“It had been so long since an airline in the United States flew a regularly scheduled flight to [Cuba],” the New York Times wrote Wednesday, “the last time it happened, the passengers flew on a propeller plane.”
While passengers who got onto JetBlue’s historic Flight 387 in Ft. Lauderdale buckled their seatbelts aboard an Airbus 320, with jet engines and weight-saving composite materials, what really separated them from travelers on the last regularly scheduled commercial flight in 1961 was more than vast improvements in technology.
They departed Florida and landed in Santa Clara, Cuba in an entirely different era and political context.
Think of it. Florida, a vortex of pro-embargo, anti-travel sentiment, grounded in the Cold War experience of the Cuban-American community, was now the scene of a spectacle heralding the resumption of commercial flights to Cuba.
Passengers, who arrived at their departure gate serenaded by salsa music, witnessed Cuba’s Ambassador to the United States, Jose Cabañas, joining Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the first flight in 55 years. Among them were Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and a 53-year-old passenger Dominic Santana, who told NBC News, “I want to get to discover the country where I was born.”
Upon exiting the plane, Secretary Foxx posted a statement on the Transportation Department’s blog, calling the flight an “historic occasion” and announcing the names of eight airlines “that will begin scheduled flights to Havana as early as this fall.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes tweeted “Today’s commercial flight from U.S. to Cuba is result of normalizing relations and ending 50 years of failed policy.”
Cuban officials focused less on the moment and more on its potential. At the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Ambassador Cabañas said in a statement, “Cuba is ready to expand bilateral relations on civil aviation based on mutual respect, professionalism and reciprocity.” Josefina Vidal, the chief diplomat for the U.S. desk at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, observed, “Regular flights will only reach their potential when the travel ban part of the blockade is lifted.”
The JetBlue flight – and all it represents – helps to bring the days of ending travel restrictions on U.S. residents and lifting the embargo against all forms of two-way trade much closer.
For starters, changes in policy and technology are contributing to a virtuous circle of travel affecting U.S. politics. As Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, told USA Today, “The fact that you can go online and book your flight with JetBlue or Delta that legitimizes the whole process in the eyes of Americans who had been on the fence before.”
As more visitors from the U.S. go to Cuba, that will also increase contacts in places across the island and provide travel-related service income to businesses which have not yet benefitted as Habaneros have from the loosening of restrictions on travel.
Commercial flights are also cheaper than the charter services that have been serving the Cuban market for decades, and this has policy implications, too. By reaching beyond Havana for destinations like Santa Clara, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, a broader range of more affordable flights will increase the attractiveness of visiting Cuba for diaspora populations across the United States who have yet to visit their families on the island.
Within the precincts and places where the politically powerful diaspora community lives, we have seen the connection between the rising number of Cuban–American family visits to the island and the increasing support for President Obama’s policy opening to Cuba.
Which takes us back to the scene at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Settled in behind the controls of Flight 387 were Captain Mark Luaces and First Officer Francisco Barreras, ABC News reported, the sons of Cuban immigrants. As the plane was pushed back from the gate, it was flanked by men holding the flags of Cuba and the United States – in Florida!
We wondered what the loudest, most vigilant voices among the Florida politicians who oppose the opening to Cuba made of this. When we looked at the Twitter accounts and the websites of Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), and Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), we could not find one tweet or press release protesting JetBlue’s flight (although we did learn that Mr. Díaz-Balart is a member of the Contaminated Drywall Caucus).
Not everyone was silent. Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) expressed his convictions to a reporter for NJTV, saying, “all we’re doing [in resuming commercial flights] is enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy.” But the hardliners in the Florida delegation, especially in an election year, could not bring themselves to oppose the profits and jobs that come by opening another airport and another airline to the Cuba market, or gainsay the right of a family, as NBC News reported, to book a flight to Cuba so they could get married and baptize their kids.
That, ultimately, is why the remaining restrictions on legal travel to Cuba cannot survive. Times have changed, as Flight 387 demonstrated so powerfully, and ideology should not stand in the way of families being together.
This week, in Cuba news…
After JetBlue’s passengers rode aboard the first direct U.S. commercial flight to Cuba in more than 50 years, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it had finalized the list of eight carriers approved for service to Havana, which will begin flying late this year.
On Thursday, Silver Airways began service on the same route, while American Airlines will begin flying to Cienfuegos and Holguín on Tuesday.
Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, who was onboard Wednesday’s inaugural flight, met with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Relations, in Havana.
Reuters notes that although this year has seen a record number of U.S. visitors to Cuba, and more affordable commercial flights to the island from U.S. cities outside Florida are sure to increase those numbers further, U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba combined with the infrastructure limitations of Cuba’s tourism industry will “act as brakes on increasing demand,” while “an expected explosion in U.S. tourism to Cuba will likely take years to materialize.”
The Center for Democracy in the Americas was among several leading NGO allies in sending a letter to President Obama recommending a range of policy proposals he can implement by executive action in the remaining months of his administration to further reform U.S.-Cuba policy. The recommendations cover areas including security and health cooperation, financial transactions, migration regulations, and agriculture. The letter is available here. The letter, organized by the Washington Office on Latin America, urges the President to build on the Cuba policy actions he has taken since December 17, 2014, to help make the normalization process irreversible.
