Direct Flights to Cuba Approved

By George Gedda
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 1999; 4:36 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) -- There is still no freedom for Americans to travel to Cuba but getting there may be easier for a small percentage of people allowed to visit the island nation.

Miami was the only departure point for direct flights to Cuba until the Clinton administration announced on Tuesday that such flights will also be available from New York and Los Angeles. The administration said the move was part of its efforts to promote additional contacts between the American and Cuban peoples.

Critics saw the move as a gift to President Fidel Castro.

Jose Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based anti-Castro group, called the administration's action ``tragic.''

``It is regrettable that President Clinton is giving Castro the means to continue to oppress the Cuban people,'' Basulto said from his Miami home.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., one of three Cuban-American lawmakers, said, ``This is part of the Clinton administration's campaign to circumvent the Cuba embargo and put pressure on Congress to lift it.''

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said, ``I think it's appalling that the administration is taking steps to normalize relations with Castro while there are still such severe human rights violations in Cuba.''

The State Department stressed that the move did not reflect any easing of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. It said the long-standing U.S. ban on tourism to Cuba remains in effect.

Consistent with current rules governing charter flights from Miami, Americans eligible for flights from New York's Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport will be limited to journalists, scholars, representatives of human rights groups and others with a professional interest in Cuba.

Current rules also permit once-a-year humanitarian visits by U.S.-based relatives of Cubans on the island. Americans allowed to visit Cuba may spend up to $195 per day there.

Cuba has long advocated unrestricted access by Americans because that would boost the island's foreign exchange earnings. It has said those eligible to visit Cuba are limited by Washington largely to Americans ``considered convenient for political purposes,'' including human rights groups. Castro once said U.S. rules governing travel to Cuba are aimed at creating counter-revolutionary groups.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the U.S. rationale for allowing certain categories of people to visit the island is to ``improve people-to-people contact, and doing it in such a way as not to provide benefit to the Cuban regime.''

The administration sees such visits as supporting the development of peaceful independent activity and civil society in Cuba. The goal, it has said, is to ``prepare for a transition to a free, independent and prosperous nation.''

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press