Big jump seen in U.S. travel to Cuba in 2010

HAVANA (Reuters) – More than 1,000 travelers from the United States are arriving every day in Cuba on average, most of Cuban origin, making Havana’s long-time foe its second source of visitors after Canada, travel industry and diplomatic sources said Monday.

U.S. charter companies flying to the Communist-ruled island say business has boomed since President Barack Obama’s administration lifted restrictions last year on Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland, and also loosened curbs on academic, religious, cultural and other professional travel.

U.S. citizens are forbidden from traveling to Cuba without their government’s permission under a wide-ranging U.S. trade embargo on the island imposed nearly five decades ago.

“There is a huge increase this year compared with 2009,” said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, the oldest of a growing number of companies chartering flights to Cuba.

“Through October around 265,000 have traveled. November and December are the peak months, so we expect 330,000 will go to Cuba on direct flights from the United States this year,” Garcia said, speaking in a telephone interview from Miami.

Cuban tourism industry sources said more and more U.S. citizens or Cuba-bound travelers from the United States were also arriving through third countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas to get around the U.S. travel ban, avoid licensing hassles, or simply because it is the less expensive route.

There are no regular scheduled commercial flights between Cuba and the United States which lie less than an hour’s flight apart, separated by the Florida Straits.

“We estimate the total (visitors from the U.S. to Cuba) for the year will be more than 400,000,” a U.S. State Department source said, asking his name not be used due to restrictions on talking with journalists.


Cuba reported 2.4 million tourists arrived in 2009, with Canada the largest provider at close to 915,000, followed by Great Britain at 172,000 and Spain at 129,000.

The Cuban National Statistics Office ( reported that Canadian arrivals through October of this year had increased, while there was little change from Great Britain and a significant drop in Spanish tourism.

Cuba reported 52,455 arrivals from the United States in 2009, but those of Cuban origin were included under a wide separate category of “other.” Local tourism officials said 80,000 U.S. citizens came in 2008, including Cuban-Americans.

The official trade union weekly, Trabajadores, ran a front page article Monday on the expansion of the Havana airport terminal that receives U.S. flights, saying it would be completed by this Christmas and double capacity.

Marazul’s Garcia estimated U.S. travel to Cuba would increase another 30 percent in 2011.

Legislation that would have lifted entirely U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba died in Congress this year. Such initiatives will have even less chance of passage when a new Congress convenes in January, following the Republican Party’s success in the November mid-term elections.

Cuban-American Republican members of Congress are fierce and vocal opponents of opening up more U.S. travel to Cuba, saying there should be no relaxation without political change and human rights improvements on the island.

Advocates of more freedom to travel to Cuba hope the Obama administration will at least further loosen remaining restrictions, opening up more so-called ‘people to people’ contact visits that would favor sports, cultural, artistic, academic and religious exchanges.


