By: Melanie Zanona
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the fate of U.S. flights to Cuba.
President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to reverse President Obama’s efforts to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, but it's unclear whether the businessman wants to halt commercial flights to the island nation.
Cuba hard-liners in Congress expect Trump to ground flights along with rolling back other regulatory changes. Some experts, however, say it won't be easy for him to undo some of the changes that have garnered popular and corporate support at home.
Major U.S. airlines, which invested significant time and resources competing for a limited number of routes, have already started flying to Cuba. And a number of businesses and hotels have begun popping up on the island in anticipation of a travel boom.
“It's not going to be easy to all the sudden say, 'that's illegal,’ ” said Madeleine Russak, communications director for Engage Cuba.
As part of a push to normalize relations with Cuba, Obama has reopened the embassies in Havana and Washington, removed Cuba from a list of state terror sponsors and changed the U.S. regulatory framework towards Havana.
A major milestone in Obama’s effort was resuming scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in 50 years.
Commercial flights began taking off in August, with direct flights to Havana — Cuba's capital and most popular destination — scheduled to start next week.
U.S. tourism to the island is still banned. The new flight routes only open up travel for family visits, official U.S. government business, foreign governments, journalistic activity, professional research, educational activities, religious activities, public performances, humanitarian projects and certain authorized export transactions.
Trump said in September 2015 that opening up Cuba was “fine,” though he thought that we should have gotten a better deal, according to CNN. The real estate mogul also told CNN that he would consider opening a hotel in Cuba.
But Trump took a more hard-line stance when he campaigned in Florida, a critical swing state, a few months ago.
“All of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done with executive order, which means the next president can reverse them. And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” Trump said.
Trump’s transition team did not return a request for comment about whether he intends to tighten Cuba travel restrictions. The issue was not mentioned in a video of Trump outlining the executive actions he could pursue within his first 100 days in office.
But Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a vocal opponent of lifting the embargo, told reporters he expects all of Obama’s Cuba policies to be undone, including flights to Cuba. “I expect it to happen pronto,” he said.
Diaz-Balart, like other critics, believes that Cuba travel will enrich the Castro government despite its history of human rights abuses.
He added that it’s easy to travel to Cuba for tourism purposes, because “you just literally have to check off a box” that says otherwise.
“The next administration is going to follow the law. And that's all that this takes,” he said.
John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said it would be fairly easy for Trump to end commercial flights to Cuba. The deal that reestablished air service between the two countries was a non-binding arrangement, not a treaty, meaning either the U.S. or Cuba could back out.
But he warned that there may be legal repercussions because of the deep-rooted commercial interests in the island. Any effort to suspend or reduce flights is sure to face fierce pushback from the airline industry.
“They could go to court and say, ‘we implemented services, we invested shareholders funds based upon on good faith efforts. And if you’re now going to disrupt that, we’re either going to seek to prevent you from doing so, or going to seek damages,’” Kavulich said.
A group representing most of the nation’s major airlines emphasized that “it would be premature to speculate about specific policy initiatives.”
“What we can say is that our members are accustomed to serving new and emerging markets around the world and we remain committed to working with government officials in both the U.S. and Cuba to ensure an adequate framework is in place to help facilitate the movement of people and goods between our two nations,” said Vaughn Jennings, managing director of government and regulatory communications for Airlines for America.
Russak of Engage Cuba points out that Trump ran on a pro-business platform, and allowing commercial air travel to Cuba would be in lock step with that campaign message.
“Mr. Trump says the government should be run like a business, and there's no business in the world that would continue a failed strategy for 55 years,” Russak said. “Cuba is a growing market with tremendous investment opportunities. We're hopeful that as a businessman, he recognizes those opportunities.”
There is also some evidence that the GOP may be warming to the idea of allowing tourism to Cuba.
The Senate Appropriations Committee adopted, by voice vote, an amendment to a fiscal 2017 spending bill that would lift the travel ban.
“These changes are widely popular in the electorate, and support is growing across the country and in Congress,” Russak said.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates and an outspoken Cuba critic, was recently added to Trump’s transition team, adding further uncertainty to the president elect’s Cuba plans.
Kavulich, however, thinks the most likely scenario is that Trump doesn’t suspend flights, but instead opts to take more enforcement action against those trying to travel under one of the 12 permissible categories.
“Trump will be more reactive than proactive,” Kavulich said. “If Cuba can lay low and not make any provocative statements or take a provocative action, there might not be a reaction” from Trump.