MIAMI — The phone rang at Havana Centro Travel on a busy Thursday afternoon and the caller said he had just heard on cable news that Cuban Americans will no longer need special permission from the Cuban government to travel to the island.
“People are driving me crazy,” said travel agent Yanet Palma as she hung up the phone, referring to the new travel and trade restrictions going into effect today by the U.S. government. She explained to the caller who dialed the small travel agency, located in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana, that although travel has been relaxed for Americans, for many Cuban Americans it remains controlled by the Cuban government and little has changed.
While Americans are excited about the new relaxed trade and travel rules, there is a general feeling among Cuban Americans that nothing has changed for them.
Cubans who immigrated to the U.S. after 1970 must apply for a Cuban passport even if they are U.S. citizens. The passport costs $430 each 6 years and there is a $230 fee every 2 years so it remains active – a hefty price for Cubans making minimum wage. Those who fled the communist island prior to 1970 can use their U.S. passport but must apply for an HE-11 visa, which costs $250 and only lasts 90 days. The Cuban government can take months to grant these visas. Americans who are not Cuban immigrants, on the other hand, can purchase a visa for about $80 at the airport right before departing and use their U.S. passport, which costs $110 and lasts 10 years.
Travel can be even more difficult or impossible for those who left the country illegally. Rafters or doctors and athletes who deserted while on a mission are barred from traveling back to Cuba for 8 years.
Adonis Garces, a Miami resident who owns a delivery company, doesn’t think the new travel rules will have much of an impact on him. He has traveled to Cuba six times since he came to the U.S. in 2006, leaving behind his mother and 2 daughters.
“Traveling with an American passport would make a difference,” Garces said, adding that U.S. citizens are respected more in Cuba and can seek the help of the U.S. Interest Section if they run into trouble. He says it doesn’t make sense that his father has been an American citizen for 35 years and has to apply for a Cuban passport to travel to Cuba.
Garces, like many other Cuban Americans, is not phased by the increase in allowed quarterly remittances from $500 to $2,000 since he cannot afford to send that much money to the island.
He routinely sends $200 to his family each month and only once had to send an additional $150 for his daughters’ medical check-up before traveling to the U.S. to visit him.
Cubans who consistently send money back home tend to be working class, recent arrivals with close ties to the island and cannot afford to send more than $50 to $200 a month with their salaries.
The increase in allowed quarterly remittances will not impact many working-class Cuban Americans, who say they cannot send any more money to their relatives on the island.
Generally, Cuban Americans have been sending more than the allowed $500 per quarter because they have found ways around the restrictions. Sometimes they send money through travel agencies and other times they send cash with people traveling to the island.
Yadira Sebasco came from Cuba in 2004 with her husband and has traveled back to the island several times. She doesn’t think the relaxation of rules will have any impact on her travel or remittances. Sebasco and her husband send $100 a month to their relatives but can’t afford more.
“If I could, I would send more money to Cuba. Sending money really depends on the individual’s economic situation,” Sebasco said.
But for other Cuban Americans the easing of travel restrictions presents new opportunities. At Havana Central Travel, interest in travel to the island has gone up about 40 percent, according to travel agent Iliana Lopez.
“There are people who have been in this country for 40 years or who came when they were 2 years old that all of a sudden are interested in traveling back to Cuba,” she said.
One of those is South Carolina resident José Chaveco, who was born in the U.S. to Cuban parents and is planning his first visit to Cuba in March. He is eager to meet his father’s 16 brothers and sisters who live in Cuba, and plans to visit the beach resort town of Varadero as well as Havana.
Chaveco said he had reservations about traveling to Cuba before but “now that I heard restrictions are being lifted I’m less worried. I’ll even be able to use my bank card.”
He said his parents are excited about his trip even though they have never returned to Cuba. “I don’t know if they would want to go back,” he said.
For López and Havana Centro Travel, the easing of travel restrictions could provoke a boom in their business, mostly by Cuban-Americans.
Lopez said “it’s more complicated for Cuban Americans,” but the interest is increasing for those who have never been to the island. For Cubans who have been traveling to Cuba for years, they’re hoping for a reciprocal change in travel restrictions by the Cuban government. And what they ultimately hope for is a political change.
“For me, in order for my family situation to change, I don’t need the embargo to be lifted," said Garces. "I need the communist political system to change.”