding Americans’ access to the island nation.

At the same time, the White House is working to establish a bipartisan
coalition to dismantle the U.S. embargo on Cuba, at least piece by
piece—starting with the travel ban.

Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is up 35% since January, Secretary of State
John Kerry said in Havana last week at a flag-raising ceremony at the
U.S. Embassy. He told reporters Friday that he and his Cuban
counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, discussed further steps the U.S. could
take to loosen travel and trade restrictions but cautioned that fully
lifting the embargo would require Cuba to address human-rights concerns.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), who support
Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy and have introduced a bill to lift the travel
ban, are among supporters who want the administration do more to loosen
restrictions on travel to the island nation.

“It makes no sense that Americans can travel freely anywhere in the
world except Cuba, said Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Mr. Leahy,
adding that the senator thinks new licenses for individuals to travel to
Cuba “is what the American people want and deserve.”

The White House, many federal departments and the U.S. airline industry
are aligned behind efforts to resume scheduled service to Cuba. With
that sort of support, two officials involved in the negotiations said,
they don’t see any roadblocks. “We’re committed to it, there’s good will
on both sides and we’re continuing to talk,” one of the officials, who
is at the State Department, said. A deal by year’s end “is certainly our
hope.”

The other official, from the Transportation Department, added: “My own
personal view is we can work through this. When that would happen is an
open question.”

For decades, U.S. citizens with an authorized purpose to visit Cuba have
generally taken charter flights that are allowed under an informal
arrangement between the U.S. and Cuba.

The two countries now are working toward a similar arrangement to allow
scheduled air service, which would enable authorized travelers to book
flights to Cuba via U.S. airline websites or even travel sites such as
Expedia.com.

The Obama administration’s revised rules on travel and commerce in Cuba
lifted restrictions on scheduled air service between the two countries.

When those rules were implemented in January, the Transportation
Department issued a notice that it planned to engage the Cuban
government on resuming scheduled flights.

The new rules issued in January also eliminated the need for many
authorized travelers to obtain prior U.S. approval, essentially letting
them travel to Cuba on the honor system. U.S. citizens still need a
Cuban visa to enter the country.

Still, traveling to Cuba for a cultural exchange—one of the 12
authorized purposes—requires going with a tour group. Proponents of
expanded travel want Mr. Obama to allow individuals to travel alone to
Cuba for “people-to-people” ties, or cultural exchanges.

Administration officials said Monday they are considering further steps
to loosen travel and trade restrictions, but wouldn’t specify which were
most likely.

“The people-to-people license put into effect in the first place was for
individuals to meet with individual Cubans,” Mr. Flake said. “Going down
and staying in a B&B which increasingly Americans are doing, riding in
private taxis, eating in private restaurants—these are all acts we
should encourage.”

In March, U.S. officials met with a handful of Cuban diplomats in
Washington, where they agreed—through translators—that their countries’
1953 “air transport agreement” was outdated, according to the State and
Transportation Department officials. The U.S. officials proposed basic
parameters for a new arrangement, including that any U.S. airline could
serve Cuba as much as it wishes, one official said.

The Cubans said they would get back to the Americans. Last week, the
Cuban government sent the U.S. negotiators a lengthy counterproposal in
Spanish and a request to soon meet again, this time in Havana, one
official said.

The negotiations are partly centering on how many flights a day would be
permitted between the two countries and whether Cuba’s state-owned
airline, Cubana de Aviación, can serve the U.S. The officials were
doubtful U.S. laws would allow Cubana to fly to the U.S.

Many U.S. airlines, including American Airlines Group Inc. and JetBlue
Airways Corp., are eager to serve Cuba and have been pushing regulators
to enable schedule service. Indeed, some carriers have already served
the island for years by operating flights on behalf of charter companies.

American said it expects to operate 1,200 charter flights to Cuba this
year, a 9% increase from 2014. On Tuesday, American plans to announce a
charter from Los Angeles to Havana, its first Cuba service from the West
Cost. “We’ve absolutely seen more demand,” said Howard Kass, American’s
vice president of regulatory affairs.

Source: Obama Administration Pushes for Deal to Start Flights to Cuba by
Year’s End – WSJ –
http://www.wsj.com/articles/obama-administration-pushes-for-deal-to-start-flights-to-cuba-by-years-end-1439860422

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