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US, Cuba Reach Deal on Restoring Commercial Flights

FILE - An airport worker fuels a JetBlue plane on the tarmac of the John F. Kennedy International Airport.

U.S. and Cuban officials reached agreement Thursday on restoring regular commercial flights between the former Cold War foes after more than 50 years, a milestone on the one-year anniversary of a diplomatic thaw between the two countries.

U.S. President Barack Obama said full normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States "will be a long journey."

But Obama added that more Americans are visiting Cuba, 145 kilometers off the southern U.S. state of Florida, and engaging Cubans than at any time in the past five decades.

FILE - American tourists look around during a tour at old Havana, Cuba, Dec. 14, 2015.
FILE - American tourists look around during a tour at old Havana, Cuba, Dec. 14, 2015.

"We continue to have differences with the Cuban government," Obama said, "but we raise those issues directly, and we will always stand for human rights and the universal values that we support around the globe."

Delegations from both nations have been meeting in Washington since Monday to finalize the details of the commercial flight deal they have been working on for several months.

US airlines interested

Several major U.S. airlines have expressed interest in establishing regular flights to Cuba, including American Airlines, Delta, United and JetBlue.

News of the agreement comes a year after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the nations were restoring formal diplomatic relations that were severed shortly after communist leader Fidel Castro overthrew the island's longtime dictator in 1959.

Obama eased travel restrictions to the Caribbean island in September, but general tourism is banned by the U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress.

The U.S. State Department said the new agreement would lead to increased authorized travel to the island nation, such as for educational trips, even though tourist flights are still banned.

It said a stronger U.S. civil aviation relationship with Cuba is a "critical component" of Obama's effort to normalize relations between the two countries, which have already reopened embassies in Havana and Washington.

In an interview with Yahoo! News last week, Obama said he would like to visit Cuba next year, the last of his presidency, but only if he can meet with political dissidents.

The president said he hopes enough progress can be made in order for a visit to happen, and possibly to "nudge the Cuban government in a new direction."

Cuban authorities said the U.S. president is welcome to visit Cuba, but would not negotiate its internal affairs in exchange for better diplomatic relations with Washington.