The Obama Administration’s plan to open regularly scheduled commercial air service to Cuba and designate ten new airports as last points of departure (LPD) to the United States is under fire by lawmakers concerned that Americans traveling to the country are at risk.
The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security held a hearing on Tuesday to assess how the resumption of commercial air service to Cuba will impact homeland and passenger security.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, expressed concern that opening commercial air service to Cuba is being “unnecessarily rushed.”
“There are serious security concerns here that seem to be taking a back seat to a legacy building effort,” said McCaul. “Although Cuba has taken steps to liberalize its economy in recent years, the country is still led by a communist dictator who has been ruthless against his own people and who has brutally suppressed calls for more open and democratic governance.”
McCaul said he is unconvinced that the Administration is doing everything it can to protect American citizens visiting Cuba. The Castro regime’s hateful rhetoric towards the United States continues, despite the Administration’s attempts to improve relations.
Subcommittee Chairman John Katko (R-NY) said the Feb. 16 accord between US and Cuban officials, which involved little input from Congress, will eventually allow more than 100 daily roundtrip flights between the two countries. Additionally, it was not until Katko read a press release that he learned Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Cuban government earlier this month.
The United States and Cuba have had a tumultuous relationship. In the 1960s, the United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and has maintained a policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation ever since. Restoration of US-Cuba relations began on December 17, 2014, when President Obama and Raúl Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than fifty years.
President Obama visited Havana in March 2016, marking the first visit by a sitting US president since Calvin Coolidge visited the island in 1928.
The restoration of the United States’ relationship with Cuba has led to new travel and trade regulations. Immediately following the signing of the February 16th agreement, the Department of Transportation opened the application process for US air carriers to bid on routes for regularly scheduled commercial air service to all ten of Cuba’s international airports, which the Administration is attempting to designate as last points of departure to the United States.
There are concerns that terrorists could use Cuba as a gateway to the United States. In April, the Washington Post published an article on the increased flow of individuals from Afghanistan to Cuba. The Cuban visas are suspected to have been issued by Iran or purchased on the black market.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) paints a bleak picture of the current security situation in Cuba, according to Katko. The island possesses no explosive detection equipment, insufficient vetting practices for aviation workers, poorly trained bomb sniffing dogs, and only two full body scanners, both of which are located in Havana.
“But the Administration is telling us that we should entrust the safety and security of American citizens to the Cuban government,” said Katko. “A country that was just removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list one year ago on May 29. A country whose leaders have repeatedly derided the values and principles for which our great nation stands.”
“This is unsettling to say the least,” he added.
Larry Mizell, a TSA Representative testifying at the hearing, told Katko that he could not elaborate on many of the aspects of the security situation in Cuba because the information is classified. Mizell did share that he had concerns about the security aspects of those airports at the beginning, but the LPD airports now meet International Civil Aviation Organization standards.
“The concerns I have now are very minor compared to what they were five years ago,” said Mizell.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) asked Paul Fujimura, assistant administrator for the Office of Global Strategies within the Department of Homeland Security, how secure it is to travel to and from Cuban airports compared to other LPD airports in the world.
“I would be very comfortable flying from Cuba myself,” he said. “They meet international standards.”