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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen rips Obama Cuba policy changes; Kathy Castor applauds

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the Obama administration's decision to ease travel and remittances to Cuba "will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba. These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights. And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them.

"These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime."

But Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor said she sees benefits to Cuban-Americans in Tampa who won't have to drive to Miami to visit family in Cuba. She said she's been prodding Obama since before he was sworn-in to make the changes.

"The Tampa Bay region has one of the highest Cuba-American populations in this country, but for too long, families have had to travel to Miami in order to get to Cuba. That has been too expensive and too difficult for many families already on tight budgets. With the addition of Tampa International Airport as an entry/ exit point to Cuba, our hard-working families will have one burden lifted when traveling to and from the island nation.

"Allowing charter flights to Cuba from Tampa International also opens doors to create jobs in our community and plan for economic growth in our region,” Castor continued. “Charter flight companies likely will hire local residents, and our travel industry will benefit from a much-needed boost. This couldn’t come at a better time for our economy.

I am confident Tampa International Airport will be first in line to apply for final approval for expanded eligibility,” Castor said.

Castor has been working for years to have Tampa International Airport designated an airport for charter flights to Cuba. She sent several letters, beginning with a letter to President-elect Obama in December 2008, requesting a fresh look at U.S.-Cuban relations and lifting travel restrictions for families.

In 2009, she continued putting pressure on the administration, communicating with officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the National Security Council as well as with Commerce Secretary Locke, Secretary of State Clinton, and Treasury Secretary Geithner.

In 2010, Castor cosponsored a bill that would open travel to Cuba to all Americans, again stepping up pressure on the administration to approve charter airline flights to Cuba from Tampa International. Castor was the first member of Congress from Florida to call for modernization of the longstanding ban on traveling to Cuba.

According to recent news reports, the United States is now sending the second-most visitors to Cuba, about 1,000 a day. Charter companies are reporting increased passenger loads. Tampa Bay area families traveling to Cuba have had to pay an additional $400-$500 per person to travel to Miami in order to go to Cuba.

“My office hears the personal struggles of those with limited travel opportunities to Cuba,” Castor said. “Families are trying to get there to visit loved ones and see sick or dying relatives. Being able to travel directly from Tampa to Cuba will make this trip all the easier and affordable to those enduring difficult times.”