United States Cuba Relations: 2010 Mid-Term Election Analysis

As we predicted, Kendrick Meek, lost the U.S. Senate race in Florida.  Sadly his intransigence to remain in the Senate race assured Marco Rubio’s victory.  The question that needs to be asked of Mr. Meek is what was his deal with Marco Rubio?  Marco Rubio owes Kendrick Meek big time.  For Charlie Crist, his political future remains open to challenge Senator Bill Nelson for that seat in 2012.   The country took a hard swing to the right yesterday, after taking a hard swing to the left in 2008.  At some point, moderation and common sense will prevail over the extremes.  Marco Rubio intends to portray himself as Ronald Reagan’s heir.   We will see if he is that or more like the movie character, Bob Roberts. (Rent/Watch this movie starring Tim Robbins)  One knowledgeable political expert I respect suggested that Marco Rubio may very well be the GOP’s Vice Presidential nominee in 2012.
President Obama and the White House staff should also have learned by now that listening to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Bill Nelson,  Bob Menendez, and Kendrick Meek on Cuba matters is not reliable.  This cabal told the President and White House staff to hold off the announcement on new U.S. Cuba travel regulations allowing more travel to Cuba because it was going to hurt the Democrats in Florida in yesterday’s elections.  Oh really now?  Yesterday’s debacle in Florida and across the country had nothing to do with the Cuba issue.
I was asked what the outcome of the elections will mean for United States Cuba policy and relations.  Two words will define the next two years – entrenchment and opportunity.  There will be entrenchment on U.S. Cuba issues in the next Congress as we will see the following positioning of Pro-Embargo/Anti-Travel Members:
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl) – Incoming Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fl) – Incoming Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) –  Incoming Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fl) – Incoming Chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
Incoming Freshman Rep. David Rivera (R-Fl) who will be moving any legislation he can to further restrict travel to Cuba and maintain the embargo.
Incoming Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl) will retain his hardline position on Cuba as his political backers and money comes from the extreme right wing.  However, he was born in the U.S., has never been to Cuba, and knows this issue only as a child of exiles.
With this entrenchment, however, there are still Pro-travel/Anti-embargo Members and opportunity to keep an eye on:
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Az) will now be in a position to take leadership on this issue in the House.  The Republican wave that will take over the House in January 2011 is mostly libertarian and on the issue of American travel to Cuba, there should be many members who will stand on the principle that all Americans should be allowed to travel anywhere of their choosing and spend their own money there, including Cuba.  Let’s remember it was Jeff Flake who successfully got the first Cuba travel bill passed out of the Congress when he was a freshman!
Incoming Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Jerry Moran (R-Ks) should pick up some of the U.S. Cuba mantle in the Senate.
There will be other members who will step up as well new and old, so the debate in this next round should continue to be robust.
What those who care about this issue must appreciate and understand is that non-profit groups and think tanks who have are stalwart proponents of lifting the travel ban and ending the embargo CANNOT DO the political activity that is going to be required to end these insane policies.
Our efforts and resources must be focused on organized political action, fundraising, and playing the political game to win once and for all.    It is going to take money from everyone who says they care about this issue to make a contribution so we can support and empower political candidates, Congressional and Presidential, who will take a stand on these issues.  To this end, the United States Cuba Political Action has been reactivated and it is organizing to hit the ground running in the next election cycle.  Organizations cannot be members of that PAC.  But individuals, U.S. citizens and residents, can be involved and donate money.  You can make a difference with a donation of $10 – $25 or more up to $5000.  Consider the impact what the numbers can be if you and everyone stepped up.  Right now on Facebook there is page on Ending the Travel Ban on Cuba with over 23,000 members.  Had each one of those individuals donated to the U.S. Cuba PAC, $25 for example, there would have been $575,000 in political money that could have countered the influence of the $1,000,000 raised by that relatively small group of wealthy hardline Cuban exiles who keep this issue strangled in the Congress.
If you want to make a donation and get involved, mail your personal check to:
U.S. Cuba Political Action Committee
PO Box 15874
Tampa FL 33684
There will be organizational meeting of that PAC in December in Florida. More information about a website, planning, and other contact information will be forthcoming.
The lesson from this election for U.S. Cuba issues is that the majority can no longer be silent or leave this issue up solely up to groups who will not be able to carry this issue across the goal line.  Only when you and our community declares that “if it is to be, it is up to me” through committed actions of political donation and organization will we change these policies once and for all. – Tony Martinez

Obama invited to visit Cuba — and bring jailed Cubans with him

Havana. Cuba (CNN) — U.S. President Barack Obama has been issued an unexpected invitation to visit Cuba — from the island’s 90-year-old prima ballerina, who implored him to bring along five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States for more than a decade.

“I want to invite the president of the United States to come to Cuba with his wife and lovely children,” Alicia Alonso said at an event to call for the release of the agents, who were convicted of spying on Cuban exile groups in a hotly debated

“I would ask a favor also. Please, to make everyone happy and to feel happy with all around the world, bring those five Cubans,” Alonso said in English.

White House officials contacted Wednesday morning said they were not aware that any such invitation had been received.

The Cubans, known at home as “the five heroes,” were sent to Miami to infiltrate violent exile groups at a time when anti-Castro groups were bombing Cuban hotels. They were arrested in 1998.

The invitation caps off a week-long international campaign with Hollywood stars such as Sean Penn and Danny Glover calling on Obama to step in and release the five.

Last year, the defendants lost their last chance of an appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

The defense argued it was impossible for the men to get a fair trial in a city dominated by anti-Castro politics.

Three of the men were handed life sentences in 2001 for allegedly helping Cuba shoot down two unarmed airplanes that were dropping leaflets over the island, killing the Cuban-American pilots.

After Cuba began its biggest release of political prisoners in a decade, pro-Cuba activists stepped up pressure on Obama to respond by releasing the five Cubans.

