Cuba tugs at hearts as many go 'home'
Moni Basu - Staff
With 25 minutes remaining on the flight to Havana, Cuban soil became visible
between the wispy clouds and blue skies. Many of the 64 passengers on the
America Eagle propeller plane jumped up from their seats to peer out the left
side of the cabin.
"Look! Look! There it is," exclaimed one man up front. Everyone craned
necks to catch a glimpse of what they had left behind so many years ago.
They ignored the "fasten seat belts" sign and leapt up. The two flight
grew frantic trying to control the excitement.
The passengers applauded, cheered and whistled when the wheels touched
runway at Jose Marti Airport. They had escaped Fidel Castro's iron fist, but now
they were happy to be "home."
Sons and daughters separated from mothers and fathers. Families torn apart
two nations separated by 90 miles of blue seas and diametrically opposed
Travel restrictions to Cuba remain in place for most Americans, and only
with permission from the U.S. government --- journalists, humanitarian workers,
academic researchers and some Cuban-Americans --- can take a charter flight.
The New York-based U.S. Trade and Economic Council estimated that 173,000
Americans visit Cuba legally each year. And 22,000 others defied the travel ban
and went illegally.
The Cuban expatriates who arrived in America in the 1960s, shortly after
1959 revolution, worry they soon will be too old and feeble to travel.
Many fear they will never see their loved ones again.
Direct flights to Havana were started when President Jimmy Carter opened
way for Cuban-Americans to travel to their homeland.
Two years ago, the flights were expanded to fly from New York and Los Angeles.
The flights are arranged by licensed travel companies such as Marazul Charters
Inc. and on average cost $300 round trip.
More often than not, the rented American Eagle and Continental planes are
said Dariem Zamora, who works for Marazul, one of eight companies operating
charter flights from Miami to Havana and back.
These days, flights are available every day of the week.
"There is always going to be at least one person on each flight who is
back to Cuba for the first time," he said.
Passengers on the charter flights are allowed 44 pounds of baggage before
are charged for excess weight.
Cuban-Americans have learned to make the most of their allowance.
Their bags are stuffed with medicine and everyday things that are not available
on the shelves of drab state-owned stores and cooperatives --- perfume, toys,
Many are carrying new life-size dolls. New clothes. Boomboxes. And medical
supplies. At an intense security check at the gate, one man's duffel bag spills
out a plethora of ointments, bandages and thermometers.
On the Friday before Mother's Day, the luggage is overflowing with gifts
mothers they have not seen in two decades.
At the arrival area outside the customs hall, hundreds of Cubans endured
tropical sun to wait for their relatives and friends. "Maria! I am here," yelled one
woman, waving her arms frantically in the air.
The passengers disappeared one by one into the crowd that awaited them,
full jolt of emotion unknown to all but them.
They stepped into cars, taxis and buses that took them to Old Havana, Miramar,
Vedado, Marianao and other barrios that were once familiar.
Some of the faces on the return flight a week later were familiar. After
anticipation, seven days whizzed by at rocket speed. The time is never enough.
At Jose Marti, tears rolled down the distraught faces of people who knew
be a long time before they hugged their son or daughter or brother or sister
Sarah Sanchez thinks it might be never. She thought she was lucky to have
a lottery that provided her and daughter Jany with tickets to Miami. Her husband
left Cuba years ago, and she has not laid eyes on him since, except once when
he visited Havana in 1994.
He is waiting on the other side.
But for now, eight members of her family have accompanied her to the airport
say their goodbyes. Her sister, her young niece and her mother were among the
group. There were not enough handkerchiefs to wipe away the tears.
Her mother's sobs were the last thing Sanchez heard before disappearing
through the immigration cubicle and into the departure lounge.
"I am excited, but terribly nervous," said Sanchez, minutes before boarding
Continental jet that would whisk her to the land of freedom and democracy. "And
so very sad."