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 enough.
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 “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,” Ms. 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 anti-Castro politics.
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.