Oakland airport to offer direct charter flights to Cuba
on June 14, 2011
Just six months ago, because of travel sanctions against Cuba, a U.S. citizen could have faced up to a $55,000 fine and possibly served jail time if they traveled Cuba without going through a restrictive licensing process that allowed only specific groups of people to travel to the country. And even if they did attempt to get a license, most U.S. citizens didn’t qualify for it. Now, after an easing of travel restrictions by the federal government, many people will be able to easily get a license and catch a direct flight to Cuba straight from the Oakland International Airport.
In January of this year, President Barack Obama announced that along with U.S. citizens of Cuban descent and people with family members in Cuba, other travelers could also visit the island-nation for academic, religious, humanitarian and newsgathering reasons. He also announced that a handful of U.S. airports would be allowed to operate direct flights to Cuba.
Two weeks ago, the Oakland airport became the first and only airport in the Bay Area authorized to offer direct flights to Cuba. Before this, Los Angeles, Miami and New York/JFK were the only airports with Cuba flight permission.
For service to Cuba, the Oakland airport has partnered with California-based travel company Cuba Travel Services, which will provide the chartered flights along with other travel services such as in-country transportation and lodging. The flights from Oakland are six hours non-stop and are expected to begin by late summer. By December, the travel company’s staff hopes to be operating one weekly charter direct to Cuba.
“Oakland Airport is emerging as an international hub and we are very much focused on offering more flights to Latin America,” said Rosemary Barnes, spokesperson for the airport. “We are so thrilled that we’ve been given the rights to offer service to Cuba.”
The initiative to get the Oakland airport involved was backed by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has been an outspoken opponent of the U.S. embargo against Cuba for years. In a statement issued last week about the Oakland airport offering flights to Cuba, she said, “This new charter is another important step in moving beyond the outdated Cold War era policies of the past and turning to a new, productive page in U.S.-Cuba relations and hopefully will lead to more travel and exchange with Cuba.”
Cuban travel restrictions began in 1963 under President John F. Kennedy during the Cold War; they were a reaction to then-Cuban President Fidel Castro’s ties to the Soviet Union. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter lifted the restrictions and allowed a general travel license to the country. But shortly afterward, President Ronald Reagan re-imposed the travel ban. Ever since, travel restrictions have been eased under ensuing Democratic administrations, then tightened by Republican ones, from presidents Bill Clinton to G.W. Bush and now under Obama.
The latest round of loosening the embargo restrictions started with changes to the law that the Obama administration made in 2009, which allowed people of Cuban descent and people with family members in Cuba to be able to visit the country. These allowances essentially reverted the rules to what they were during the Clinton era. The only exception is the new regulation that allows direct chartered flights from several U.S. airports.
Still, in order to go to the island-nation, U.S. residents must qualify for travel. This means proving affiliation with a religious, humanitarian, governmental, telecommunication, athletic, academic or news organization or that a “close relative” lives in Cuba. Also, there is a $179 per day spending limit while in the country.
According to the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is within the US Department of the Treasury and which enforces economic and trade sanctions, it remains illegal for “all U.S. citizens and permanent residents wherever they are located, all people and organizations physically in the United States, and all branches and subsidiaries of U.S. organizations throughout the world,” to travel to Cuba without permission.
Still, even with continuing travel restrictions, airport officials expect the charter flights to book up quickly. “We expect there will be a lot of interest,” said Barnes. “Being in the Bay Area we are just the right market. Thanks to President Obama and Barbara Lee we’ve been able to open up the borders.”
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