TAMPA — The growth of charter flights to Cuba from Tampa International Airport may hit its first roadblock since President Barack Obama eased travel to the island nation by executive order in January.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American in his 12th year representing a Miami district, attached a proposed amendment to a $55.3 billion transportation and housing funding bill that prevents federal money from being used for new scheduled flights to any site that was confiscated by the Cuban government.
The five weekly charter flights to Cuba from Tampa would not be affected.
But the measure would prevent the two companies operating those charters, ABC Charters and Cuba Travel Services, from expanding.
The flights rely on support from federal employees such as air traffic controllers, and the planes require certification from the federal government.
Another amendment to the bill would block federal maritime officials from issuing a license or certification to any vessel that has docked within the past 180 days and within 7 miles of a port on property confiscated by the Cuban government.
This would prevent the establishment of a ferry service shuttling passengers between the U.S. and Cuba and cruise ships from regularly visiting the two nations in the same trip.
Cargo ships also would fall under the umbrella of this maritime provision, but the embargo on travel and trade with Cuba already requires that any cargo ship docking in Cuba must wait 180 days before it can return to the U.S.
There are no regularly scheduled cargo ships traveling to Cuba from Port Tampa Bay.
The restrictions proposed by Diaz-Balart come as U.S. travel to Cuba is growing.
A recent report from the Cuba Ministry of Tourism says U.S. visitors to the island nation grew in number by 29 percent in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period a year before.
The increase coincided with the executive orders making travel there easier.
Tampa has benefited economically from the growth.
Travel to Cuba from Tampa International Airport during the first quarter of 2015 is up by almost 1,000 passengers — 17,075 through March 2015 compared with 16,129 through March 2014.
Passengers for the year from Tampa to Cuba rose from 41,526 in 2012 to 45,595 in 2013 and to 61,408 in 2014.
The airport has raked in about $1 million annually in fees from the Cuba flights.
Diaz-Balart’s proposals are scheduled for discussion Thursday in a House subcommittee.
Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, said she would need to learn more about the proposals before commenting. So did Joseph J. Hinson, president of Coral Cables-based United Americas Shipping Services, which has been leading the effort to start ferry service from South Florida to Cuba.
“This impacts the entire country, not just here,” said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which is advocating for the Tampa airport to become the U.S. gateway to Cuba.
Still, Rohrlack doubts the restrictions will make it through the House and Senate.
“The rest of Congress has taken a more reasonable approach, and we look to our delegation to stand strong and do what’s right for the entire country,” he said.
“This is a futile effort by Diaz-Balart to turn back the clock on America’s policy on Cuba,” said Albert Fox, whose Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation has advocated for normalized relations with the island nation for 14 years.
“This is not going anywhere. It will not pass. The people of the U.S. and Cuba want better relations, and I believe our leaders will not allow us to go back in time.”
According to a recent Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans view Cuba favorably, compared with 10 percent in 1996. And in a poll conducted by Bendixen and Amandi International, 96 percent of Cuban citizens support ending the embargo.
The language of the proposed restrictions reads “pass through property confiscated by the Cuban Government,” but Diaz-Balart spokesperson Katrina Valdes told the Tribune via email this does not mean a plane cannot fly over confiscated property.
Flights out of Florida traveling to destinations in South America such as Argentina regularly fly over the eastern part of the island nation.
“It means actually using the airport, which is the confiscated property,” Valdes said.
The primary hub for flights to Cuba from the U.S. is Havana’s José Martí International Airport.
Luis Martínez-Fernández, author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History,” said the Martí airport once was privately owned and then nationalized by Fidel Castro’s government. Some or all of the investors made their way to the U.S.
Maritime ports throughout the island nation were seized from Cuban citizens and nationalized, Martínez-Fernández said.
The U.S. travel and trade embargo against Cuba was triggered by the Castro government’s seizure of U.S. assets in the island nation as he nationalized the Cuban economy in the early 1960s. The assets included vacation homes and bank accounts of U.S. citizens as well as operations belonging to U.S. corporations such as Coca-Cola and Exxon.
Some estimates place the original value of these assets at $1.8 billion. With interest, that totals over $7 billion today.
“The Obama Administration has expanded travel to Cuba and turned a blind eye to the property claims of Americans,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement.
“The administration has allowed trips that include snorkeling, cigar factory tours, salsa dancing lessons, and other obvious tourist activities, and has implemented policies that will inevitably utilize the confiscated properties.”
Obama’s executive orders allow U.S. citizens to travel to the island nation as long as their trip falls under one of 12 categories such as humanitarian, research and educational.
Visiting a beach resort or partaking in other purely tourist activities is off limits.
Still, Diaz-Balart thinks most of these legal trips to Cuba should be considered tourism.
“U.S. law prohibits tourism in Cuba,” Diaz-Balart said. “The expansion of regularly scheduled flights to Cuba is an obvious attempt to circumvent the tourism ban. Similarly, allowing cruises to dock in Cuba would violate both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law.”