Time For Me To Fly

Miamians take off for Cuba with restrictions lifted

It's been just two weeks since travel restrictions to Cuba were relaxed, but already Miamians are flocking to the island, planning trips that weren't possible just a short time ago.

But as younger Cuban Americans welcome the changes instituted by the Obama administration, older exiles haven't forgotten why they fled the Communist nation and have no intention of going back anytime soon.

Miami-based charter companies who operate flights between here and Cuba say reservation requests have doubled since Obama lifted travel restrictions earlier this month.   

Edel Hernandez, who left a wife in Cuba, was booked on a flight immediately. He hadn't seen her in two years and under the old rules he would have had to wait another year.

"It's been hard," Hernandez told the Washington Post.

Hernandez, at 35, is part of the younger generation of Cuban-Americans who dismiss the notion that travel to the island benefits the Castro regime.

"I'm helping my family," he told the Post while waiting for his flight at Miami International Airport. "The clothes I'm bringing are for them. The government isn't going to wear them."

In a new poll of 400 Cuban Americans conducted April 14-16, 64 percent supported Obama's new travel policy. 67 percent said all Americans should be able to go to the island, with the percentage of support for the 1962 trade embargo dropping from 53 to 42 percent.

Despite the numbers, some older Cuban Americans are against the increased travel and lifting the embargo.

Juan Carlos Meneses, 51, hasn't been back to Cuba since he escaped in 1980.

"How can you say you're fleeing from the regime and ask for political asylum if you're going to turn around a few years later and go vacation in Cuba?" Meneses told the Post.

Juan Manuel Rodríguez, 55, disagrees. Despite fleeing Cuba on a raft in 1994, Rodriguez sees little point in perpetuating the embargo.

"It's been 50 years and nothing's changed," Rodríguez said. "I want the Cuban people to meet Americans and be exposed to the world."

Some agencies say flights are booked a month in advance, but the costs of the trip are keeping many would-be travelers on the ground.

Many round-trip tickets for the 40-minute flight are going for upwards of $500, with steep baggage fees tacked on by the charter companies and Cuban customs officials in Havana.

"I'd go every 15 days if I could afford it," said René Valdés, 40, who also came to the US on a homemade raft in 1994.  He says he might move back to Cuba and retire there "if things change."

"I've got a file this long," Valdés joked, stretching his arms wide. "I hope they threw it in the trash."

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