U.S. Representative Kathy Castor today urged Congressional appropriators to remove a harmful legislative policy rider that would reinstitute harsh travel restrictions on Cuban-American families. Castor and the Tampa Bay business community oppose efforts by Congressional Republicans to retain a proposal introduced by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to limit family travel to once every three years. The restriction is being considered this week as part of the fiscal year 2012 appropriations “megabus” bill.
“The Republican-imposed travel restrictions would deal a devastating blow to Cuban-American families who have embraced the freedom to travel to Cuba more regularly to visit their loved ones. New jobs and charter airline flights would be eliminated under the Republican bill as well,” Castor said. “Tampa International Airport alone has added four weekly flights to Cuba and generated new economic activity in Tampa. The Republican proposal would hurt our neighbors and our economy.”
The Republican-backed Diaz-Balart Amendment would effectively reinstitute harsh Bush-era limits on the travel of family members to Cuba and on remittances, which limited travel to Cuba to once every three years and limited remittances to family members to $1,200 annually. President Obama lifted those restrictions in April 2009. Since then, the total number of U.S. travelers to Cuba nearly tripled from 10,000 per month to nearly 30,000 per month.
In a letter Castor sent to members of the House-Senate Appropriations Conference Committee last night, she emphasized the importance of the Obama Administration policies on our community.
“We must not go back to the days when sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and grandsons and granddaughters were unable to visit sick or dying relatives in Cuba,” Castor wrote. “This Republican-backed Diaz-Balart Amendment would be a step backward and impede the progress President Obama has made in allowing Cuban-Americans to visit family members and provide resources to their families.”
The demand for travel to Cuba is evident at Tampa International Airport, which Castor worked to have designated as an entry/exit point for charter flights to Havana. Thousands of Tampa-area residents already have traveled directly from Tampa to Havana, rather than flying from Miami. This has saved time and money. The Diaz Balart proposal would cost families time and money and likely condemn them to a costly and time-consuming Miami departure.
“Charter companies and other businesses have created new jobs and ramped up economic activity in the U.S.,” Castor said. “Flights to Cuba from Tampa began in September and are creating local business opportunities for Tampa International Airport and our region that is in need of economic development and investment.”
Jose Valiente, a former chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said: “We have made strides in getting this initiative going. Families are very happy, especially families in Tampa who can travel straight to Cuba from Tampa International Airport. To take that back is a horrible, horrible thing to do. We have had travel agencies set up locations here in Tampa and create jobs, and that is going to go away. New revenue at the airport is going to go away.”
Joe Lopano, chief executive of Tampa International Airport, said the flights are essential to the community.
“These flights have provided our citizens with great convenience, and have benefitted the airport and our community’s economy,” Lopano said. “Cuban-Americans living in the Tampa Bay area now can fly to Cuba from Tampa, instead of driving to Miami. We project that 43,216 passengers will take advantage of the Tampa flights in 2012, generating nearly $657,000 in revenues. The flights also have the added value of expanding our global profile, which helps us recruit flights to other international markets. Those flights could have a regional economic impact of millions of dollars as well as create jobs.”
Castor worked for years to have Tampa International Airport designated an airport for charter flights to Cuba. She sent several letters, beginning with a letter to President-elect Obama in December 2008, requesting a fresh look at U.S.-Cuban relations and lifting travel restrictions for families.
In 2009, she continued putting pressure on the administration, communicating with officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the National Security Council as well as with Commerce Secretary Locke, Secretary of State Clinton, and Treasury Secretary Geithner.
In 2010, Castor cosponsored a bill that would open travel to Cuba to all Americans, again stepping up pressure on the administration to approve charter airline flights to Cuba from Tampa International. Castor was the first member of Congress from Florida to call for modernization of the longstanding ban on traveling to Cuba.