By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON - The United States will impose a cap on charter flights to Cuba at 3,600 per year, the U.S. Transportation Department said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump's administration moves to curb the Cuban government's access to revenue.
The action - enacted in response to a January request by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - caps such flights at about 2019 levels, preventing any increase. The United States last October banned regularly scheduled flights to all Cuban cities except Havana. In January, the Transportation Department barred charter to flights to any Cuban airports except Havana.
Trump has clamped down on Cuba following the historic move by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama to reopen U.S.-Cuba ties. [nL2N26U029]
The department said on Thursday it will award about 3,250 of the flights for the 12 months ending May 31, 2021, to Swift Air LLC and World Atlantic Airlines.
"Maintaining and capping public charter flights to José Martí International Airport preserves the main gateway for travel from the United States to Cuba for family visitation or other lawful purposes, while preventing public charter operators from increasing service to Havana in response," the department said in announcing the move.
Pompeo in January said the curbs on charter flights "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."
Cuban officials in January blasted the limits, calling the action a violation of human rights that would hinder family reunification.
Nearly 624,000 Cubans living abroad visited their homeland in 2019, of which a record 552,800 were from the United States, Cuba has said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Franklin Paul and Will Dunham)