Local Cuban Americans ready for takeoff to homeland
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 08 / 18 / 2011
By CLOE CABRERA | The Tampa Tribune.August 17, 2011. ST. PETERSBURG. It's been nearly 50 years since Luis Garcia last saw his native homeland of Cuba. He was 9 years old when his mother and father brought him to the United States when Fidel Castro took power.
"I always knew I wanted to go back one day," says Garcia, 58, from his home in St. Petersburg. "I always wondered what it would be like to go back and see (Cuba) again."
Garcia will soon see his homeland.
Under new travel rules implemented by the Obama administration, Tampa International Airport will begin offering direct flights to Cuba next month.
Garcia says the changes are enough to prompt him to make a trip back home.
"I'm getting old," Garcia added. "I don't want to pass away before seeing (Cuba) again and seeing my relatives. Now, it's closer; it's cheaper and more convenient. I don't have to rent a car and drive four hours to Miami. I think a lot of Cuban Americans have been waiting for this."
Garcia is part of a surge in Cuban-American visitors expected to visit the island nation when charter flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana begin next month.
Tampa's airport is one of eight airports to gain federal approval to schedule charter flights to and from Cuba, offering a new gateway for Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the communist island.
In the past, travelers here had to travel to Miami – the closest airport allowing flights to Cuba – Los Angeles or New York to catch a flight.
Direct flights from Tampa to Havana will begin twice weekly on Sept. 8. Miami-based charter companies XAEL Charters Inc., will fly from Tampa International Airport to Havana Sept. 8, while ABC Charters will begin flights Sept. 10.
The Sept 10 flight is filled, but there are a few seats available on the Sept. 8 flight, according to local travel agents. Round-trip fares will cost about $450.
Passengers must have close relatives in Cuba, or must be involved in the medical or agriculture fields to fly. Travel for educational or religious activities will also be allowed.
Antonio Busto plans a trip later this year. He's travelled to Cuba several times since leaving in 1975, but decided to go again when Tampa announced direct flights.
Busto says the wear and tear of travelling to Miami has been difficult on his 86-year-old body; not to mention the financial strain.
"I don't drive," says Busto, 86, who is retired. "So I have to depend on someone to take me to the [Miami] airport. There's gas and food and the waiting (at the airport) are very hard on me. I do it for my family. This is going to make it much easier for me and other Cubans."
In a small bedroom inside his St. Petersburg home, Busto and Luis Garcia, his son-in-law, have amassed some of the items they will take to relatives. There are piles of brand new men's slacks, shirts, shoes, ladies flip-flops and sandals, blouses and fishing line. He's also purchased over-the-counter medicines including heartburn and pain medications and diabetes supplies.
"When Cubans go to see family, we have to take things they need," he adds. "And there is a lot of necessity in Cuba."
But Busto says the convenience of traveling from Tampa doesn't outweigh the fact he will have to spend more to take items from Tampa than he did in Miami. Travelers must pay $2 for every pound over 44 pounds, compared to $1 in Miami.
"They make it easier one way, but more difficult in other ways," Busto adds. "I can't take everything I want to take. Why can't it be equal?"
Local travel agents say they expect the charges to drop once flights begin.
"This is something new for Tampa," says Ana Maria Garcia, owner of Todo Services Inc., an envios and travel agency in St. Petersburg. "I don't see it staying this way for very long."
Garcia, 59, says Cubans began booking flights as soon as they were announced. She says many were older Cuban Americans who left Cuba when Castro's revolution caused an exodus.
"A lot of them have visited their family, but not as often as they would like," she says. "We're not going to let our family suffer because we don't believe in the government. If you are 30 minutes from the airport, a lot of Tampa Cubans are going to fly to Cuba."
Aimara Diaz, owner of Envios a Cuba Tampa agrees.
"This is something that should have been allowed a long time ago," she says. "To have so many Cuban Americans living here and such a beautiful airport and not be able to use it to fly home just isn't prudent."
More than 80,000 Cuban-Americans live in the Tampa Bay area, the third-largest population in the United States after South Florida and New York.
Diaz, who opened her envios company in January, hasn't travelled to Cuba since 2003, but plans to visit a sick aunt this year.
"The Cuban community has been waiting for this," she says. "To be able to leave your home and go directly to the airport to see your family without worrying about what time the bus is coming to pick you up or how long it will take to get there. And if you have a very ill relative, you can get there much quicker. This is a wonderful thing."
Diaz says that as important as the gifts of basic necessities are, the emotional reunions with relatives are more significant for families separated by only 90 miles of water.
"What you feel when that plane is about to land and everyone starts clapping is indescribable," she says. "You realize you're about to be reunited with family and friends you haven't seen in years. That's something you can't put a price on. (These flights) are about being able to see your family when you need to."
Cloe Cabrera (813) 259-7656