US and Cuba to resume regular flights

Washington (AFP) - The United States and Cuba on Thursday announced plans to resume flights between the two nations, erasing another vestige of what had been strained ties rooted in the Cold War.

The latest progress as the countries work to build on their restoration of full diplomatic relations this summer was made public a year to the day after President Barack Obama and counterpart Raul Castro first said they would bury the hatchet.

In a short statement, the US State Department said that on Wednesday Washington and Havana had reached "a bilateral arrangement to establish scheduled air services between the two countries."

This does not mean American tourists can now start flocking to communist-run Cuba to lie on beaches, sip rum and fire up cigars.

Such travel remains illegal because the trade embargo that the Americans slapped on Cuba in 1960 after Fidel Castro came to power in a communist revolution remains in effect.

In a statement marking the anniversary of the start of reconciliation, Obama renewed his call for the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the embargo, which he termed the "legacy of a failed policy."

Republicans are wary of rewarding Cuba until it improves its human rights record.

Until now only charter flights were permitted. Current US law also allowed for special permits to visit Cuba, and the criteria for getting one of these was loosened in January.

The charter flights will continue under the new agreement and scheduled flights for non-tourist purposes will begin, according to the US statement.

Although the ban on tourist travel remains in force, the new accord will "facilitate an increase in authorized travel, enhance traveler choices, and promote people-to-people links between the two countries."

The Cuban Embassy in Washington said the two countries had reached preliminary agreement on a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of regular flights.

Its adoption by the two governments will be confirmed in the next few days, the embassy added.

- Airlines eager to fly -

Under the new arrangement airlines in the two countries can now strike deals in such areas as code-sharing and aircraft leasing, the embassy said.

Ever since the historic thaw began a year ago US airlines have been eager to start flying to Cuba and tap its potential as a new market.

These include American Airlines, which runs 22 weekly charter flights to Cuba from New York and Newark, New Jersey.

JetBlue and United, which also fly charters to Cuba from those two cities, are also chomping at the bit to begin all-out service to the island.

The United States and Cuba formally restored diplomatic relations in July and re-opened embassies in each other's capitals.

Obama said he had made the decision because he concluded that 50 years of trying to encourage democratic and economic change in Cuba through isolation had failed. It is better to engage Cuba and work with it, he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington continues to press Havana on human rights and political prisoners.

"In fact, the most important conversations may well be those where we continue to disagree," Kerry said in a statement.

"The United States and Cuba remain far apart on some very important matters," he added. "But we are much closer than we were in our determination to address those matters in a systematic and mutually respectful way."

- Protests in US -

Some hurdles remain.

Cuba wants the embargo lifted, payment of damages for what it calls lost revenue as a result of that embargo, and talks on recovering the land which it leases to the United States and that houses a US naval base and the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects.

Washington for its part is seeking damages for property that Cuba seized from US companies and citizens in the early 1960s, and also wants to see democratic and free-market reforms on the island.

Underlining the sensitivity of closer ties, particularly among the sizable Cuban diaspora in the United States, anti-Castro protesters hit the streets in Miami and Washington.

"This has been a year of repression, a year of incarceration. Repression has increased in Cuba," activist Bertha Antunez said in Miami.

More than 120 former prisoners under the Castro regimes wrote to Obama warning that his new Cuba policy is "a regrettable mistake" that will only "prolong the life of the dictatorship."