US authorizes first passenger cruises to Cuba since 1960s

El País

By: Silvia Ayuso / Martin Delfin

For the first time since the 1960s, the United States has granted a license to a US company to offer passenger cruises to Cuba.

Carnival Corporation, the biggest cruise line operator in the world, will begin taking about 710 travelers a week to Cuba from May 2016, the firm said in a statement.

Officially, the United States prohibits its citizens from traveling to Cuba for “tourism” purposes, but Carnival will ferry passengers for “cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges” as current US law allows, the company said.

In this manner, Carnival will be complying with US Treasury Department rules until Congress decides whether to lift the ban on regular travel to Cuba.

Carnival officials said they would now have to seek permission from Cuban authorities.

The authorization comes at an important moment now that the United States has established diplomatic ties with Cuba.

The move puts the Miami- and Southampton-based company in an advantageous position when it comes to penetrating what is already considered a high-demand tourist destination.

It is also expected to push the US private sector to increase pressure on Congress to lift the four-decade-old ban on travel to Cuba, which is part of the trade embargo introduced in the early 1960s.

“This is huge news,” said James Williams, the head of Engage Cuba, an organization made up of businesses and interest groups that support the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. “Now Congress should do its job and end the travel ban,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Williams is also head of the New Cuba PAC political action committee, which is raising money for congressional candidates who support a new policy toward the island.

In late January, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015. Even though the bill has made little progress, 45 senators, including seven Republicans, have signed the measure.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has announced he will seek his party’s presidential nomination, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez have fiercely opposed any normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

The two Cuban-American lawmakers have even threatened to block President Barack Obama’s nomination for ambassador to Cuba now that Washington and Havana have agreed to reopen their respective embassies later this month.