Though the possibility that direct flights might soon flow from Tampa International Airport to Cuba is undoubtedly big local news and befits front-page headlines in Saturday's Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, the fact is that the Obama administration's loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba for the most part puts U.S. policy simply back to where it was under Bill Clinton, and still far from an end to the 50-year embargo with the Communist Island.
In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order lifting restrictions on family travel to Cuba and increased the amount of monetary remittances that families could send to relatives in Cuba. Those restrictions were imposed by George W. Bush in July of 2004, who limited travel to Cuba to once every three years, and narrowed the definition of who could accompany Cuban-Americans as family members. Most travel between Cuba and the U.S. has been prohibited since the embargo came into full effect in 1962. However, in certain cases, Cuban-Americans have been allowed to visit Cuba under various policies. Travel restrictions have continued to apply to those Americans who do not have family in Cuba, and also to those who are not going to Cuba for business, news-gathering or study.
Obama's change on Friday affects religious and cultural groups and college students. But the big news locally is that Tampa is likely to be added to the U.S. airports from which flights to Cuba can take off (previously, only Miami, Los Angeles and New York City have been allowed to go directly there), and some local officials are thrilled about what it could mean economically for the Tampa region.
Tampa area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor has lobbied the Obama administration since the president's 2009 moves on Cuba to allow flights to Cuba to leave from Tampa International Airport, and was thrilled Friday afternoon when she issued this press release:
"President Obamas decision to open Tampa International Airport for Cuba travel demonstrates that the President understands the cost and inconvenience local families face when traveling to the island nation, Castor said. The Tampa Bay region has one of the highest Cuba-American populations in this country, but for too long, families have had to travel to Miami in order to get to Cuba. That has been too expensive and too difficult for many families already on tight budgets. With the addition of Tampa International Airport as an entry/ exit point to Cuba, our hard-working families will have one burden lifted when traveling to and from the island nation.
Allowing charter flights to Cuba from Tampa International also opens doors to create jobs in our community and plan for economic growth in our region, Castor continued. Charter flight companies likely will hire local residents, and our travel industry will benefit from a much-needed boost. This couldnt come at a better time for our economy.
I am confident Tampa International Airport will be first in line to apply for final approval for expanded eligibility, Castor said.
The administration released the news late on a Friday before a holiday weekend, considered the best time traditionally to dump news that they believe could create controversy. But really, other than the usual suspects (i.e., South Florida Cuban elected officials, New Jersey's Bob Menendez), it's hardly that controversial.
Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, however, did express indignation:
I strongly oppose any new changes that weaken U.S. policy towards Cuba. I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes. I believe that what does need to change are the Cuban regime's repressive policies towards the independent press and labor unions, its imprisonment of political prisoners and constant harassment of citizens with dissenting views, and its refusal to allow free multi-party elections. It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people."
But nobody else is really that upset about it. Even Tampa's go-to-guy for a quote on anything to do with liberalizing anything with Cuba, local attorney Ralph Fernandez, couldn't pretend to be angry, telling the Times that "the passage of time has eroded, I think, the will of resistance among many of the people."