Cuban-Americans Divided Over Expanded US-Cuba Flights
Alex Villarreal | Miami
More U.S. airports are now offering charter flights to Cuba after
President Barack Obama relaxed travel restrictions earlier this year. A
long-time U.S. trade embargo still bans tourist travel to the communist
nation, but the move makes it easier for Cuban-Americans and other
authorized travelers to visit. Not everyone approves.
A cigar store in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana gives Cubans in
the U.S. a taste of home. But for many, this Cuba away from Cuba is not
About a 30 minute drive away at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, several
generations of Cubans wait eagerly to visit their families.
"This is a very big day because a new location has been opened for all
the Cubans who want to travel to the island," said Octavio Giraldo, who
is one of more than 100 passengers on a flight that is first from Fort
Lauderdale to Cuba in more than two decades. The occasion inspired a
fiesta, complete with Cuban food, live music and even dancing.
Irelys Uzcategui-Alvarez, returning to Cuba for the first time in 10
years, says the day is historic. "[It's] very exciting, because it's the
first flight from here, near my house in Fort Lauderdale, and it seems
to me that it's more economical and more convenient."
Fort Lauderdale is one of several airports that have begun flights to
Cuba since the Obama administration loosened restrictions this year.
Before, only airports in Miami, New York and Los Angeles were authorized
to run direct flights to the island.
Vivian Mannerud is president of Airline Brokers, the charter company
behind this flight and others to Cuba.
"It's a celebration for everybody, because anything that we can get
approved that makes it more normal to travel to Cuba, to leave from any
airport to visit your family, is a celebration day," Mannerud said.
But not all Cubans are celebrating.
"This decision to open flights to Cuba is a mistake - more space that we
have for a country that is a sponsor of terrorism," said Emilio
Izquierdo, coordinator of a citizen movement known as Cuban American
Patriots and Friends. He spent more than two years as a political
prisoner in Cuba in the 1960s. He and others in the exile community
often gather at Little Havana's famed Versailles Restaurant - a hub of
Antonio Esquivel, head of the democracy-seeking Cuban Patriotic Council,
says U.S.-Cuba flights provide only one-sided benefits.
"It's not helping anybody but the Castro regime. What they're looking
for is their money. That's all," he said.
But travelers say money is not the motive. "It's not putting money in
the hands of the Castros, but happiness in the homes of the families who
miss their relatives who have come to this country and are returning and
can return every day to see them," said passenger Octavio Giraldo.
As takeoff gets closer, it is clear how much that family time means to
Manuel Marquez and many other Cubans. "There I have my mother, my
siblings, my wife, and they are my loved ones. I wish I could have them
here," Marquez said.
Marquez wants the flights to continue. And in Little Havana, whether
other Cuban-Americans agree or not, they remain connected to their homeland.