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Tampa charter has 60 days to end flights to all Cuba cities but Havana

Trump ban designed to squeeze regime affects Havana Air flights from Tampa to Holguin and Santa Clara. Critics say it only hurts Cuban people.
An Xael Travel flight prepares to take off from Tampa for Cuba in September 2011. It was the first direct flight between the two cities since the United States imposed the Cuba travel and trade embargo in the early 1960s. [Times (2011)]
An Xael Travel flight prepares to take off from Tampa for Cuba in September 2011. It was the first direct flight between the two cities since the United States imposed the Cuba travel and trade embargo in the early 1960s. [Times (2011)]
Published Jan. 13

TAMPA — The Trump administration rolled back another Obama-era Cuba initiative last week, this time banning most charter flights to the island nation.

Only charters to Havana remain legal. Charter flights to all other Cuban cities are now banned.

Tampa International Airport currently hosts charter flights to Holguin and Santa Clara through Havana Air. The company has until mid-March to end the operations.

Related: Tampa Bay area starts to feel sting of Trump's Cuba restrictions

The frequency of these flights varies depending on the time of year, said airport spokesperson Emily Nipps. In December, Havana Air flew from Tampa to Cuba 21 times, she said. Havana Air also flies out of Miami.

The Tampa Bay Times left voicemail for Havana Air president Mark Elias on Monday but he did not immediately return the calls.

This new restriction does not affect commercial flights, but Havana is the only Cuba destination for Southwest Airlines flights out of Tampa.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in announcing the restrictions that this “action will further restrict the Cuban regime’s ability to obtain revenue, which it uses to finance its ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its unconscionable support for dictator Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.”

Those in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba say the new restriction actually will hurt the Cuban people by making connections harder for families split between the United States and the island nation.

The Tampa Bay area has the third largest Cuban American population in the nation.

Vicente Amor, vice president of the Tampa-based advocacy group the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, said this is "another mistake by Trump’s advisers who support the ridiculous idea that” hurting “Cuban families will get more votes for the president.”

Related: Mayor Kriseman among passengers diverted at sea under Trump's new Cuba travel restrictions

Last June, the Trump White House ended all U.S. sea cruises where Cuba was a stop or a destination.

The White House also banned educational trips to the island, also known as “people to people" visits. These opportunities were the most popular form of travel to Cuba and introduced Americans to Cuban artists and business people.

Opening Cuba to cruise passengers and educational visits were moves made by the Obama administration.

It’s not clear how charter flight restrictions will affect overall traffic from Tampa to Cuba. The number of commercial and charter flight passengers increased between 2018 and 2019, from 149,734 to 149,826. Southwest Airlines flights to and from Havana carried 112,181 of them in 2019 and Havana Air accounted for 37,645.

The charter company will continue its flights to Havana, Nipps said.

All told, more than half a million Cuban Americans visited the island in 2019, according to Cuban authorities.The Havana airport accounts for the majority of U.S. flights to the island.

Companies affected by the new flight restrictions will have 60 days to discontinue flights.

Destinations affected are Cienfuegos, Cayo Largo, Matanzas, Holguin, Manzanillo, Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey, Cayo Coco and Santa Clara.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., welcomed the restrictions, saying the ruling communist regime in Cuba must be held accountable for its abuses.

“I commend the administration’s concerted, multiagency efforts to cut off revenue to the Cuban people’s oppressors," he said.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, said on Twitter that the ban will hurt families on both sides.

“Who will be harmed by this? Families, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters," Castor said. "Trump admin is hurting Florida and Cuban-American families ... again."

Staff writer Juan Carlos Chavez contributed to this report.

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