Cuba and the U.S.: An Ongoing Thaw

The two countries signed an agreement that allows American commercial flights to return to the island for the first time in almost 60 years.

A man holds a U.S. flag while gathering with others on a sidewalk near the U.S. embassy in Havana. (Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters)
Cuba and the U.S. are quickly becoming best––or at least better—friends. This week alone has seen the re-establishment of commercial flights, the approval of the first American factory to be built on the island since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, as well the return of a misplaced American missile.
On Tuesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx flew to Havana and signed an agreement with Cuban officials that allows American airlines to compete for up to 110 flight routes per day. It was the latest step toward normalizing relations since Barack Obama and Raul Castro made their historic announcements in 2014 to restore ties.
The flight agreement would give commercial carriers 15 days to submit an application to the Transportation Department outlining the routes and destinations they’d like to fly to. It would allow carriers like American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and Delta Air Lines––all of which have expressed interest––to bid for 20 daily flights to Havana, and 10 to each of Cuba’s other nine international airports.
Soon after Obama announced the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014, American tourism to the island jumped. Last year, some 160,000 American tourists flew to the island, the Associated Press reported—a 77 percent increase over the previous year. That number doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands Cuban Americans allowed to visit family. Previously, flights to the country were restricted to around a dozen charter companies. Travel is supposed to have been, and still is, only for family visits, reporting trips, educational tours, and professional meetings––though, this seems to be softly enforced.
The agreement, so far, wouldn’t allow the state-run Cuban carrier to fly to the U.S., but might include “leases of aircraft between themselves or with airlines of a third country’s cooperation,” reported Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party.
The thaw in travel should help Cuba’s economy. The island has been cut off from American dollars for half a century—though it does have trade relations with Europe and Canada. Still, U.S.-Cuban business relations had their own historic moment.
On Monday, Obama approved the first American factory to be built in Cuba since 1959. The company, run by two men in Alabama, sells small tractors. Like the rest of the exceptions Obama has created in the embargo, this was done through executive action. The Associated Press reported the Obama administration got around the law because of an exception that allows U.S. companies to export goods that help Cuban farmers. For the first three years, the factory will ship manufactured parts from the U.S. and assemble them in Cuba, with the eventual plan of  manufacturing everything on the island. In a show of goodwill, the owners named their new tractor plant, The Oggun, a name taken from the Santeria saint of weapons and iron tools.
Relations between the two longtime rivals have improved so significantly that over the weekend Cuba returned an American missile it’d held onto since 2014. Although the laser-guided Hellfire bomb was not active, it’s loss was seen as a laughable mistake on the part of the U.S., one that “ranks among the worst-known incidents of its kind,” The Wall Street Journal wrote. In what is believed to have been a shipping error, the missile was accidentally sent to Cuba. Officials feared its secrets may have been shared with China or Russia. But for now, they say, they are just thankful to have it back.