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Later this morning, the first regularly scheduled commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba – the first of its kind in 55 years – will take off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, en route to Santa Clara. It is yet another historic step forward in the process of normalization between our two nations, but a step that must be followed by actions by the U.S. Congress and the Cuban government.
As Marty St. George, JetBlue’s executive vice president of commercial and planning, said, “It’s a new day for Cuba,” and indeed, today’s flight is just the beginning. Over the course of this year, 110 scheduled flights each day will bring hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens to the island nation.
This milestone, five decades in the making, coupled with other changes over the past 20 months—including regulatory changes to ease travel, trade, and financial transaction restrictions—give U.S. citizens the opportunity to serve as ambassadors of goodwill to the Cuban people. The message they bring of the value of openness, the potential of reform, and the need for change has never been more needed.
But U.S. citizens still face restrictions on their ability to travel to Cuba. In fact, until Congress acts to remove barriers on American citizens’ travel there, the island nation will continue to be the only country in the world where the U.S. government restricts the travel of its citizens. Americans must travel under one of the 12 general license categories approved by the Treasury Department or under a specific license, which includes a lengthy application process.
These restrictions affect more than just travelers, though. They put U.S. companies at a disadvantage against their global competitors and diminish opportunities for growth and job creation in the U.S. travel industry. Not only that, but travel restrictions limit Cubans’ ability to improve their standard of living and their economic independence from the state.
Beyond travel, many other U.S. restrictions remain which, once removed, could serve to create opportunities for commerce in ways that will help foster positive change in Cuba. This includes the ability of U.S. agricultural exporters to provide export credits to the Cuban importer, the opportunity for U.S. telecommunication companies to help Cuba build the 21st-century telecommunications infrastructure necessary in today’s global economy, and the prospect of the Cuban government receiving technical assistance from the international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund or the Inter-American Development Bank.
But change is also needed in Cuba itself, where for too long U.S. sanctions have been blamed for a host of ills that in fact stem from the country’s own economic mismanagement. Recent guidelines from the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress were disappointing in their lack of focus on the important role that Cuban entrepreneurs play in the evolving Cuban economy. And while a renewed focus on attracting foreign investors has driven the Cuban government to improve their own bureaucracy, the slow pace of negotiations has frustrated many.
While much remains to be done to normalize commercial ties to Cuba and bring positive change to the island, these first commercial flights can help bring in for a landing more successful advancements in U.S.-Cuba relations.