A poor safety record is inevitable, given the US trade sanctions

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Santiago Airport, serving Cuba's second city, is an uncomfortable place to spend much time. So one day last month, a group travelling with the British tour operator, Saga, found themselves enjoying an unscheduled lunch at the city's Tropicana club.

The delay was at the insistence of the tour manager, who demanded the flight to the capital, Havana, must be as agreed in the contract: aboard a Western-built aircraft, rather than the Soviet-made Ilyushin that had turned up to collect them.

The tour manager's caution was well placed. Cuba's civil aviation record is the worst in the world. The national airline, Cubana, incurs one fatal crash for every 60,000 departures; the rate for the average carrier is one in a million. In the final 10 days of 1999, Cubana suffered two fatal accidents.

But given the strictures under which the airline is forced to operate, a poor safety record is inevitable. The US economic blockade constrains the foreign exchange that is necessary for every airline's day-to-day operations, and forces Cubana to deal via third countries rather than direct with American aircraft manufacturers. When an El Salvadorean company established a second airline, flying domestically in Cuba with Western aircraft, Washington ordered it to be closed down or face sanctions.

The Soviet-built biplanes of the kind that crashed in Cuba yesterday, killing 13 tourists and four crew, have long served as a curious kind of tourist attraction, but are now likely to be phased out. At present several of the aircraft are used for tourist flights around the island. But the fleet of Antonov prop-jets, and Ilyushin and Tupolev jets, will have to sustain the nation for years to come. Distances are much larger than many think – Cuba is as big as England, and Havana to Santiago is more than 500 miles.

The roads are even more dangerous than the skies. Official figures are sketchy, but fatal accidents are frequent – the result of poorly-maintained vehicles, ambitious drivers accustomed to empty roads, and even livestock. The Foreign Office warns UK visitors to "Be particularly careful when travelling on unlit motorways at night, as cattle grazing by the roadside have been known to cause fatal accidents".