The United States has approved eight more airports for charter flights to and from Cuba, permitting more Cuban Americans to travel to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean country.
Obama administration officials said the airports include Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest, and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
The other airports approved include those in Baltimore; Dallas/Fort Worth; New Orleans; Pittsburgh; Tampa; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Prior to the Mar. 9 decision, flights to Cuba were only allowed from Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.
The expanded flights are in keeping with Obama’s decision, announced earlier this year, to further reach out to the Cuban people.
“As Hartsfield-Jackson is the largest hub in the United States, this new service will allow tens of thousands of Cuban Americans across the country to easily reunite with their friends and families, whom they may not have seen for many years,” Louis Miller, aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, told reporters.
The expanded flights also come as the United States awaits a verdict in the case of an American government contractor charged with crimes against the Cuban state.
The argument phase of the trial of Alan Gross, 61, ended last Saturday, and Cuban officials said the verdict is expected in the coming days. If convicted Gross faces up to 20 years in prison.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on Cuban authorities to release Gross unconditionally.
Gross’ family and State Department officials say he was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet.
The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.
Gross is being held in a military hospital; he is suffering from health problems and has lost 90 pounds, his wife, Judy said.
Gross’ continued detention comes at a time when Obama has pledged to open new channels of engagement with the Cuban people.
Even after Gross’s arrest, however, Obama continued with his policy of engagement, lifting limits on remittances for people with relatives on the island and loosening restrictions on travel for scholars, artists and business groups.
On Mar. 7, Obama reversed his two-year-old order halting new military charges against detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, permitting military trials to resume.
Obama said the trials will resume with “revamped procedures,” implicitly admitting the failure of his campaign pledge to close the prison camp.
The president, however, said he remains committed to closing Guantánamo someday and to charging some terrorism suspects in civilian criminal courts.
The U.S. Congress has blocked the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo to the United States for trial, frustrating the administration’s plan to hold civilian trials for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-professed chief plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks, and others accused of terrorism.
For detainees who will not get trials, Obama set out new rules in an executive order requiring a review of their status within a year and every three years after that to determine whether they remain a threat, should be scheduled for a military trial or should be released.
The order also requires compliance with the Geneva Conventions and the international treaty that bans torture and inhumane treatment.
“The United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values,” said Obama, adding that the new procedures “broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees.”
Since the beginning of the Obama administration, the Defense Department has transferred 67 detainees from Guantánamo Bay to 24 destinations, including the transfer of 40 detainees to third countries.
The current total of 172 detainees is down from 242 when Obama entered office. About 500 detainees were released by the previous administration of George W. Bush.