Lawsuit endangers direct flights between U.S. and Cuba

Travel agencies expect the Obama administration will intervene in the case

By Gerardo Arreola

From the Mexican newspaper La Jornada

HAVANA, May 9 – Following an explosive growth created by President Barack Obama’s elimination of restrictions, the direct flights to Cuba by islanders who live in the United States are threatened by a lawsuit that could suspend them, despite White House policy, a tourism businessman said here.

No one should be alarmed, because all passengers with tickets will complete their voyages, Francisco Aruca, of the U.S. charter agency Marazul, told La Jornada. But if the court’s ruling is adverse, the flights will have to stop. Just like when George W. Bush lifted the barriers to family visits, Cubans will not stop coming to their country, but they’ll do it through Cancún or Bahamas.

A veteran promoter of flights between the two countries, Aruca said that the eight companies that work the route have just received a $362,000 compensation from the government of the State of Florida, upon winning another court case, this time against a local bill introduced by Republican representative David Rivera, who last year tried to restrict those trips.

The initiative was approved by the state legislature, but reversed later by a federal court. Rivera was trying to satisfy the agenda of the Cuban ultraright and all he achieved was to force Florida – which has no funds, not even for the education budget – to pay a legal compensation that comes out of the pockets of all taxpayers, Aruca said.

The new lawsuit entered a stage of definition two weeks ago, when a federal judge returned the case to the state court in Florida where it originated. At issue is a petition from a woman to confiscate the payments made by U.S. charter companies to the Cuban agency Havanatur for landing rights and services.

In 2001, Ana Margarita Martínez won in the United States a lawsuit for damages against Havana in the amount of $27 million, for having married someone who turned out to be Cuban agent Juan Pablo Roque, who returned to the island surreptitiously in 1996, before she became aware of his identity.

Martínez received part of the sum she claimed and filed suit against the travel agencies in February 2010. Cuban funds, frozen in the U.S. since the 1960s, have already been distributed among plaintiffs in lawsuits against the island government.

The travel agencies replied that their client is Havanatur, not the Cuban authorities, so a confiscation would not be legal. In March, the U.S. State Department appeared in court as an interested party and stated that, in Washington’s view, the flights to the island are in the national interest and that their interruption would cause serious damage to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Trips from the U.S. to Cuba increased by between 150 and 200 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period in 2009, reaching nearly 60 flights per week, according to Marazul. Last year, 296,000 Cubans living abroad traveled to the island, according to reports from the Cuban Foreign Ministry. Aruca estimated that the charterers pay Havanatur several million dollars in landing fees every month.

A state court is more influenced than a federal court by local politics, which in Miami are dominated by anti-Castro activists, Aruca pointed out. If the ruling favors the plaintiff (Martínez) the charterers’ funds would be frozen, Havanatur would be unable to collect its fees and, consequently, the flights would be halted.

What options remain to save the flights?

Aruca pointed out that the private travel agencies will defend their case in state court. In addition, it is possible that the Obama administration will become involved again, either with an appeal or a federal court order that will forbid the confiscation of funds until the issue has been fully resolved.

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