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US blocks air cargo flights with aid for Cuba

Policy toward Venezuela, South Florida business rivalries factor into DOT decision

IBC Airways flies cargo and passenger charters to Caribbean islands. (Flickr/Tomás Del Coro)

The U.S. Department of Transportation has denied requests from two small air charter companies in South Florida for exemptions to a recent embargo on nonscheduled cargo flights to Cuba. The decision underscores the raw political emotions regarding the Cuban regime, but also how businesses use the regulatory process to maintain competitive advantage.

The suspension of charter operations is the latest effort by the Trump administration to squeeze the Havana government over its human rights record and support of Venezuela’s leftist government. 

The DOT said this week that it rejected the requests from SkyWay Enterprises and IBC Airways for non-scheduled cargo flights to Cuba after the State Department advised they didn’t fall within the embargo’s authorized exceptions for emergency medical, search-and-rescue or other flights in the foreign policy interest of the U.S.

The DOT last month finalized its suspension of cargo flights at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said in August that strengthening economic pressure on Cuba is necessary to restrict the regime’s ability to repress its people and support Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“Suspending these charter flights to all of Cuba’s airports would prevent charter operators from filling the gap in air service left by the suspension of non-Havana scheduled air service and public charters,” Pompeo wrote DOT Secretary Elaine Chao. “Moreover, this action would further restrict U.S. funds from enriching the Cuban regime.”

A year ago, the Trump administration banned regularly scheduled flights to Cuban cities other than Havana. In January, it cut back public charter flights to Cuba to put further economic pressure on the regime, and in May it set a cap of 3,600 flights per year to the Cuban capital. Primary charter operators to Cuba are Swift Air and World Atlantic Airlines. The Trump administration’s tough stance on Cuba’s Communist government is popular among Cuban-Americans in Florida, who helped Trump win Florida during the presidential election this month.

Maduro began a second term in January 2019 that is widely considered illegitimate and now seeks to convene elections to take control of the National Assembly. The United States and 57 other countries recognize Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s democratically elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly, as interim president, but he has been unable to use that support to wrest power from Maduro. 

The Trump administration has tried to compel Maduro to leave office through economic pressure, including broad sanctions on the financial sector and Venezuelan assets. It also has rolled back most Obama-era steps to open trade and travel with Cuba. 

SkyWay Enterprises, Kissimmee, said it wanted to operate three weekly flights from late October through November carrying aid packages containing food, medicine, and hygiene and medical supplies on behalf of Hialeah-based Invicta Group Services, a travel agency and freight forwarder that contracts transport with airlines. SkyWay, which operates Short SD3-60 turbo prop aircraft, argued an exemption was in the public interest because the coronavirus pandemic in Cuba has led to significant shortages of food and medical supplies. The proposed flights would help the Cuban people and result in fewer remittances being spent in government-run stores, where they face long wait times and exorbitant prices.

IBC Airways, Fort Lauderdale, sought to operate ad hoc aid flights between Miami and Havana for six months to help with pandemic recovery. Both carriers planned to carry up to 7,500 pounds of cargo per flight.

Invicta said the parcels it planned to ship with SkyWay weighed no more than 3.3 pounds so its Cuban-American customers could avoid Cuban customs fees.

SkyWay received several letters of support, including from Wajro Import & Export Corp., which said it is authorized by the Bureau of Industry and Security to send donations of masks, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and related items to Cuban hospitals dealing with the pandemic and that SkyWay would be the carrier.  

Indirect charter operators Havana Air and Aerocuba objected to both exemptions, with Havana Air saying they are “thinly veiled” commercial operations in humanitarian clothing. Aerocuba argued that the exemption for emergency medical purposes should only narrowly apply to a person requiring emergency medical treatment.

Skyways responded that disapproving humanitarian flights runs counter to U.S. interests in supporting U.S. businesses and American citizens with family in Cuba, noting that aid would not flow to the Cuban government and that U.S. policy calls for maintaining “solidarity with the Cuban people.” It suggested that Aerocuba and other competitors pursue similar opportunities to broker humanitarian shipments to Cuba rather than block others from delivering aid.

More than five years ago, IBC had a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to fly mail to and from Cuba. It also had a sizable business flying seafood and other cargo to Venezuela before the Trump administration shut down all air activity to the South American nation.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]