Air travel to Cuba divides Congress


Commercial flights to Cuba resumed for the first time in 50 years this week, but don’t expect a flood of legislative changes to follow.

Proponents of further loosening travel restrictions on Cuba had hoped that the resumption of air service with the country would give them new momentum.

{mosads}In the Senate, appropriators have already approved an amendment that would lift the tourism ban with Cuba, while similar legislation has garnered over 50 cosponsors.

But over in the House, advocates still face fierce opposition from the majority on the Homeland Security Committee, which is pushing a bill that would ground flights to Cuba until a thorough airport security review is conducted.

“Despite continued concerns about the safety and security of Cuba’s airports, the Administration rushed resuming regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba — again putting security concerns far behind the President’s legacy building effort,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill in a statement.

“Once Congress is back in session, I plan to move legislation through my Homeland Security Committee to force DHS and GAO to both identify and close any and all of the major security gaps that currently exist.”

Critics of travel to Cuba say they don’t plan to back down just because flights to the island are underway.

The stalemate is unlikely to yield any legislative changes this year on travel to Cuba, an issue that has divided lawmakers for more than five decades. 

“Does [resuming air service with Cuba] potentially increase the conversation? Yes,” said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Inc. “But does it change the outcome? No.”

The Obama administration announced a historic agreement earlier this year to re-establish scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba. 

The first U.S. flight touched down in Santa Clara, Cuba, on Wednesday morning. The arrival was widely seen as a milestone in President Obama’s push to normalize diplomatic relations with the former Cold War rival.

But American tourism on the island is still prohibited and can only be approved by Congress.

The new flight routes will only open up travel for family visits, official U.S. government business, foreign governments, journalistic activity, professional research, educational activities, religious activities, public performances, humanitarian projects and certain authorized export transactions.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, believes it’s only a matter of time before the travel ban is fully lifted. 

“I think it will add more momentum than anything we could have done,” Williams said. “The more Americans are going to Cuba, the more people are seeing and experiencing it, and the more they will see that the travel ban is outdated.”

Perhaps more importantly, Williams expects the airline industry to begin putting lobbying and advocacy muscle behind the issue, now that they have a number of daily commercial flights to Cuba that they want to fill.

“After the initial few months of curiosity, I think they’re going to have a hard time sustaining them without the travel ban being lifted,” he said.

There is some evidence that the GOP may be warming to the idea of allowing tourism to Cuba.

The Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment by voice vote to the fiscal 2017 spending bill for financial services and general government that would lift the travel ban.

A standalone measure from Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) also would lift the Cuban travel restrictions. It has garnered 51 cosponsors. 

And companion legislation in the House from Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) has 130 cosponsors.

“With U.S. airlines now poised to unleash the power of American travelers and their frequent flier miles, the time has come for Congress to eliminate the archaic restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba,” Flake state in a statement.

But there is still staunch opposition from prominent lawmakers such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who argue the travel would enrich the Castro government despite its history of human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, a group of House lawmakers say they still don’t know whether Cuba’s airport security is up to snuff. They want to know whether the island has adequate body scanners, explosive detection systems, technology for detecting fake passports and strong employee vetting process.

They are pushing legislation that would halt Cuba flights until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducts a thorough review of the security measures in place at all of Cuba’s 10 airports.

The measure, which is backed by Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, also would require an agreement that allows TSA agents to inspect Cuban airports, while permitting federal air marshals on flights between the U.S. and Cuba.  

The TSA did announce an agreement with Cuba last month that will allow federal air marshals to be on board certain flights to and from Cuba.

But bill sponsors say they are still alarmed because the country’s airports only meet international standards, not American ones. They plan to keep pressing on the issue when they return from the August recess.

“The facts remain the same — we still don’t know if Cuban airports have the proper screening and explosive detection, if they have the ability to check for fake passports or IDs, and how or if they vet airport workers,” bill sponsor Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said in a statement to The Hill.

Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council says advocates of Cuban travel should focus on regulatory changes that could be made in the remaining days of the Obama administration, instead of focusing on legislation that is unlikely to pass the Republican-led Congress. 

It’s been nearly 16 years since the last Cuba-related legislation was signed into law, Kavulich pointed out. 

Kavulich also said that working to alleviate some of the concerns of opponents — such as ensuring federal air marshals are on planes — can help thread the needle on Cuban air travel. 

“You take away a little bit of the fangs,” he said. “You don’t solve the problem, but you lesson [the argument’s] viability.” 

Tags Jeff Flake Jerry Moran Marco Rubio Ted Cruz

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