Rubio amendment would bar Cuba flights from Tampa

It took only a month for backers and critics of President Barack Obama's decision to ease restrictions on U.S. citizens' trips to Cuba to come out of their corners and start swinging.

Cuban-American Sen.’s Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., announced this week they had submitted an amendment that would block any new flights from U.S. airports to Cuba that might be allowed by the Obama decision.

And one of the largest U.S. tourism companies, AmericanTours International LLC (ATI), launched a Web page on Monday offering tours for those newly qualified to visit Cuba - under the headline, "Connect Understand Become Amigos!''

Obama set the stage for the fight over travel to Cuba last monthwhen the White House announced it would make it easier for U.S. educational, religious, cultural and humanitarian groups to visit the island.

Part of the changes involved allowing virtually any U.S. airport with top-ranked security capabilities to host charter flights to and from Cuba. Currently, only Miami, Los Angeles and New York are allowed to host the flights.

The Rubio-Menendez amendment, attached to a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), would block any new U.S. flights to countries on the U.S. list of supporters of international terrorism. Currently, those countries are Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

"Increasing direct commercial or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible," Rubio, a first-term Florida Republican, said in announcing the amendment. Menendez co-sponsored it.

"There is no reason for the United States to help enrich state sponsors of terrorism," Rubio added.

Airports in Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Key West and Las Vegas were among those that had been pushing to be allowed to handle some of the U.S.-Cuba charter flights. More than 40 Cuba flights a week now leave from Miami International Airport.

It's not clear when a vote on the amendment could be held or its chances of passing, though Menendez and Rubio wield considerable influence within their own parties in the Senate.

"One would hope the U.S. Senate would jump at the opportunity'' to curtail a state sponsor of terrorism, said Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos.

Meanwhile, an ATI announcement said the Web page CubaATI launched Monday was specifically designed to make it easier for U.S. residents to figure out if they qualify for permits to travel to the island.

Cuban-Americans can visit relatives on the island almost without restrictions, but other U.S. citizens and residents must travel under certain specific categories, some more flexible than others.

CubaATI lists some of the categories as "People to People'' associations, academic and religious organizations, professional Research/Meetings/Conferences, telecommunications, Agricultural/Medical, Humanitarian and "Public Performances,

Athletic/Non-athletic Competitions, Exhibitions."

Its Web page describes the company's offerings as "TRUSTED AND LEGAL -- EASY TRAVEL

FOR AMERICANS," adds, "We are America's Licensed Cuba Travel Experts'' and offers an acrostic of services:

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley meanwhile told journalists that the budget unveiled Monday for the U.S. fiscal year that starts October 1, 2011, included a $20 million allocation for "promoting democracy'' in Cuba -- the same level of funding as in the previous two fiscal years.

The comment came in reply to a question about Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor jailed in Havana since late 2009 for delivering satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups. His work was paid out of the Cuba democracy programs.

In another Cuba-related development, Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a longtime critic of Radio/TV Marti, has filed an amendment to a must-pass House spending bill that would eliminate all of the U.S. broadcaster's funding: $30 million.

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