By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009
MIAMI -- Edel Hernández arrived at the airport here last week with a giant duffel bag and a ball cap pulled low over his eyes. Two years earlier he had left Cuba, and he hadn't seen his wife since. "It's been hard," he said, his eyes welling as he tugged on the visor. "Really hard."
Under the old rules, Hernández, 35, would have had to wait another year to return to Cuba to see her. But when President Obama lifted travel restrictions this month for U.S. residents with family on the island, Hernández bought a ticket right away. Arguments that once might have made sense -- that the cash in his pockets and the gifts in his suitcase would benefit the Castro government -- ring hollow next to the pain of separation.
"I'm helping my family," he said, looking down at his barrel-size baggage, swaddled in blue plastic wrap to protect against pilfering. "The clothes I'm bringing are for them. The government isn't going to wear them."
In the nearly two weeks since the policy change was announced, demand for flights to the island has exploded, according to Miami-based charter companies licensed to operate them. At the same time, conversations with Cuban immigrants here at the airport and along Southwest Eighth Street in the heart of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood suggest that hard lines are softening, and that the engagement approach advocated by Obama has set into motion a wide-ranging reexamination of U.S. efforts to bring change to the island.
Until this month, a 2004 Bush administration policy limited visits by U.S. residents with relatives in Cuba to once every three years, curbing gifts for family members as well as cash transfers. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Obama lifted those restrictions over the objections of Cuban American leaders in Congress who have long argued that travelers like Hernández prop up Cuba's failing economy and perpetuate the 50-year rule of Fidel and Raúl Castro.
U.S. residents without family in Cuba are still generally barred from going to the island, but many Cuban Americans here said they want that to change, too -- out of fairness and a desire to see American tourists flood the island.
With Cuban Americans now able to travel as often as they wish, some of the seven charter companies who send roughly 35 flights to Cuba each week said reservation requests have nearly doubled. The need for excess luggage capacity has been so pressing-- restrictions on baggage weight were lifted as well -- that one company, Xael Charters, has had to send a small cargo plane, nicknamed "El Mosquito," to accompany its main flights.
The incipient travel boom reflects an accelerating shift in attitudes toward America's Cuba policy. A poll of 400 Cuban Americans conducted April 14-16 by Florida-based research firm Bendixen & Associates found that 64 percent of respondents supported Obama's new travel policy. An even larger number, 67 percent, said all Americans should be able to go to the island. The poll, which had a 5 percent margin of error, also found broad support for the new president -- Obama's favorability rating of 67 percent was the highest of any U.S. president since Ronald Reagan.
Support for the 1962 U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has also eroded in the past three years, the poll found, dropping from 53 to 42 percent.'It's Complicated'
The survey results underscore the changing demographics that are mostly likely to determine those views. Younger Cubans, and those who arrived more recently and tend to still have family on the island, are generally more supportive of liberalization, while older exiles continue to back the embargo and oppose increased travel.
"How can you say you're fleeing from the regime and ask for political asylum if you're going to turn around a few years later and go vacation in Cuba?" said Juan Carlos Meneses, a 51-year-old building manager who arrived as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift and hasn't been back since.
Meneses was standing in the shade at Maximo Gomez Park, where dozens of older Cuban men gather each day for dominoes, chess, or cards. A handmade sign in Spanish listed rules such as "No Shouting," "No Spitting on the Ground," and "No Swearing," along with the warning that violators face a two-to-four-week suspension from the park.
Many older men in the park dismissed Obama as a political naif for his overtures at the recent Summit of the Americas, and for thinking the Castros will yield. Even though the embargo has failed to dislodge the Castros, it is a moral statement and should be maintained as a symbolic repudiation of their rule, said 72-year-old Feliciano Rolo, who left Cuba in 1966.
But even Rolo seemed to debate with himself, reasoning that the Cuban government "doesn't want the embargo lifted, anyway."
"It's complicated," he said, shaking his head.
This sort of open wavering might have led to fisticuffs in the park just a few years ago, said Juan Manuel Rodríguez, 55, who arrived on a raft with his entire family in 1994 and now believes the United States should lift the embargo regardless of what the Cuban government does. He would have been "pounced on" for airing that opinion in the past, he said.
"It's been 50 years and nothing's changed," Rodríguez said. "I want the Cuban people to meet Americans and be exposed to the world."
Others noted that the goods flowing to the island in travelers' stuffed suitcases undermine the embargo and Cuba's state-run economy, since the brand-name wares often end up as merchandise on Cuba's vast black market.
The demand for American products is so high that Silvio Prado's relatives request items from specific stores -- which they've never seen. "They say, 'Don't get it at Kmart, buy it at Macy's,' " said Prado, checking in for a four-day trip to Havana.
Some agencies report that flights are booked a month in advance, but travelers at the airport last week complained bitterly of the $500 round-trip ticket price for the 40-minute flight, as well as the additional baggage fees tacked on by the charter companies and Cuban customs officials in Havana.
"They're even worse over here," said Omar López, sore from shelling out hundreds of dollars for the 300 pounds he and his wife lugged to Havana last week. With the recession taking a heavy toll on newly arrived Cubans, the cost of the trip -- and the gifts they are expected to bring -- will be the main limitation on family contact.
"I'd go every 15 days if I could afford it," said René Valdés, 40, who came to the United States on a homemade raft in 1994 and spent eight months in a U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Now he yearns to move back to the island some day and possibly retire there -- "if things change."
Valdés said all five of his siblings are in the United States, but his elderly parents didn't take to life in suburban Florida and missed their farm in rural Cuba. Now the siblings take turns flying back to care for them, Valdés said, admitting that he had been chastised by U.S. officials who repeatedly caught him breaking the Bush-era travel restrictions.
"I've got a file this long," Valdés joked, stretching his arms wide. "I hope they threw it in the trash."