The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, May 26, 2002

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 their
                 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 attendants
                 grew frantic trying to control the excitement.

                 The passengers applauded, cheered and whistled when the wheels touched the
                 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 and
                 two nations separated by 90 miles of blue seas and diametrically opposed

                 Travel restrictions to Cuba remain in place for most Americans, and only people
                 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 Castro's
                 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 the
                 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 full,
                 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 going
                 back to Cuba for the first time," he said.

                 Passengers on the charter flights are allowed 44 pounds of baggage before they
                 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 for the
                 mothers they have not seen in two decades.

                 At the arrival area outside the customs hall, hundreds of Cubans endured the
                 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, the
                 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 years of
                 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 it would
                 be a long time before they hugged their son or daughter or brother or sister

                 Maybe never.

                 Sarah Sanchez thinks it might be never. She thought she was lucky to have won
                 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 to
                 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 the
                 Continental jet that would whisk her to the land of freedom and democracy. "And
                 so very sad."