POLITICS

Cuba-U.S. detente: It's a historic day to be a travel agent in Miami

01/16/2015 04:03 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT
HIALEAH, Fla. - For a milestone moment in the history of the Cold War, this one felt less like the fall of the Berlin Wall and more like water dripping off a slow-melting iceberg.

There were only subtle signs of new liberalized travel rules to Cuba taking effect in the U.S. on Friday — less noticeable than the sorts of celebratory scenes one normally associates with historic political detente.

The phones were ringing a little more than usual at Miami travel agencies.

"People say, 'Oh, we're interested in going to Cuba, can we go?' And I say, 'No,'" said Edgar Rodriguez, the manager at Col Travel in Hialeah, a suburb bustling with Cuban expats.

"It's still not open. You can't just buy a ticket at the airport and go to Cuba."

That's because his agency specializes in tourism travel — and tourism to Cuba remains technically illegal for Americans. But there are lots of other places in the neighbourhood that specialize in Cuba tours, and the rules for them have undergone a sudden and historic loosening.

At the Servicuba agency down the street, one agent says she's been getting calls and doesn't know what to tell people yet. It's a similar story right across the street at the Cubamax agency.

There are lots of travel agencies in this neighbourhood — with seemingly one or two on every block. That's because people with relatives in Cuba have been allowed for years to visit the island, through a bureaucratic application process conducted via travel agencies.

Despite the generations-old diplomatic chill, there's a vacation-goods store in the neighbourhood that sells bathing suits and has a sign over the door in Spanish: "For all your Cuba travel needs."

But plenty of things are about to change. Many more Americans will be allowed to visit Cuba; airlines will be able to sell tickets directly to customers; travel agencies will have less U.S. government paperwork to fill out; and the process will move away from the bureaucracy toward an honour system.

At Cubamax, they were trying to figure out the new rules Friday. The boss was in Washington in meetings, and employees weren't authorized to grant interviews.

But one man there said people are excited. He said the current system that requires booking charter flights can get complicated — and, with relatively few flights available, when one is overbooked or cancelled, passengers can find themselves stuck.

It's a particular problem around Valentine's Day, he said, when so many people want to visit loved ones. With several airlines already announcing that they're looking into new Cuba flights, he predicted things will get simpler: "We expect an increase in travel."

What the U.S. government announced Thursday, effective the next day, was a major loosening of rules for people hoping to visit the island under 12 categories related to work, cultural, sports, educational, religious and journalistic purposes.

And travel agencies and airlines will now be trusted to sell customers tickets under a general license, and not be forced to have each passenger apply to the government on a case-by-case basis.

A senior U.S. official said passengers could be audited later — so they'll have to keep documents for five years proving that they were travelling under one of the authorized categories.

"You need to remember that it's a violation of U.S. law for a traveller to disregard the travel categories," he said in a background briefing. "Penalties can be imposed."

But not everyone is celebrating.

Antipathy to the Castro regime runs deep in Miami, and one Cuban exile said she won't be visiting the island. She was at the Servicuba outlet, planning an upcoming trip to Niagara Falls.

She said her family lost everything after the revolution. They left 43 years ago, and she said it would be too painful to go back and see the place again.

"I will never go back," said the woman, who declined to be interviewed but was happy to chat with a reporter.

"I want to keep the place in my mind."

It's typical to see a harder attitude against re-engagement with Cuba from the older generation of expats, as illustrated in polls that show a generational swing.

Younger Cuban-Americans don't hold the same hostility as older expats, many of whom lived through the trauma of expropriation and still passionately detest the idea of dealing with the Castro regime.

One proponent for detente says the generational shift is palpable.

He said it's happening quickly, it's transforming Florida politics, and the changing opinion in this key presidential swing state is now having a ripple effect on American policy.

"Fifty years of one approach, people lose faith in it. And that's what happened — a lot of folks in the community have lost faith in the embargo policy," said Ricardo Herrero, a son of exiles who now runs Cuba Now, one of the groups that advised the Obama White House as it drafted its new policy.

"Cuba is no longer a third rail in Florida. Before, it was an issue that neither Republicans or Democrats wanted to touch, because it could cost you. That's no longer the case."