Cuban Americans brace for tougher travel after Trump's new restrictions

“This is going to be torture,” said a Cuban who lives more than 500 miles from the capital and worries about his U.S. relatives' ability to visit.
Image: Jose Marti International airport
Jose Marti International airport in Havana, on April 30, 2019.Adaberto Roque / AFP via Getty Images

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By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI ­— The Trump administration's latest restrictions on flights to Cuba have left Cubans and Cuban Americans worried that travel will become complicated, leaving their families and local businesses to suffer "torture."

Since then-President Barack Obama restored commercial flights to Cuba in 2016, more Cuban Americans have been visiting relatives in provinces far from the country's capital of Havana on direct flights. That option will be ending soon; last week, the Trump administration announced that flights to all airports except Havana will come to an end Dec. 9.

That means the trip to Cuba that Eloina Ramos, 74, is planning to take in January to visit her 96-year-old mother may be more complicated than she expected.

Each year, since Ramos came to the United States in 1980, she visits her mother, two sisters and brother in the central province of Ciego de Avila. She takes clothes, food, medicine and vitamins to her family.

Now, Ramos said, she will have to fly to Havana — rather than the nearby airport in Camaguey — and take a taxi to her mother’s house, which is a six-hour drive from the capital. The other option is to take a bus that can be unreliable or use the charter companies that are notorious for being understaffed, as well as require four-hour check-ins.

“I don’t know why they terminated the flights. I wish they had done something else,” Ramos said.

The flights to airports outside Havana are used mostly by Cuban Americans to visit relatives and take goods that are in short supply in the island. From Miami, it's common to take short trips — from Friday to Sunday — so people only miss one day of work.

The end of direct flights to these farther destinations makes those popular weekend trips nearly impossible.

According to a State Department spokesperson speaking on background to NBC News, the new travel restrictions aim to hit the Cuban government through one of its highest earning sectors, which is hospitality. By reducing the flow of funds, the U.S. aims to limit the foreign currency the Cuban government gets, the spokesperson said, criticizing Cuba's support of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as well as what the State Department called the Cuban government's "repression against its own people."

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A former senior U.S. government official told NBC News that Trump's initial rollback of Obama-era policies, which were not as severe and were seen as a fulfillment of Trump's campaign promise, nevertheless have continued to escalate due to mounting pressure from Cuban American legislators and hard-line administration officials.

The former official said that to unwind the normalization process is not the same thing as implementing more serious measures against Cuba, as has been the case.

Though Cuban Americans traveling to remote provinces have been buying the plane tickets, in areas far from the capital most people stay with family and not in the government-run hotels that are more prevalent in Havana and Varadero.

Underground courier services known as “mulas," which fly back and forth between Miami and different destinations in Cuba delivering hard-to-get products that include anything from Advil and antibiotics to walkers and comforters, will take a hit.

Demand for flights to Havana will surely increase, but the number of flights arriving at Havana’s José Martí International Airport are likely to stay the same. Under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the U.S. and Cuba in February 2016, U.S. carriers may operate a total of 20 daily round-trip frequencies between the U.S. and Havana, according to a Department of Transportation spokesperson.

Cuban American Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who supports a tougher line on Cuba said in a statement to NBC News which he later released publicly that the measure “is yet another example of President Trump’s commitment to exerting maximum pressure against the Cuban regime."

“It’s ludicrous, but not surprising, that the Cuban regime says the U.S. doesn’t care about impacting Cuban families when puppet Díaz-Canel is Cuba’s oppressor-in-chief,” the statement went on to say.

Cuba's Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, tweeted after the Trump administration's announcement that they strongly reject the measure; he wrote it "mutilates US people liberties & damages people-to-people contacts. But they won't extract any concession from us. We shall overcome!"

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a proponent of better relations between the U.S. and Cuba, criticized the administration's move, calling the end to the flights “a stupid political stunt."

"It is absurd that this administration is taking away the freedom of American travelers to fly wherever they want," he said, adding that disagreements should be handled through diplomacy and dialogue and not "obsolete" Cold War restrictions.

Rubén Díaz, 48, a taxi driver in Santiago de Cuba in the easternmost part of the island — about 540 miles from Havana — worries that the lack of flights to his region once the restrictions go into effect will make it harder for his U.S.-based brother and nephews.

“This measure puts my family in a difficult, uncomfortable situation to come see us here,” he said.

Díaz thinks ending the flights is not going to make a dent on the Cuban government, but rather hurt families by creating distance between them.

“This is going to be torture,” he said.

Carmen Sesin reported from Miami, and Orlando Matos from Havana.

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Orlando Matos contributed.