Castor: There will soon be flights from Tampa to Cuba

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration Friday said it will allow for more U.S. travel to Cuba, making it easier for schools, churches and cultural groups to visit the island. A senior Obama official told the Miami Herald the much-expected move to expand cultural, religious and educational travel to Cuba is part of the administration's continuing effort to support the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their own future. President Barack Obama is also restoring the amount of money ($2,000) that can be sent to nonfamily members to the level they were at during part of the Clinton and Bush administrations. There will be a quarterly limit on the amount that any American can send: $500 per quarter to "support private economic activity.'' The administration also will restore the broader "people-to-people'' category of travel, which allows "purposeful'' visits to increase contacts between U.S. and Cuban citizens. The changes could expand the number of U.S. airports from which charter flights to the island depart.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, predicted there would soon be flights from Tampa International Airport to Cuba.

“President Obama’s decision to open Tampa International Airport for Cuba travel demonstrates that the President understands the cost and inconvenience local families face when traveling to the island nation,” Castor said in a statement. “The Tampa Bay region has one of the highest Cuba-American populations in this country, but for too long, families have had to travel to Miami in order to get to Cuba. That has been too expensive and too difficult for many families already on tight budgets. With the addition of Tampa International Airport as an entry/ exit point to Cuba, our hard-working families will have one burden lifted when traveling to and from the island nation.”

“Allowing charter flights to Cuba from Tampa International also opens doors to create jobs in our community and plan for economic growth in our region,” Castor said. “Charter flight companies likely will hire local residents, and our travel industry will benefit from a much-needed boost. This couldn’t come at a better time for our economy.

“I am confident Tampa International Airport will be first in line to apply for final approval for expanded eligibility,” Castor said.

Administration officials defended the move. "We see these changes, in combination with the continuation of the embargo, as a way to enhance civil society in Cuba,'' the administration official said, adding that increased contact between Cubans and Americans could "support the independence of the Cuban people, making them less dependent on the Cuban state and on Cuban authorities.'' The official dismissed speculation that the administration delayed the changes until after the November election because Democrats in Florida feared it would hurt them among Cuban-American voters many of whom back tough sanctions against the Cuban regime. "This package of changes was the result of an interagency process that has concluded only in the last couple of days,'' the administration official said. "They are rolling out now that they are ready to be rolled out.'' The official underscored that the changes do not lift the economic embargo and that tourist travel to Cuba remains illegal, as does sending remittances to senior government or Communist party officials.

The White House said the changes do not require congressional approval and the changes will be published in the Federal Register. Under the changes, religious institutions in the U.S. will be able to sponsor trips to Cuba by their members with a general license.