Cuban officials say agreements on regular, direct flights to US likely in coming months

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HAVANA — Cuban officials said Tuesday that negotiations on the normalization of relations with the United States are likely to produce agreements on regularly scheduled airline flights and three other areas in the coming months.

U.S. officials have been appealing to Cuba to help produce concrete results in the normalization talks in order to solidify President Barack Obama's opening to Cuba announced late last year after more than 50 years of official hostility. Obama's strategy faces vehement opposition from Cuban-American lawmakers and his administration is struggling to make progress despite the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and Cuba's own restrictions on trade and commerce.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba's head of North American affairs, told reporters at the Cuban Embassy in Washington that agreements on flights, environmental protection, direct postal service and the fight against drug trafficking are very likely by the end of the year.

"We are very close to the first agreements that we can announce in the next few weeks," she said. "I am almost certain that by the end of the year we can announce some results in those areas."

Gustavo Machin, deputy director for U.S. affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Havana that a deal on direct flights could be struck in the "short term."

"I think this is one of the issues that we have advanced on most and on which we are close to reaching an agreement," Machin said. "We are talking of one month, two months, three months."

Both Vidal and Machin emphasized that airlines would have to make their own deals with the individual government before flights could actually begin.

Direct flights are seen as a potential game changer in U.S. travel to Cuba, which has risen dramatically since Obama's announcement and subsequent loosening of U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. Travelers to Cuba from the U.S. must now take expensive and chaotic charter flights that feature three-hour check-ins for a 45-minute flight and draconian limits on baggage.

Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reported this story from Havana and AP writer Matthew V. Lee reported in Washington.

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