Latin American diplomats urge U.S. to change policy on Cuban migrants, Associated Press
Top diplomats from nine Latin American nations wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry calling for the U.S. to end its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, saying it encourages “disorderly, irregular and unsafe” migration that negatively affects countries throughout the hemisphere. “Wet foot, dry foot” is short-hand for a feature of U.S. immigration policy that “puts Cubans who reach U.S. soil on a fast track to permanent residency.” Signing the letter were the foreign ministers of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru. Guillame Long, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, said in a statement, “The fact that nine foreign ministers have signed this letter shows the strength of feeling in Latin America about how U.S. policy is creating an immigration crisis in our region.”
The letter proposed that Secretary Kerry join a “high-level meeting to review the issue.” At a press briefing Tuesday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said, “we’re going to continue to … engage governments in the region on this issue going forward,” and affirmed that “the Cuban Adjustment Act remains in place and ‘wet foot, dry foot’ remains U.S. policy regarding Cuban migration.”
The New York Times Editorial Board commented, “Even as the Obama administration has taken bold steps to normalize relations with Cuba, it has been reluctant to rescind the Cuban immigration policy, fearing that a change would set off an even larger exodus. But delay will make this nettlesome problem only worse. If the Obama administration refuses to act, the issue will have to be resolved by the next administration.”
The Americas Society/Council of the Americas offers statistics, a timeline, and an interactive map of Cubans’ migration over the last several years.
New taxes on state workers to begin in October, José Raúl Concepción, CubaDebate
Meisi Bolaños, Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Finances and Prices, announced Thursday at a press conference that the country is restructuring payment systems for income taxes and social security contribution for workers at Cuba’s state enterprises, effective October 1. The new regulation means that all state workers will have income-based taxes and social security contributions deducted from their monthly pay. Those who earn more than 2,500 Cuban pesos (CUP) per month will pay personal income taxes, and those who earn more than 500 CUP per month and receive utilities subsidies and bonuses of any sort will pay the social security contribution; those who do not receive bonuses or utilities benefits will only pay a five-percent income tax. According to Guillermo Sarmiento, Director for Labor Organization and Salaries at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the expanded social security contribution requirements are expected to help Cuba confront the challenges of an aging population.
Employees in the education, public health, and legal sectors who have received salary increases since 2008 already pay monthly social security contributions, while those in the foreign investment sector, including the Mariel Special Development Zone, and the fishing industry, already pay the social security contribution.
Cuba reports remarkable success in containing Zika virus, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press
The AP looks at Cuba’s Zika-prevention efforts over the last six months, which have kept the total number of cases in the country to 33, just three of which were contracted locally. A group of U.S. scientists will join Cuban counterparts in Havana in November for a two-day meeting to exchange information on Zika and other animal-borne viruses; this is the first such conference since the reopening of diplomatic relations. F. Gray Handley, Associate Director for International Research Affairs at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said “Probably in the last decade we’ve had two people that have gone [to Cuba] for anything…It has been pretty much of a black box [sic].”
Professor Jorge Pérez, director of the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute in Havana, told the AP of Cuba’s approach to Zika, “We’ve learned that it’s better to prevent than to treat.” Dr. Cristian Morales, the World Health Organization’s representative in Cuba, said, “Cuba’s response [to Zika] has been strong and effective,” but noted that “It has to do with the capacity to organize the population. Applying it to other countries, other contexts, would be extremely difficult.”
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
Cuba and CAF sign first collaboration agreement, Radio Rebelde
Cuba and the Development Bank of Latin America (known as CAF) signed their first collaboration agreement Thursday, designed to foster technical cooperation in socioeconomic development projects on the island, and to further regional integration.
Cuba is not one of the 19 CAF member countries; according to Granma, another goal of the agreement is to “[lay] the groundwork for the future admission of Cuba.” The bank and Cuba have been in talks about Cuba’s joining since 2013, and in May 2015 Enrique García, CAF’s Executive President and CEO, said the bank was “optimistic” about moving toward making Cuba a member soon. Ernesto Medina, the Minister and President of Cuba’s Central Bank, told Granma that the agreement signed this week in Cuba is “a first step,” and that Cuba hopes to work with CAF on projects to fund the country’s initiative to switch nearly a quarter of the energy it generates annually to renewable sources.
The CAF is a major lender to sustainable development projects in Latin America. As Reuters reported last year, although CAF does not require its member states to be members of the Organization of American States (in contrast with the Inter-American Development Bank) to join the bank, Cuba would “have to adapt to a series of norms and regulations, such as declassifying information on its reserves and opening up its accounting books.”
Around the region: Dilma Rousseff impeached, opposition protests in Venezuela
Cuba’s government responded to the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, saying in a statement that it “strongly rejects the parliamentary and judicial coup d’état” that removed her from office.
On Thursday, massive opposition-organized protests took place in Caracas, calling for the recall of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this week, Cuban state media expressed Cuba’s support for President Maduro, as he urged supporters to organize a counter protest and aid the governing PSUV party in guarding against a possible coup.
Cuba Turns to Foreign Investors as Cheap Venezuelan Oil Fades, Ezra Fieser and Vanessa Dezem, Bloomberg
As we reported last week, Cuba hosted its first international summit on energy and infrastructure September 1 and 2 in Havana, focusing in part on encouraging foreign investment to bolster its small renewable energy sector. Bloomberg examines Cuba’s effort to increase its use of renewable sources from 4 percent to 24 percent by 2030, especially as the country confronts reduced oil imports from Venezuela. Andrew MacDonald, Director and Vice President of Havana Energy, told Bloomberg, “It’s unprecedented for the government to be making an open presentation of this scale to international companies like this. … This is a top priority for the Cuban government.”