BY VANESSA BAUZA | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Scores of Cuban Americans laden with bulging duffle bags and wads of cash emerged from the dark tinted, sliding glass doors of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on Friday, seizing quick, last- minute trips to see their relatives before the Bush administration’s tight new travel restrictions take effect.
Meanwhile in Washington, the Treasury Department announced a one-month extension, which will allow Cuban Americans who travel to the island by June 29 to remain here legally until July 31. That deadline replaces a previously announced June 30 cut off date and gives “people who are currently in Cuba and subject to the country’s information embargo the necessary time to make appropriate travel arrangements off the island,” Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said.
The grace period will alleviate a frantic scramble that has consumed many Cuban American travelers and charter service providers who complained that they were not given enough time to adjust return dates to fly back from Cuba to the United States and avoid facing potential fines.
However, many who are currently visiting the island remained outraged by the new measures which aim to cripple President Fidel Castro’s hold on power while placing strict new controls on nearly every facet of Cuban Americans’ contact with the island - from what items they can send in packages to which relatives can receive them.
Like many Cuban Americans who rushed to beat the looming deadline and visit relatives on the island this week, Hector Gonzalez vented his frustration as he waited Friday at the Havanatur travel agency in downtown Havana. He had come for just a one-week trip, but wanted to extend his stay to take advantage of the grace period.
The recent U.S. citizen showed off his newly issued voter registration card, saying he would switch his Republican Party affiliation to voice his displeasure with the Bush administration.
” I will vote for (Democratic presidential candidate John) Kerry,” Gonzalez, 37, said. “I don’t like politics much, but when it touches your family that changes. I do not agree with these measures.”
Unlike Cuban exiles who left in the 1960’s and 70’s, recent Cuban Americans maintain close ties with relatives on the island and pump millions of dollars into Cuba’s economy with their frequent visits and cash remittances. To them, family trumps ideology. However, many are not voting citizens and therefore remain a politically weak bloc compared to longtime exiles.
“People who arrived (in the United States) after 1980 have a different way of thinking, they think more about family,” Gonzalez said.
Margarita Cortina who left Cuba two years ago under the visa lottery system, which annually awards 20,000 Cubans with exits permits to move to the United States, was so upset about the new travel restrictions that she planned to move from Miami to Costa Rica out of reach of the U.S. trade and travel embargo. If she had known the U.S. government would restrict her to visiting her parents, daughter and sister in the Isle of Youth only once every three years she would not have left, she said.
“These measures are inhumane and will not resolve anything,” said Cortina, 44, who works in a Miami factory pealing potatoes. “Fidel is going to stay where he is until the day he dies.”
In addition to limiting Cuban Americans’ trips to Cuba to once every three years the new regulations also cut the amount of money they can spend on the island to $50 a day. Only immediate relatives like parents, children, spouses and grandparents can receive remittances and gift parcels. The parcels must not contain clothing or personal hygiene products.
At the Golden Tulip Parque Central Hotel near Old Havana the tightened travel restrictions especially last year’s elimination of the so-called “people to people” licenses - have taken their toll. Ana Perez, head of the reservations department, said Americans once made up almost 40 percent of the hotel’s occupancy.
Now “there are very few, maybe one, two or three,” Perez said.
Douglas Donato, who moved to Miami two years ago and had not seen his family in Havana since then, was one of scores of Cuban Americans who streamed out of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on Friday eager to visit before the new regulations are implemented.
“I was going to come in August and spend more time here, but I got my visa the day before yesterday and moved up my trip,” said. He planned to only spend four days in Havana. No matter, Donato, 23, said, “I would come even if it were only for two days.”
Though the extension will allow some Cuban Americans to spend more time with their relatives, many have already booked trips back, fearing a $7,500 fine. Charter companies do not yet know how they will license Cuban American travelers under the new regulations.
“It’s really confusing. I’m getting calls every five minutes. We’re working our buns off,” said Tessie Aral, chief executive officer of Miami-based ABC Charters, which booked passengers on four extra flights from Cuba to the United States on Monday and Tuesday to beat the previously announced Wednesday deadline.
Gladys Garcia, 65, who traveled to Havana to visit her two sons, was too late to take advantage of the grace period. She boarded a flight back to Miami on Friday, cutting her trip short by a week because she feared a fine from the Treasury Department. During a tearful goodbye at the airport, she said she hoped Bush would not be reelected.
“I don’t know anything about politics, all I care about are my two sons who are here,” Garcia said. “Let’s see if things change in November.”