Cuba turns down congressional visit to check its airports

Galo Beltrán, operations manager of American Airlines in Cuba.
Galo Beltrán, operations manager of American Airlines in Cuba. AP

The Cuban government has denied visas to a U.S. congressional delegation that wanted to visit the island this weekend to review its airport security procedures and technology.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who was to lead the delegation, complained that it's “easier for Cubans to come to the United States than for Members of the House Homeland Security Committee to get to Cuba.”

“At a time when the Obama Administration is rolling out the red carpet for Havana, the Cuban government is refusing to be open and transparent with the Representatives of the people,” McCaul said in a statement.

McCaul said security at airports designated as “last departure points” for flights to the United States States “are critically important to our homeland security, but these security concerns seem to be taking a back seat to the President’s legacy building effort.”

Rep. John Katko, R-NY., who chairs a House subcommittee on transportation security and was to be on the trip to Cuba, detailed the concerns that McCaul referenced in his statement.

“We still don’t know if Cuba has the adequate body scanners and explosive detection systems in place, whether it has the technology to screen for fraudulent passports or ID, whether or how aviation workers are screened, and if Federal Air Marshals will be allowed to fly missions to Cuba on commercial flights,” Katko said in a statement. “This is a government that was only just removed as a state sponsor of terrorism list one year ago, and it is not enough to rely on the Castro regime’s word that these airports are secure.”

The dispute became public during a congressional hearing last month in which McCaul accused the Obama administration of “rushing unnecessarily” to reestablish commercial flights to Cuba.

Katko said at the hearing that Transportation Security Administration officials had told him privately that security at Cuban airports was “bleak,” with only two Chinese-made full-body scanners in the country, little training for drug-sniffing dogs, and little information on how airport workers are selected and vetted.

Those same airport conditions currently apply to the charter flights from Cuba to several U.S. airports.

A TSA official at the hearing, Larry Mizell, declined comment on the security issue, saying that information was classified as “sensitive.” But he added that, in his opinion, security at Cuban airports had improved over time.

Mizell and other officials from Homeland Security and other agencies who testified at the hearing assured the Congress members that all seven Cuban airports inspected by TSA as of May met the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Katko accused the administration of failing to provide Congress with information requested on the issue. “The Administration’s lack of transparency on this issue is unacceptable, and leads me to believe that the Administration is either hiding something, or worse, simply negligent of the security concerns associated with this policy,” he said. “The Administration is eager to have as many people as possible visit Cuba — except for those who are attempting to examine Cuban security infrastructure.”

The congressional delegation had been trying to obtain visas for the Cuba trip for six weeks.

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Monday that the Cuban government's visa rejection was “troubling and highly suspicious” as the Obama administration promotes travel to Cuba. “What are the Cuban dictators hiding from the American people?”

The Cuban government so far has authorized six U.S. airlines to fly to nine Cuban destinations starting in September: Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba.

Flights to Havana have not been authorized, a decision believed to be due to the small size of the capital’s airport and its lack of capacity to handle the ever-growing number of arrivals.

U.S. airlines also want to hire their own personnel in Havana and use the more modern Terminal 3, which handles all international flight. U.S. charter flights now use Terminal 2, the oldest at the Jose Martí International Airport.

The Obama administration expects to authorize up to 110 daily flights between the United States and Cuba.

Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres