By RAFAEL LORENTE | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
The number of passengers flying to Cuba from the United States has plummeted since last year, according to figures compiled by the State Department. The trend suggests tougher travel restrictions put in place last summer by the Bush administration are having their intended effect.
Since July, when the new regulations took effect, 50,558 seats have been reserved on charter flights to Cuba, most originating in South Florida.
During the same period last year, the number was more than twice as high: 118,938 seats.
President Bush’s new travel restrictions allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba only once every three years. Until this year, such trips could be made every year.
The new regulations also limit visits to immediate family members, defined as spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandchildren and grandparents.
The restrictions came from recommendations issued in May as part of the 423-page report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Appointed by the president, the commission was asked to issue recommendations to speed up a transition to democracy on the island.
One of the main ways to speed that transition, in the view of Bush administration officials, is to squeeze Cuban President Fidel Castro’s government by restricting the flow of U.S. dollars to the island.
The restrictions, which were aimed at Cuban-Americans who visit family in Cuba, have had a particularly dramatic effect during this time of holiday travel.
Reservations are down to 13,735 this month, a two-thirds drop from the same time last year.
“It’s clear that these new travel restrictions that have been imposed by President Bush are dividing Cuban families on both sides of the straits,” said Ingrid Vaicius, an associate at the Center for International Policy, a liberal Washington think tank that advocates overturning travel restrictions to Cuba. “Separating families during the holidays is a symbol of a policy that is unjust and ineffective all year round.”
Thomas Cooper, president of Gulfstream Air Charter, said his Dania, Fla.-based company has gone from flying 500 people a week to flying fewer than 100. The company has also gone from daily flights using 125-passenger jets to daily flights using 19-passenger airplanes.
He said much of his business now comes from American farmers traveling to Cuba to sell agricultural products.
The new regulations “didn’t really affect farmers much,” he said.
Other charter companies have felt the difference, too.
“Traffic’s definitely down,” said Robert Hodell, co-owner of Tico Travel, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based travel agency. “We’ve noticed a big difference between this year and last year.”
That has proponents of a tough policy on Cuba looking forward to more from the Bush administration.
Already, the administration has cracked down on travel by non-Cubans and has begun judicial proceedings against some people who traveled to Cuba illegally.
The administration also is looking at ways to get Radio and TV Marti broadcasts through Cuban jamming operations and has begun reviewing millions of dollars in U.S. food sales to Cuba.
A proposed change under consideration would force Havana to pay American farmers in cash before goods have even left U.S. ports.
Such a change could drastically cut food sales to Cuba.
“This good result is part of a more comprehensive and carefully calibrated policy execution by the Bush administration,” said Jason Poblete, a Cuban-American attorney and lobbyist in Washington.
“When you review the total policy ... for the past two years, it is clear that the regime will continue to feel increasing pressures in 2005 in several areas,” Poblete said.