Cuba says U.S. embargo has toughened under Obama

HAVANA (Reuters) – The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has gotten tougher under U.S. President Barack Obama, not more lenient as many had expected when he took office, a top Cuban official said on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, in the Cuban government’s annual update on the 48-year-old embargo, said the United States is levying bigger fines, applying sanctions more firmly and pursuing embargo-busting financial transactions more vigorously under Obama.

“The embargo policy in the last two years, which is to say under the government of President Obama, has not changed at all,” Rodriguez said in a press conference. “In some aspects, it has even hardened.”

In terms of U.S. policy toward Cuba, Obama had performed “below expectations that had been created in the international community and American public opinion,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the embargo has cost Cuba $751 billion over the years, adjusted for inflation and the changing value of the dollar.

“It is, without any doubt, the primary obstacle to the economic development of our country,” he said.

The United Nations is scheduled to hold its annual vote on a resolution condemning the embargo on October 26. Last year, only three countries — the United States, Israel and Palau — voted against the measure.

The embargo, said Rodriguez, “is a museum piece of the Cold War. It is, moreover, a failed policy.”

The embargo was fully imposed in 1962, with the aim of toppling the communist government put in place by Fidel Castro after he took power in a 1959 revolution.

The embargo prohibits most trade with Cuba, with exceptions for agricultural products and medicine.

Obama spoke early on of improving relations with Cuba, but insisted the embargo — which Cuba calls a “blockade” — would stay in place until the Caribbean island improved its human rights and released political prisoners.

He has eased the embargo slightly by removing restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to the island and the amount of money they can send to their family members in Cuba.

There has been more leniency, too, in granting of licenses for visits by U.S. performers and academics, but progress has stalled since Cuba detained a U.S. contractor in December on suspicion of espionage.

The contractor, Alan Gross, remains behind bars in Cuba, without formal charges. The U.S. says he was not a spy, but was in Cuba installing Internet services for Jewish groups.

Rodriguez was questioned about Gross, but he responded only that the embargo is a unilateral act by the U.S. and must be lifted immediately and without conditions.

Free Cuba Phone Market Urged on Obama by AT&T, Nokia, Verizon

Nokia Oyj, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are urging the U.S. government to ease rules that keep them from operating in Cuba even after President Barack Obama loosened telecommunications regulations last year to promote democracy on the communist island.

Nokia, the world’s biggest mobile-phone maker, is urging the U.S. to ease its 47-year-old trade embargo so it can sell handsets to Cuba. AT&T and Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless providers, urged regulators to make it easier for U.S. companies to directly connect calls to and from Cuba.

The companies’ pleas come after Obama said in April 2009 that greater contact with the outside world would reduce Cubans’ dependency on President Raul Castro’s regime. Still, other regulations prevent companies with U.S. operations from entering the market, according to a July report by the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which advocates for an open economy.

“We don’t understand why the regulations stopped where they did,” Jose Martinez, head of government relations for Latin America at Nokia, said in an Aug. 20 interview from Miami. “There doesn’t seem to be a desire at the bureaucratic level to change the rules to allow cell phones.”

Cuba has the lowest mobile-phone penetration in Latin America. As recently as 2008, about 20,000 to 30,000 people, mostly foreign diplomats and senior officials, owned mobile devices. That number has grown to 800,000 since Castro lifted a ban on most people owning them, the Cuba Study Group says.

AT&T and Verizon may be interested in setting up roaming service for U.S. customers who visit the island as a first step into Cuba, said Jose Magana, a senior analyst at Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Largest in Caribbean

The country of 11.4 million people could become the largest telecom market in the Caribbean, topping Puerto Rico’s $1.6 billion market, Magana said. If the market remains mostly closed, annual revenue could still reach $400 million by 2013 from the current $80 million, he said.

Magana said roaming service in Cuba wouldn’t have a measurable effect on earnings for AT&T or Verizon.

Obama, in an April 13, 2009, memorandum lifting travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, directed the U.S. government to allow companies to provide communications services to the island, saying it would “decrease dependency of the Cuban people on the Castro regime.”

In practice, little has changed, as companies wishing to operate in Cuba risk violating sanctions still in place, said Christopher Sabatini, policy director of the New York-based Council of the Americas business group. These include the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act that prohibits investment in Cuba’s telecommunications network — including donations of anything of value.


“It’s so self-defeating,” said Sabatini, who helped prepare the Cuba Study Group report. “It’s like we just sent them a toy cell phone and said, ‘This will be great. Use this.’”

