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US sharply reduces flights to Cuba
[WASHINGTON] The United States on Friday sharply reduced flights allowed to go to Cuba in a bid to reduce revenue to the communist island.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that charter flights would only be allowed to fly to Havana, not other airports - a step already taken with commercial flights.
The restrictions "will further restrict the Cuban regime's ability to obtain revenue, which it uses to finance its ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its unconscionable support for dictator Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela," Mr Pompeo said in a statement.
"In suspending public charter flights to these nine Cuban airports, the United States further impedes the Cuban regime from gaining access to hard currency from US travellers," he said.
Mr Pompeo also said, without providing a number, that he would soon cap the number of flights to Havana.
Charter flights - which bring tourists but primarily carry Cuban-Americans - will have 60 days to wind down operations without violating US law.
President Donald Trump has drastically reversed the course on Cuba set by his predecessor Barack Obama, who had launched a rapprochement with the island.
Mr Obama had described the more than half-century effort to topple Cuba's communist government as a failure. He visited Havana, viewing engagement as the best path forward.
The Trump administration, which enjoys support from hardline Cuban-Americans in the critical electoral state of Florida, has sharply criticised Havana's rights record.
It has also hit out at its support for Mr Maduro, whom Washington no longer recognises as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
Cuba rejects the US criticism and said that the new clampdown on flights violated the rights of travellers.
"I strongly reject new US government ban on charter flights to Cuba, except for Havana, and restrictions on their number," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez wrote on Twitter in English.
"This is serious violation of human rights and freedom of travel of US citizens and hinders family reunification," he said.
The move was also condemned by Representative Donna Shalala, a Democrat who represents a Cuban-American-heavy district in southern Florida that switched from Mr Trump's Republican Party in the last election.
"Instead of punishing the Cuban regime, this policy will hurt Cuban families most - families who simply want to visit their loved ones," she said.
Some Cuban-Americans may in fact wind up paying more money to the government as they will have to buy tickets for connecting flights or buses from Havana to their homes.
But state airline Cubana said it has lost US$10 million since the restrictions on commercial flights was imposed in October, as fewer Cuban-Americans take domestic connecting flights.
The number of US citizens traveling to Cuba tumbled 20 per cent in 2019 to 498,538 from one year earlier, according to Cuban official figures.