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“Cuban-Americans couldn’t believe it was going to happen…People are losing their fear of speaking out”

Armando García. Vice President, Marazul Travel Agency, Miami

Marazul is a travel agency based in Miami, that has been arranging travel to Cuba for the last 25 years. It is the biggest company dealing with North American travellers to Cuba with direct departures from New York and Miami. Armando Garcia, vice president of Marazul heads up the department that caters to Cuban-American passengers and Bernie Dwyer of Radio Havana Cuba spoke to him by telephone at his office in Miami, today 1st July, the day after stringent and inhumane travel restrictions imposed by the Bush administration came into effect.

[Bernie Dwyer]  Why is it necessary for Cuban-Americans to have a particular department at Marazul Travel to arrange the trip for them?

[Armando García]  It’s more convenient to go through an agency for a start because there are a lot of requirements from the American side. There are different types of categories of passengers who can travel legally from the United States and they use us as a conduit to explain the regulations to the passengers. From the US point of view they have to sign different kinds of forms defining in which category they are travelling to Cuba.

[BD]  Can any US resident travel to Cuba if they want to?

[AG] No, the only way a US resident can travel directly to Cuba from the United States is to comply with US regulations and they are closely checked at the agency and airport level. The travel operators to Cuba are required to have a license from the US Treasury Department and that licence requires that you inform the passengers of the different options to travel. The tour operators are responsible to ensure that people comply with these regulations.

[BD] Can you explain exactly what the regulations are and what changes have been made?

[AG] Cuban-Americans are the largest group travelling to Cuba to visit relatives. Before June 30th, the regulations stated that Cuban-Americans could travel once every 12 months to visit relatives in Cuba. If they had not travelled in the last 12 months, they could simply go to an agency and sign an affidavit that they had not gone to Cuba in the last 12 months and that was it. Before, you could go every 12 months just by signing an affidavit.

The new regulations state that, from June 30th, you need a specific license to go to Cuba. To give you a specific license, there are conditions: that you had not travelled to Cuba in the last three years and that the travel is for the purpose of visiting close relatives defined as mother and father, sons and daughters, grandparents, siblings or a wife or husband. In other words, the US administration has redefined the concept of close family. For instance you cannot travel to visit an uncle or an aunt or a cousin. Those are the requirements. But we are having a more serious problem at this time. The regulations were announced on the 16th of June. Yesterday was the first day that a Cuban-American needed a specific license to travel to Cuba. We are speaking here of the fact the US Treasury Department have not issued a form to request that specific license. In other words, they have totally stopped any family travel. Yesterday’s flights, today’s flights, probably, tomorrow’s flights and so on, are probably going to be going without any Cuban-American on board because the US Treasury Department have not published the form.

Then there’s processing the form. Let’s say that if they publish it today or tomorrow, how long is it going to take to process that particular person to obtain that particular license? It could be weeks before any Cuban-American can travel to Cuba.

As to the licence requirements for non Cuban-Americans, I am not a specialist in that department as my responsibility in Marazul is related specifically to Cuban-Americans, but I can give you a general idea. Before, under the general license, US students could travel to Cuba for different kinds of educational purposes if their university had a license. The new regulations state that trips that are organised for student purposes to Cuba could continue only until the 15 of August. After the 15th of August, they will only permit students participating in studies in Cuba with certain characteristics. It has to be organised study over an extended period of time. Obviously that would limit the number of students going because usually the type of trips are for shorter periods.

[BD] There is something very unreal about these measures being put into effect. Did you really think it would come to this and how are your customers reacting?

[AG] When it was announced on May 12th or 13th, that these regulations – regarding the family, the 3 years and so on – were possible because of a recommendation put to Washington by the so-called Commission for a Free Cuba, Cuban-Americans were in denial. They could not believe it was going to happen. We were explaining to them at our offices what was expected according to the announcements that were made.

I would say that 95% of the people didn’t believe that this was going to happen. When the regulations were announced on the 16th of June, reality hit and many people began to realize what was really happening. We have had a very interesting reaction here in Miami where a polarisation of the Cuban community has become very real between people who support these new measures and people that are against it. It’s very interesting how the opinion is divided 50/50 up to this point.

[BD] You mention that it 50/50. Are these people actually making their opinions known or are you just surmising?

[AG] There have been some unofficial polls. For example, one of the TV stations here – “Telemundo” on local Channel 51 in Miami – did an Internet poll. Obviously this is not a scientific poll but the numbers were precisely that. There have been many other polls done by different organisations that show that close to 50% of the people support the possibility to travel and this is something that is increasing. People are feeling the need to express their opinions.

Concretely, I can tell you that an organization has been formed called the Commission for Cuban-American Family Rights, which is composed of many people from different sectors and has organised different activities. There have been other activities that have been organised by other groups and individuals. Some are spontaneous demonstrations. For example, we had a spontaneous demonstration at the airport here in Miami where people were demanding the possibility of travelling to Cuba. There were some marches here in Miami and car caravans.

But specifically, let me tell you that on the 20th of May the commission I mentioned before announced a press conference inviting people to participate. That was on a Thursday at noon. With two days prior notice that this activity was going to take place, I was really surprised that there were more than 400 people attending that press conference. So that shows you the level of reaction and we are talking about the 20th of May. I am sure that if other organized demonstrations are called, now after the 30th we are probably talking about thousands of people.

[BD] Do you feel that the Bush administrations somehow got it wrong in thinking that there would be widespread support for these measures in Miami?

[AG] Personally I think they got the wrong signal; the wrong advice. The people that had been advising them on this issue got the situation wrong. They have their own interests and I think they didn’t measure the reaction that would happen here. I think they calculated in order to obtain more Cuban-American votes here in Florida. They calculated that, by carrying out these measures, Cuban-Americans were going to rally around them. And they calculated that the majority of people that are registered to vote are people who left Cuba before 1980 and these people support the restrictions because they don’t have close family in Cuba. What they didn’t calculate was that this situation has moved a lot of people who came after 1980 to register to vote. In my opinion, they are going to find out in November how many of them there are.

[BD] What is the atmosphere like in Miami today?

[AG] Obviously a lot of people are affected. If you go to one of the Cuban restaurants or coffee places you will witness the dynamic of people talking about these measures. And you hear the discussion going from one side to the other. The polarization is happening here and it is very interesting and I think this is just the beginning.

[BD] Do you think that people are speaking out a bit more or are people still afraid of the old guard right-wing Cuban-Americans?

[AG] What happened is that they touched a very, very sensitive issue here: the family issue. Cubans are family-oriented and people are losing their fear of speaking out because they are not just talking about themselves, they are talking about the family and they are talking about a very unjust situation that has been created. Definitely, many people who are against these regulations understand that they are being pushed or they are being supported in a very active way by factors inside the Cuban community that are looking out for their own interests and miscalculating reality.

[BD] What solution can be offered to people when faced with these measures?

[AG] I think people are beginning to look at the solution to this situation as being directly related to the elections. The presidential nominee, or close to being nominee, for the Democratic Party, John Kerry, has already expressed his position: he is against these absurd regulations that go against the family and family values and he has expressed very clearly that he’s against restriction of travel to Cuba in general and specifically more against the restriction of family travel.

I think the polarization has been directed towards the elections and many people are beginning to see that one candidate is totally opposed to the other as far as this issue is concerned. A voter registration drive has developed all over this city and I think that it very interesting.

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