Saturday, November 23, 2013

Air Travel and the US Embargo of Cuba

The world held its collective breath in October 1962 when the United States and the Soviet Union came within a heartbeat or two of launching nuclear weapons at each other.  The Cuban Missile Crisis as it was known came to a head because the Soviet Union put nuclear warheads in missile silos in Cuba just a stone’s throw away from the United States.  Havana, Cuba is only 90 miles south of Key West Florida.  A missile could streak between the two places in slightly more than a nanosecond.  President Kennedy and his Administration did the proper amount of bluffing and cajoling and luckily (and thankfully) the Soviet Union blinked first and removed their nuclear weapons.

Almost exactly two years earlier, in October 1960, the United States imposed a commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution).  It was enacted after Cuba nationalized he properties of United States citizens and corporations and it was strengthened to a near-total embargo on February 7, 1962.

Titled the Cuban Democracy Act, the embargo was codified into law in 1993 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government continues to refuse to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights." In 1996, Congress passed the Helms - Burton Act that further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana nless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, President Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. In 2000, Clinton authorized the sale of certain "humanitarian" US products to Cuba.

Today, 51 years after end of the Cuban missile crisis and 53 years after imposition of the embargo it remains in place.  Ironically and hysterically Cuba survived it and today sits with its middle finger pointed at the United States because of it.  In fact if you walk along the malecon in downtown Havana as I did in 1990, you’ll see a large sign in front of the US Interests Section office (where the CIA maintains its listening posts) that carries a caricature of someone who looks almost exactly like Fidel Castro.  The caricature is pointing his index finger north at the United States and is saying in Spanish “Mr. Imperialist we will not be afraid.”  Other signs around the country send a similar message.

Granted things in Cuba aren’t like they are even in Little Havana in Miami but the country has not buckled.  Cuba has universal health care for all of its citizens.  Cuba has a widespread and effective collection of national parks and marine sanctuaries protecting some of its most vulnerable natural resources and Cuba also has an extensive and lucrative tourist industry.  Flights from all over Europe and Canada bring visitors to the sunny beaches of Varadero and Cayo Coco and they flock there in huge numbers.

Meanwhile the United States continues to pout and stomp its feet and some still dream of driving Cuba into submission.  I was able to travel legally to Cuba in 1990 and again in 2007 because I possess a US Treasury Department license that allows me to expend American funds on travel to and in Cuba.  Absent the Treasury Department license I would be in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 that forbids those expenditures.  Ironically the United States is the only “free” country in the world that restricts where its residents can travel – North Korea and Cuba are off limits under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917.

One of the many frustrating aspects of the embargo is the almost total lack of air transportation between the two countries.  In recent years that has become less of an obstacle as restrictions have been lifted but still it’s a pain in the ass if you want to travel there.  When I traveled to Cuba in 1990 I had to do so by flying from Canada.  Because I was on Cubana de Aviacion, the national flag carrier of Cuba and because of the embargo, we left Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and flew for the shortest distance possible over American airspace.  Once over New York City we were directed to a point 200 miles offshore in the Atlantic outside the American exclusive economic zone and clearly in international waters.  There we were allowed to follow a course south to a point over the Bahamian island of Andros where we turned west and flew directly to Varadero.  At no point other than when we flew across New York State to the ocean were we over American airspace.
Jose Marti International airport in Havana is a perfect place to follow the advice of Jimmy Buffett's song and do some serious Havana Daydreamin'

Two ironies are at work here.  First of all, when I traveled to Cuba in 1990 our flight had to follow that circuitous routing because we were in a Cuban aircraft.  Had we flown to Varadero from Toronto on Air Canada we would have been allowed to fly over American airspace but because of the embargo and because we were in a Cuban plane we had to take the long way around.  It didn’t matter to the United States that the Canadian aircraft is flying to Cuba.  What matters is that a Cuban aircraft was and the embargo denies them the ability to fly in American airspace.

This airline can fly to and from Cuba over American airspace. 

But this airline can't

The second irony in play is that Cuba doesn’t reciprocate with this childishness and allows American flag carriers to fly over its airspace.  Take a flight to Jamaica or Grand Cayman or to Bogota Colombia on an American flag carrier from an airport in the eastern United States and the route of flight will take you on a course just east of Santa Clara, Cuba.  You will be over the island for 9 minutes and then you are out over international airspace.  The only exception to this rule is flying to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station as I did in 2007.  There we were required to fly around the east tip of Cuba and approach Gitmo from the south.  For final approach the American flag ship was not allowed to cross over Cuban airspace at any point which resulted in a sharply banked right hand turn near the end of the Gitmo runway. No doubt this exception is in place because the Cuban government is still upset that the Americans refuse to leave Guantanamo Bay.

The Cuban government allows this airline to fly over Cuban airspace.

The US government considers this airline an enemy and won't allow it over our airspace

Just this week as I flew from Orlando – Ratworld International to Montego Bay, Jamaica and I did so on Jet Blue Airlines, an American flag carrier.  We left Orlando, traveled to a point over Miami then south over Cuba for 9 minutes and then into Montego Bay. The next day when I returned to Orlando, we followed the same route in reverse including 9 minutes over Cuban airspace.

Route of flight this week (in red) on my trip from Orlando to Montego Bay in an American flag carrier.  Note the distance traversed over Cuba.  A Cuban air carrier would not be allowed to fly over the United States 

The Cuban government, in spite of the ridiculously ineffective American embargo, allows American flag carriers to fly over its airspace saving those American air carriers millions of dollars in fuel costs annually on top of saving travelers thousands of hours of air travel time.  The Cubans do so because it’s the right thing to do despite the two nations still at each other’s throats.  At the same time, however, Cuban aircraft (of which there are about 10!) are strictly forbidden from crossing American airspace except for the shortest distance possible to get to international waters.  We could care less about the cost of fuel for the Cuban aircraft and we could care less about the extra time it takes for people to get to Cuba from a place like Canada.  What matters apparently is this in-grained notion that we have to somehow continue to punish Cuba for an incident that happened when the Beatles were still largely unknown outside of Liverpool, and the Dow Jones Industrial average was about 500!

I guess we are showing them aren’t we.

It’s long past the time when the United States should end this ridiculous childish treatment of a neighbor 90 miles away who could use friends and luckily there has been some movement in the thawing of relations between the two countries.  And if the powers that be need an example of how the countries can get along they need to look no further than the fact that Cuba openly and willingly allows American planes to fly over it.  Now if only the United States would behave like an adult and allow Cuban planes the same privilege.


  1. Some people complain that the food isn't up to par in Cuba. But, on two of our trips to Cuba, we loved the food and never had any issues with feeling ill.

  2. Maybe Cuba should act like an adult and stop living in the past century with its repression of its people.

  3. and you wrote this in 2013 talking about how thins were in 1990 why??

    At least nowadays, and for some time now, cubana can flight over the US.

    However, since 1959 cuban people don't have freedom of speech, just to name one.