Cuba and the United States signed an agreement that will pave the way for regularly scheduled flights between the two countries in Havana Tuesday, the same day Cuba’s foreign trade minister was in Washington speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Cuba’s Ambassador to the United States José Cabañas said not only was the Cuban business delegation accompanying Rodrigo Malmierca, minister of foreign trade and foreign investment, the largest he could recall, but Tuesday also was probably the first time ever that a Cuban minister was in Washington at the same time a U.S. secretary was in Havana.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Charles Rivkin, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, signed a civil aviation agreement Tuesday morning at the Hotel Nacional in Havana that will allow the first scheduled airline service between the two countries in more than 50 years.
Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodríguez and Alfredo Cordero, president of Cuba’s Institute of Civil Aviation, signed for Cuba.
“We are here today because our leaders, President Obama and President Castro, made the courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow,” said Rivkin. “With this new aviation arrangement, we do just that — focus on opportunities, focus on the future.”
The agreement set the clock ticking for U.S. airlines to apply for route authorities and flight frequencies to the island. The pact allows up to 20 daily flights to Havana and up 10 flights daily to nine other Cuban destinations with international airlines.
Although U.S. airlines have been formulating plans since December when U.S. and Cuban negotiators reached an agreement on a memorandum of understanding, they now have 15 days to submit their applications to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The arrangement covers both passenger and cargo airlines.
DOT said it will “consider which proposals will offer and maintain the best service to the traveling and shipping public.”
Although the agreement is reciprocal and theoretically Cuba’s national airline could choose to fly to the United States, U.S. officials said they don’t anticipate Cuban-owned aircraft coming to the United States in the near future. To satisfy huge civil judgments that U.S. plaintiffs won against Cuba by default, Cuban aircraft landing in the United States could be subject to seizure.
U.S. officials said they hope to make decisions on routes and frequencies and who gets what by summer with the first regularly scheduled flights taking off in the fall. Currently about 10 to 15 charter flights handle U.S. passenger traffic from the United States to Cuba. Under the new arrangement, charters will co-exist with the new regularly scheduled flights.
U.S. law still prohibits Americans from going to Cuba for tourism, but travelers who fall into 12 categories, such as those traveling for arts and sports competitions or educational purposes, are authorized to visit the island without seeking prior approval from the United States.
“American Airlines commends the U.S. government for its commitment to re-establishing cultural and economic ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and for laying the groundwork to restore scheduled air service between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years,” said American’s Chairman and CEO Doug Parker. He said American, which already leases more of its planes for Cuba charter service than any other U.S. airline, would be submitting its Cuba service proposal soon.
Other airlines that have expressed interest in serving Cuba are JetBlue, Sprint, Southwest, United and Delta.
“We look forward to providing access to the island from the U.S. and around the world; this market will increase the strength of our network in the Caribbean,” said Nicolas Ferri, Delta’s vice president, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Malmierca spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’ U.S.-Cuba Business Council with a delegation that included officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cuba’s Central Bank, the trade ministry, the Chamber of Commerce and executives from Cuban companies in tow. He said the main obstacle in trying to achieve a better business relationship with the United States was still the “blockade,” the Cuban term for the embargo.
Although Malmierca called the changes that President Barack Obama has made to increase travel and trade with Cuba using executive authority “positive,” he said: “The president has the prerogative to expand these measures and make them more comprehensive.”
And perhaps in recognition that the end of Obama’s term is approaching and the political direction of the United States is uncertain, he said that during U.S.-Cuba regulatory talks scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, “we need to achieve ways to make concrete business happen. We need to show things are happening.”
One thing he hinted could happen soon is an OK for a cruise line to offer an itinerary from the United States to Cuban ports. “We believer in the near future we could have cruisers from the U.S. in Cuba,” he said. Malmierca said that Cuba is developing new cruise terminals in Havana, Santiago and Cienfuegos.
Malmierca and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who visited Cuba last year, will kick off the regulatory dialogue Wednesday. During the two days of talks, the U.S. delegation will review the latest set of U.S. regulatory changes announced in January and the challenges facing U.S. companies that want to do business in Cuba. The Cuban delegation is expected to discuss its economic system and rules for financial transactions and importing goods and services.