THE TAMPA BAY REGION SCORED A MAJOR VICTORY last week when the Obama administration announced that it will ease travel barriers to Cuba. The moves will make it easier and cheaper for Cuban-Americans to visit their families; for students, scholars and religious groups to increase their understanding of the island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida; and for business interests to lay the groundwork for new trade opportunities. The changes bring some sanity to U.S.-Cuba policy and mark a new chapter in that relationship for the bay area.
The White House announced three steps Friday that officials said will enhance the "free flow of information" between the two nations. The administration will relax travel restrictions for U.S. citizens seeking to visit Cuba. It will enable Americans to send money to the island to support private enterprise. And it will allow direct flights to Cuba from a host of new American gateways, almost certainly to include Tampa International Airport. The moves build on the Obama administration's 2009 reversal of Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans to the island.
The administration deserves credit for breaking down the travel barriers in a broad way. Americans will be able to travel to Cuba without first obtaining a special waiver. Religious organizations, students and academics could travel under a blanket license instead of having to seek specific federal approval. Universities will have an easier time arranging student exchanges, while faculty could more easily attend symposia and other professional conferences. The administration will also grant new travel privileges to Cuba for journalists, technical groups and others who intend to foster one-on-one contacts with the Cuban people.
Soon, U.S. airports other than those in Miami, Los Angeles and New York City can offer direct flights to Cuba. This is good news for the bay area, given Tampa's large Cuban-American population. Under current rules, local travelers must spend hundreds more to fly in and out of Miami. A direct flight from Tampa should save them time and money and open a potential gateway for Cuban tourism. Local officials say they hope to offer regularly scheduled service from Tampa by spring.
Tampa Bay and Cuba already have historic ties. These changes should only strengthen them, ultimately fostering freedom on the island in a way the failed 50-year-old trade embargo has not. The Obama administration needs to follow up by chipping away at larger aspects. There is no better way to foster freedom on the island than by expanding the dialogue between our two peoples.