The JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara carried Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. | AP Photo
Updated 08/31/16 12:46 PM EDT
President Barack Obama’s transportation chief made a symbolic trek to Cuba on Wednesday as a passenger on the first commercial flight to the Caribbean island in five decades, the latest step by the administration to rebuild the relationship with the U.S.’ former Cold War enemy.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s trip on a JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara, Cuba, will restart the flow of transit between the two nations for the first time since the 1963 missile crisis — even though travel restrictions on U.S. citizens and a trade embargo remain in place. Foxx, who arrived in Santa Clara at about 11 a.m., was expected to announce the final authorizations Wednesday afternoon for the initial direct flights between Cuba and the United States. Airlines have scrambled to secure permission for dozens more.
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But even with the opening of those routes, the trade embargo still bars U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba for tourism, though thousands of Americans have traveled there on loopholes that allow trips for educational, humanitarian or religious reasons. And advocates for lifting the embargo are hoping the start of air service will advance efforts for freer travel between the two countries.
“As more and more Americans visit our island neighbor and talk to everyday Cubans, the more Americans will see that the embargo is just an outdated relic of the Cold War era,” James Williams, president of the group Engage Cuba, said this week. “We hope that as U.S. travel to Cuba continues to skyrocket with scheduled flights, momentum will only continue to grow for Congress to pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.”
This latest step in normalizing relations comes after Obama began using his executive authority nearly two years ago to rebuild diplomatic ties with Cuba.
And although there has been little indication that Congress will act to remove the long-standing trade embargo anytime soon, the legal details don’t mean much now to Americans who will be able to hop aboard flights to the island on eight different U.S. airlines for less than the price of many domestic tickets.
For its part, JetBlue is trying to simplify the process for fliers seeking to navigate the legal restrictions on trips to Cuba — touting its “affidavit in a few clicks” system that allows customers to use the airline’s booking system to vow they will qualify for one of 12 Treasury Department-approved reasons for travel. The airline is also including Cuban government-required health insurance coverage for all travelers on Cuba-bound flights and making Cuban tourist visas available for purchase upon check in.
The Department of Homeland Security announced in early August that Cuba had agreed to allow the U.S. to put air marshals on the flights. But several congressional Republicans are still raising concerns about the security procedures currently in place at Cuban airports, arguing that the foreign ports have insufficient passenger-screening technology, inadequate vetting of airport and airline workers, and poorly performing bomb-sniffing dogs.