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

AT&T and New York-based Verizon wrote to the Federal Communications Commission this year urging it to grant an April request by TeleCuba, a Miami-based company that sells calling cards, for the FCC to waive rules that fix a maximum rate a U.S. provider can pay the Cuban government for connecting calls.

The wireless providers’ letters may be aimed at supporting their interest in setting up roaming service in Cuba without taking sides in a politically delicate issue, said Christopher King, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore who covers Verizon and Dallas-based AT&T.

Market Foothold

Establishing a foothold in Cuba could be lucrative because mobile phone penetration may increase to 80 percent of the population in four years, from 10 percent to 25 percent now, should providers be allowed to invest in the market, King said.

AT&T has no specific commercial plan associated with the letter, spokesman Michael Balmoris said. Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson, and John Taylor, a spokesman for Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint Nextel Corp., declined to comment on whether their companies were seeking a roaming agreement for Cuba.

The branch of the U.S. Treasury Department that enforces trade sanctions allows U.S. providers to pay Cuba for services including roaming, said a Treasury official who declined to be identified, citing agency policy.

Still, under current FCC rules, U.S. providers can only offer direct calls to Cuba and roaming service if they pay the Castro government a fee no higher than 19 cents per call, said an FCC official. That prevents U.S. operators from offering these services because Cuba demands 84 cents a call, according to the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

FCC Rate Cap

The FCC is considering whether to waive the rate cap, the FCC official said.

U.S. rules also keep Nokia from selling handsets in Cuba, even though it is based in Espoo, Finland, because the unit that exports to Latin America is based in Miami, Martinez said.

“There is an enormous amount of frustration that the rules weren’t clear enough,” said Judith O’Neill, a telecom lawyer at Nakhota LLC consulting firm in New York.

Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama administration, declined to comment, as did State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

While the entry of U.S. companies also hinges on the willingness of Castro’s government to let them in, the Cubans would probably be open to the idea because they want the inflow of cash amid an economic slump, Sabatini said.

Cuban state phone company Etesca, based in Havana, has a monopoly on all fixed-line and mobile services. Milan-based Telecom Italia SpA has a 27 percent stake in the company.

“The rules are so unclear,” Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s chief of wireless, said in an Aug. 20 interview. ‘Until there’s real change there’s not much we can do about it.’’

Cuba travel gets new look, but ban stays

(CNN) — Word that the U.S. government could soon loosen travel restrictions to Cuba may have some American travelers imagining New Year’s in Havana or a spring break on the island’s famed Varadero Beach.

Not so fast.

The proposed changes would essentially reinstate measures that were in place under the Clinton administration — a far cry from an end to the travel ban, which would require an act of Congress.

Obama administration preparing to loosen rules on Cuba travel

Talk of the new rules also comes as Cuba has agreed to free 52 political prisoners by mid-November, but it’s not necessarily a signal that a complete lifting of U.S. travel restrictions is near.

“It certainly could indicate that the climate is more appropriate than it was before the prisoner release started,” said Shasta Darlington, a CNN international correspondent based in Havana.

“[But] one is an executive decision and the other is a legislative decision. I don’t think you can tie them together too closely.”

‘Frisson of the forbidden’

For now, Washington is focusing on “people-to-people” exchanges under which academics, corporations, humanitarian groups and athletic teams could travel to Cuba as a way to promote cultural exchanges and programs with universities.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the issue is, the move is already drawing criticism from some lawmakers.

Cuban-American politicians against loosening travel, aid rules

So while European and Canadian visitors continue to flock to Cuba for its tropical climate, Spanish colonial architecture and exotic flair, the island officially remains off-limits to U.S. tourists.

Not that that’s ever stopped some Americans from going anyway, bypassing the restrictions by hopping on a flight to Havana from Canada, Mexico and other destinations.

“It’s partly the frisson of the forbidden; the fact that it is off limits and there’s some kind of excitement quality for a lot of tourists,” said Christopher Baker, a journalist who has visited Cuba dozens of times and is the author of the “Moon Cuba” guidebook.

“At the same time, I run into quite a number of Americans who are kind of thumbing their nose at what they consider inappropriate, unconstitutional restrictions.”

The curiosity factor

Washington severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and has had an economic embargo in place since 1962. Americans seeking to travel to the island nation must obtain permission to do so and must fit into special categories, like journalists or people visiting a close relative.

