Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    US, Cuba near deal on restoring direct commercial flights

    US, Cuba near deal on restoring direct commercial flights

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and Cuba are close to an agreement
    on restoring regularly scheduled, commercial flights between the
    countries, a senior American diplomat said Tuesday, as talks on the
    matter were ongoing.

    Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. embassy in Havana, described an
    aviation deal as one of several in reach for the former Cold War foes in
    their wide-ranging discussions to improve relations. The Obama
    administration has been trying to wrap up an agreement on flights before
    the year’s end.

    “We have made good progress and come a long way,” DeLaurentis told
    reporters on a conference call two days before the one-year anniversary
    of the announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro that they
    were ending a half-century of U.S.-Cuban enmity.

    “Our two countries have engaged in a historic dialogue on a wide range
    of issues,” he said. “We have discussed concrete objectives on civil
    aviation, direct transportation of mail, environment, regulatory changes
    and counternarcotics. And we have either reached understandings on those
    topics or continue to narrow our differences in ways that suggest we
    could soon conclude such understandings.”

    Right now, American and Cuban travelers must fly on charter flights that
    are complicated to book, rarely involve an online portal and often force
    prospective travelers to email documents and payment information back
    and forth with an agent. Those flying sometimes must arrive at the
    airport four hours in advance; strict baggage limits apply.

    U.S. and Cuban officials are negotiating the logistics of commercial
    airline routes this week, and may be able to make an announcement afterward.

    A deal would be timely. Authorized American travel to the island is up
    50 percent this year, DeLaurentis said, buoyed by significant expansion
    in cultural and educational programs. Among Obama’s regulatory changes
    this year was one permitting Americans participating in such programs to
    visit Cuba without first applying for Treasury Department permission.

    And it would build on last week’s declaration that direct mail service
    would restart after a 52-year interruption. The governments had been
    speaking about restoring a postal link since Obama entered office, but
    those talks stalled when Cuba imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross. He
    was freed in a prisoner exchange that sparked last year’s declaration of

    On other issues, however, the U.S. and Cuba remain far apart.

    DeLaurentis cited the billions of dollars in competing property claims,
    the status of fugitives in both countries, and Cuban respect for human
    rights as outstanding matters of disagreement. On these, he could only
    say that Washington and Havana “have started the process of exchanging

    The administration also has been trying to get Cuba to make it easier
    for Cuban citizens to start private companies, access information online
    and benefit from eased American rules for commerce, even if the U.S.
    economic embargo on the island remains in effect. Only Congress can
    eliminate the embargo.

    “More could be done on the Cuban side to take advantage of new
    openings,” DeLaurentis said.

    Source: US, Cuba near deal on restoring direct commercial flights –
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