Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cuban Americans Welcome Change

New U.S. travel rules queried
New rules easing travel to Cuba have prompted a wave of telephone calls and visits -- and lots of questions -- to those agencies authorized to issue travel licenses to the communist country.

The telephones rang nonstop Friday at Va Cuba, one of several licensed travel agencies in Miami where Cuban-Americans can arrange trips to their homeland.

The question posed most often by callers: Can I book a flight to Cuba under the Obama administration's new licensing rules?

The answer is yes. Under the new rules , Cuban-Americans can visit the island once a year and stay as long they wish.

Since 2004, Cubans were only permitted to travel once every three years and were only allowed to visit immediate relatives. The definition of family has been broadened.

The new policy has federally licensed companies, such as Va Cuba and Marazul Charters, scrambling to prepare for a sharp increase in demand.

Since the Treasury Department's announcement Wednesday, Va Cuba, Marazul Charters and other local agencies have received thousands of phone inquiries about President Barack Obama's policy along with a slow but steady stream of customers visiting offices to arrange travel.

''This is a step forward . . . towards the reunification of Cuban families in a legal way, instead of breaking the law to fulfill family needs,'' said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters.

Garcia said the Bush administration's policy too narrowly defined family as immediate members and lacked exceptions.

''If you went to visit your mother a year before your father got sick, you could not travel. If your mother died, you couldn't go to the funeral,'' he said.

Licet Soler, 34, of Miami, said Friday that the restrictions will no longer force people to leap frog their way to the island by using the Bahamas, Grand Cayman or Mexico to avoid illegally taking direct flights.

She plans to visit her boyfriend, whom she had not seen since leaving the island in 2006. ''It's wonderful'' she whispered as she sat in Va Cuba's waiting area.

Diamara Martín, whose entire family lives in Guanajay in Cuba, was accompanied by her husband when she went to an agency Friday afternoon.


Martín expected some would criticize Obama and argue that his policy would help support Fidel Castro's government.

''For those who don't have family there, they don't understand,'' she said. ``Mother, father, sisters, uncles -- here, I have no one but my husband.''

She said her parents were ecstatic when they heard that the Obama administration had ordered the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to lift the restrictions.


Martín, Garcia and Soler hope the administration's action is the first in a series of steps leading to more normal relations between the United States and Cuba.

''This is not enough,'' Garcia said. ``President Obama promised he'd lift all travel restrictions, so I'm expecting him to lift other restrictions as well.''

Maritza Tamayo offered her thoughts as she left one agency and rushed in excitement to her car.

''If other people in the U.S. have the right to see family in other countries, why can't Cubans?'' she asked. ``God says we're all equal.''