Cuba and the United States have agreed to restore scheduled commercial flights between the two countries for the first time in decades.
After months of tense negotiations that ended Thursday, the agreement was finally reached on the first anniversary of President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s historic announcement that Washington and Havana would begin normalizing relations.
The importance of the “Memorandum of Understanding” that restores daily commercial flights is that it will serve to pressure the US Congress into lifting travel restrictions against US citizens despite the 54-year-old trade embargo.
“The restoration of commercial flights should increase the possibilities of Congress acting once and for all to not only allow US citizens to travel to Cuba but also to lift trade restrictions,” said Ric Herrero, head of pressure group Cuba Now.
The US State Department said the government hopes the new measure “will enhance traveler choices and help, as we believe, to promote people-to-people links between Cuba and the United States.”
Although US citizens are still officially barred from traveling from Cuba for tourism purposes, trips to Cuba by US citizens have increased by more than 50 percent since the normalization of relations was announced, according to Jeffery DeLaurentis, business chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Havana. Republicans in Congress have held up the naming of an ambassador to Cuba.
“Today, more Americans are visiting Cuba and engaging the Cuban people than at any time in the last 50 years,” President Obama said in a statement posted on the White House website.
The reaction to the announcement by airline carriers was immediate.
“United Airlines congratulates the US and Cuban governments on reaching this historic arrangement, which will strengthen ties and economic development between the two countries,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to offering service between our global gateways and Cuba as soon as we have approval to do so.”
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said: “As the leading carrier to the Caribbean and the leading US airline to Cuba, we look forward to establishing service to Cuba in 2016 from Miami and other American hubs.” American has operated charter services to Cuba since 1991 with flights from Miami, Tampa and Los Angeles.
Budget carrier JetBlue also said that it would file for a license to fly to Cuba once it reviews the terms of the agreement “The interest in Cuba has reached levels never before seen in a generation,” said company vice-president Scott Laurence.
Since the announcement of the normalization of relations American companies such as Netflix and Airbnb have begun to set up businesses, while some ship cruise lines are ferrying passengers on a limited basis.
Since Obama and Castro announced the normalization of diplomatic ties on December 17, 2014, the countries have taken some steps towards bringing their nations closer together. Washington and Havana reopened their own embassies in both countries this past year.
The re-establishment of direct mail service between the two nations was also announced several weeks ago.
But conversations about human rights, the closing of the Guantánamo naval base, the trade embargo, and compensation for US companies nationalized following the Cuban revolution have hit stumbling blocks.
Obama has met with Castro on two occasions this past year.
“Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey. The last 12 months, however, are a reminder of the progress we can make when we set the course toward a better future,” Obama said on the anniversary of the restoration of relations.
English version by Martin Delfín.