Nearly 40 years after the last Havana-bound commercial airline departed from Los Angeles International Airport, flights between LAX and Havana will resume in April, flight organizers said Thursday, moving U.S.-Cuban relations another small step forward.
Cuba Travel Services Inc. of Inglewood will charter the weekly $750 round-trip flights on TACA International Airlines, providing the first regular air service to Cuba from the West Coast since the United States clamped an embargo on the island nation in 1962.
The flights were authorized by President Clinton in August. Joe Perez, a consultant to the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the agency expects to receive final approval today.
"This is in accordance with the president's policy of people-to-people contact," said Perez, a native Cuban. "When people are talking, they have a better understanding of each other. I'm very proud to be part of the team that is making this happen."
Flights from Los Angeles--together with those from New York City, which began in December, and Miami, which started earlier--are allowed under recent modifications by Clinton to the sanctions.
In addition to increased charter flight service, Clinton last year reestablished direct mail service between the two countries. He also allowed the Baltimore Orioles to play an exhibition series with the Cuban national team last year and gave permission for any U.S. resident to send as much as $300 every three months to Cuban residents.
Travel demand to Cuba has been high for years. More than 70,000 Cuban Americans live in California and an additional 30,000 live in neighboring states. West Coast travelers have been going to Cuba via Mexico or Miami, according to local travel agents.
"This is going to make it much easier for the passengers," said Mercedes Arenado Melian, whose family owns Acapulco Travel and Tours in Santa Ana. "About 60% of the people who call are Cuban and the rest are Americans. I don't have a bit of a doubt that these trips will sell."
As with charter flights from Miami and New York, travel will be limited to those with relatives in Cuba, as well as researchers, journalists, human rights workers and others with a professional interest in Cuba. The U.S. government still does not allow Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists.
Americans have been traveling for years to Cuba illegally, via such countries as Canada, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas.
Although improved access to Cuba pleases some Cuban Americans who long to visit relatives, others oppose resumption of air travel, arguing that the change contributes to Fidel Castro's economy and, therefore, prolongs his regime.
"I can understand sending medicine to a family member who needs it," said Antonio Rotella, president of the Los Angeles Cuban Patriot Organization, a 20-year-old umbrella group based in Miami. "But I fail to understand why Cubans go to Cuba as tourists and go to the beaches and nightclubs and spend their money and celebrate parties there."