New U.S. travel and remittance policies toward Cuba are likely to be implemented slowly and will be more restrictive than those under President Obama as the Biden administration steers through choppy election year waters.
The historic, but politically explosive, policy issued this week is designed to foster human rights on the island and curb a burgeoning flow of migrants to the U.S.
It will also allow greater travel, but it’s unclear at this point how extensive that travel will be or when it will accelerate.
“You’ve got a cauldron of issues for the Biden-Harris administration and I think they’re trying to figure out what the right temperature is,” said said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York.
“You’re not going to see a swift ramp-up,” he added. “American Airlines will add some of the cities. You still have COVID impacting [travel] because the U.S. still requires travelers to have a COVID test.”
“The good news for Cuban private businesses,” Kavulich said, “is the more flights that go into Cuba the more cargo they can carry. That has been incredibly helpful for small businesses. The more flights that are going into Cuba, that’s going to help these small businesses get the products they need.”
In sum, the series of new, politically explosive measures shape up this way, according to a State Department briefing this week:
- The U.S. will authorize scheduled commercial and charter flights to Cuban cities other than Havana by reinstating group people-to-people educational travel under a general license. The government is “not reinstating individual people-to-people educational travel,” an official said.
- There will be more free-flowing family remittances from the U.S. to Cuban residents on the island with the removal of a $1,000 cap per quarter, per sender/receiver pair. The U.S. will also authorize “donative remittances” to support Cuban families and independent entrepreneurs.
- The Cuba Family Reunification Parole Program will be reinstated and the U.S. will continue to increase the capacity for consular services to begin processing 20,000 back-logged immigrant visas from Havana “as quickly as possible.”
- There will be an increase in support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs through access to the Internet, cloud technology, e-commerce platforms and other measures, including access to microfinance and training.
South Florida airports and the airlines that serve them have been offering Cuba flights ever since President Barack Obama launched a program of detente with the Communist regime in 2016.
As part of it all, air service was allowed from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando to not only Havana, but to multiple cities around the island. Three years later, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, ordered them dialed back, allowing service only into Havana.
Now, more flights to more Cuban cities will be in the offing, but no one in the industry or government has named any new destinations.
“We don’t know if they will authorize all airports,” said Aymee Valdivia Granda, a Cuban-born lawyer and partner at the Holland & Knight law firm in Miami. “But I would expect that at least two or three other airports would be authorized for both charter and regular flights. That would increase the flow of U.S. persons to Cuba.”
Between 2018 and 2019, an estimated 500,000 Cuban-Americans visited the island, according to Reuters, citing Cuban government figures. The number of non-Cuban Americans traveling plunged dramatically from 498,538 in 2018 to 58,147 in 2020, as the government locked down the country due to COVID-19.
“We will work collaboratively with the airlines to accommodate any increase in Cuba flights with whatever capacity we have available at MIA,” said Greg Chin, spokesman at Miami International Airport.
Before the Trump administration changed the policy, American had daily flights to Santiago, Camaguey, Holguin, Santa Clara, and Varadero and six daily flights to Havana.
Cruise lines, whose services were halted under Trump’s restrictions, were not mentioned in the Biden revisions issued Monday. Roger Frazell, spokesman for Carnival Corp., did not comment on the new policy but suggested the company reaped benefits from the Obama rapprochement.
“We were the first cruise company to sail to Cuba in more than 40 years,” he said. “It was a historic moment for all of us when we arrived to the cheering of thousands of people in the community to welcome us.”
Biden had vowed during the 2020 election campaign to reverse tough restrictive policies against commerce and travel to Cuba that were implemented by Trump, who sought to cater to South Florida’s Cuban exile community that has traditionally spared no quarter to the Communist regime built by the late dictator Fidel Castro.
Senior Cuban-American lawmakers have long opposed easing any restrictions against Cuba, calling any liberalized policy toward the regime as appeasement. It was no different after Biden took office and suggested de-icing relations with Havana with the newly announced measures.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on Twitter that the regime “threatened Biden with mass migration and have sympathizers inside the administration and the result is today we see the first steps back to the failed Obama policies on Cuba.”
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“Today’s announcement risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons,” added Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, believes dollars toward economic prosperity will give Cubans the support they need to resist the regime and refrain from risking their lives by migrating to the U.S. via flimsy boats and rafts or overland through Central America and Mexico.
“Amidst the largest Cuban exodus in decades, the Cuban people continue to suffer under the crackdown that began on July 11,” he said Tuesday in a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “While this is the first Administration in history to apply individual sanctions to criminals and human rights abusers in the Cuban government, it’s clear we can be doing more to support the Cuban people directly and ease their suffering.
“We want to make sure that the moves announced yesterday get done right — that the entrepreneurial dollars go directly to mamás y papás and not to businesses controlled by the government or by the military.”
But the task of getting 100% of remittances into the hands of Cuban residents and business operators without being diverted into military bank accounts has been a major challenge.
Valdivia said the government typically takes its cut of remittances through taxes and fees, which is why the U.S. government is seeking an independent method of electronic transmission.
“Whether they would allow that money 100% to go to the Cuban individuals without imposing a tax or fees I don’t know,” Valdivia said. “But even if the Cuban government taxes the remittances or applies a fee, at the end of the day most of the money would go to the private sector.”