BY LUISA YANEZ, DOUGLAS HANKS AND LAURA FIGUEROA | Miami Herald
There was a time when advertising Viajes a Cuba on a storefront was an invitation to a pipe bombing.
In the politically charged Miami of the late 1970s and ‘80s, the FBI investigated more than a dozen blasts at Cuba travel agencies—considered nests of Communist agents by staunch anti-Castro exiles.
Selling tickets to Havana could even get you killed. That’s what happened to Carlos Muñiz Varela, a 26-year-old exile living in Puerto Rico who opened the first Cuba-approved travel agency. Thirty years ago this week, he was gunned down in San Juan.
But times have changed, and the travel agencies today worry little about political retribution.
‘‘They want to call me a communist—thank you very much,’’ said a strident Francisco Aruca, the owner of Marazul Charters. Aruca, also a Miami radio host, is one of the more outspoken of the seven agency owners who book charters to Cuba. They all have permission from Cuba and the U.S. Treasury Department.
The long-standing and sometimes violent clashes between exiles who oppose anyone doing business with the island have disappeared—welcome news to the agencies, where business has been booming since last month, when President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to travel or send money to relatives on the island.
Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, points no further than the windows of his Westchester storefront as indication that the climate for trips to Cuba has changed.
More than a decade ago, he had to install bullet-proof glass following a 1996 bombing that nearly gutted the store, which is across the street from The Falls on South Dixie Highway.
It was one of several bombing attempts against the company’s three South Florida stores. ‘‘People were scared for their lives,’’ Garcia said. ``None of the employees wanted to tell relatives where they worked for fear of retribution. ‘’
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Now customers sit in a row of chairs edged up against the window. Perception of those who travel to Cuba has also changed; it’s no longer a dirty little secret.
‘‘A lot of people were scared of telling their neighbors and friends—they would lie about where they were going on vacation,’’ Garcia said.
Miguel Saavedra, head of Vigilia Mambisa, a group that continues to picket those who do business with Cuba, said the travel agencies feed off Miami’s poor exile community. ‘‘Cuban exiles are victims of these agencies who prey off people traveling to see relatives by charging them exorbitant amounts of money that goes to the Cuba government,’’ Saavedra said. ``These agencies make a pact with the devil.’‘
Bad blood between exiles and the Cuba travel agencies erupted in earnest in 1978 after a group of Miami Cubans, who became known as the Comité de 75, visited the island and negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners.
More significantly, they also negotiated for travel to the island on what were called viajes de la comunidad—for the first time, trips by exiles to visit Cuba.
The deal created a need for agencies to open for business in Miami, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Cuba jumped in, creating Havanatur, a government agency charged with overseeing the venture with the U.S. travel agencies. But Aruca said Cuba originally had bigger plans. Cuban officials thought large American companies would jump in to book passage to the island—much like they did before the 1958 Cuban revolution.
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