Last year, more than 67,000 U.S. citizens obtained approval from the U.S. government to enter Cuba by air, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

iReport: Send us your photos of Cuba

Supporters of the ban say it needs to continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime, but an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought the U.S. government should allow citizens to travel to Cuba.

Travel agents report getting a fair amount of interest from clients about the island, though the only help they can offer is to refer them to operators outside the United States. Some travel agents say U.S. tourists are eager to see Cuba as it is now, before any major loosening of restrictions.

“Americans aren’t going for the beach vacation. Americans are going to Cuba out of curiosity,” said Terry McCabe, national director of leisure for Altour in Paramus, New Jersey.

“Once you leave the resort areas along the beach, Cuba is a time capsule. I think within 18 to 24 months after they open it up for [U.S.] tourism, some of that will start to change.”

It’s estimated that up to 500,000 additional U.S. tourists could pour into Cuba the first year after the lifting of the travel ban, according to a study prepared for the Cuba Policy Foundation. That number would almost triple five years after the end of the restrictions.

“We’re 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and there are very few Americans here. That would clearly change quickly,” said Darlington, the CNN correspondent.

Cuba’s splashy marketing

But even without a significant number of U.S. travelers, tourism is a vital industry for Cuba.

The country welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors in 2009, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. About 38 percent were from Canada, 34 percent were from Europe and 28 percent were from other regions of the world.

Havana devotes “significant resources” to building new tourist facilities and renovating historic structures for use in tourism, according to the U.S. Department of State.

It also markets itself aggressively to visitors. The Cuba Tourist Board in Canada, for example, offers a splashy web page tempting tourists with Cuba’s “breathtaking beaches and scenery; fascinating history; rich culture; ecological wonders and more.”

That’s something American travelers might see if some lawmakers have their way.

Earlier this year, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would end the travel ban on Americans to Cuba. The legislation appears to be stalled in the House of Representatives, but it received the thumbs up from the American Society of Travel Agents, which says Americans should be allowed to globetrot without restrictions.

Time: Will the White House fight to end the Cuba travel ban?

“Were the American people allowed to travel to Havana, as they currently are allowed to travel to Pyongyang, Tehran, Khartoum and other cities whose nations’ leaders are publicly opposed to American interests, they could serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values to the Cuban people,” said Colin Tooze, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

For now, that will have to wait.

Business urges action to lift Cuba travel ban

(Reuters) – A top U.S. business group on Tuesday urged the House of Representatives to quickly approve a bill that chips away at the U.S. embargo on Cuba by ending decades of restrictions on travel to the island.

“It is time to end the unproductive preoccupation with an aging and moribund Communist regime, and begin to lay the groundwork for a U.S. role in the future of Cuba,” the Chamber of Commerce’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten, said in a letter to leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The House Agriculture Committee voted 25-20 in June to approve a bill lifting the decades-old ban on travel to Cuba and to remove hurdles to food sales to the Caribbean island.

The chamber urged the House Foreign Affairs Committee to approve the legislation when lawmakers return from their recess in mid-September so the full House can vote on the bill.

The Senate would have to approve the measure for it become law. But the Senate has opponents of loosening travel restrictions while Cuba’s present government is in power, and Senate rules allow a single senator to use procedural hurdles to delay and sometimes block legislation.

Senators Byron Dorgan and Mike Enzi, who support lifting the travel ban, have said they have the votes to pass such a bill. It takes 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the 100-member Senate.

U.S. business and advocacy groups have said they expect President Barack Obama to issue an executive order to relax travel restrictions to Cuba for some Americans.

The small steps would make it easier for groups of Americans to once again go to the Communist island as part of academic, cultural or religious exchanges, as thousands of them did during the Clinton administration, a congressional aide told Reuters last week.

Completely lifting the travel ban would require an act of Congress, something that supporters of the embargo have been able to thwart in the past.

In a letter last week to Obama, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and four other Cuban-American lawmakers underscored their opposition to loosening travel restrictions.

“We are deeply troubled that such changes would result in economic benefits to the Cuban regime and would significantly undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives,” the group said.

It also included Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Albio Sires, both New Jersey Democrats, as well as Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans.

The letter from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came as the Catholic Church in Cuba said it expected the Cuban government to soon release another six political prisoners with the condition that they go to Spain, bringing the total to 32 in recent weeks.

Under an agreement reached in June with the Catholic Church, the Cuban government is expected to release 20 more dissidents imprisoned by the island’s Communist government in a 2003 crackdown against opponents.