Ferry service to Cuba a 'bridge' too far for US government

Reestablishing ferry services to Cuba for the first time in 50 years would surely present challenges, but is in line with recent US-Cuba policy changes, writes guest blogger Anya Landau French.

Desmond Boylan/Reuters
People walk as a car drives by on Havana's seafront boulevard El Malecon on February 15.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

After two years, the Ft. Lauderdale-based company Havana Ferry Partners got its answer, though not the one for which it was hoping.  The company had hoped to established a 500-600 passenger ferry service to Cuba which it says would have offered travelers a cheaper alternative to currently available flights to the island.  But a US Treasury agency ( which sat on the ferry license application so long you have to wonder why it bothered responding now) says the service would be "beyond the scope of current policy."

But of course, that can't be the real reason.  The current policy is to allow, if not encourage, travel to Cuba by, among others, licensed Cuban Americans, academics, and religious and cultural groups.  The policy even expanded the number of airports allowed to offer charter flights to the island.  So it's hard to imagine allowing the creation of a ferry service really goes against current US policy.

But reestablishing ferry service for the first time in more than fifty years does offer two challenges that the administration presumably doesn't want to bother with in an election year.  Naturally, opponents would claim it's another concession to Cuba – the headlines alone, which would use words like "re-establish" and "in more than fifty years" would (mistakenly) offer the impression of a detente between the US and Cuban governments.

But consider, too, what exactly it might take to set up a safe and incident-free ferry service to Cuba.  Security screening and scanning at US airports is a relatively well-oiled machine, as is security outside of US airports.  Given the fact that the State Department continues to label Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, whether there's a shred of evidence to support it or not, and, given the not-entirely-distant history of Cuban exile terrorism against the island and domestic targets viewed as too-friendly to Cuba, there would have to be serious thought – and security planning – put into the first ferry service to Cuba in more than 50 years. 

There's no reason ferry service can't be done safely and securely, notwithstanding the inevitable hiccups that come with doing anything security-related for the first time in the unforgiving limelight.  Regulating and setting up the ferry service would certainly involve a lot of static from a noisy handful of congressional opponents and maybe even a few dozen photo-friendly protestors as close to the ferry terminal as they could get.  My guess is that a political decision was made to avoid the potential headache, however small, in an election year.  If so, add ferry services to the long list of good ideas jettisoned by US politicians queasy over Cuba.

– Anya Landau French blogs for The Havana Note, a project of the "US-Cuba Policy Initiative,” directed by Ms. Landau French, at the New America

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