The Plane People of Miami
SPENCER REISS IN MIAMI
PETER KATEL IN HAVANA
Castro’s new freedom flights-round trip
The Miami Cubans in their Vanilla Ice T-shirts and Gucci loafers cheer and wave in the airport greeting area. The arriving passengers, dazed, wander out of Customs like aliens from a drab galaxy. And that they are-the latest arrivals on Flight 8506 from Havana. Once a one-way ride on a raft was the only ticket out of Cuba, and there are still plenty of those: as of last weekend, nearly 600 “floaters,” as the U.S. Coast Guard calls them, had been picked up – a record for any year. But now Cubans can visit Miami and stay dry, too: nearly 2,000 a week are hopping aboard twice-a-day charter flights from Havana. “I’m running out of planes,” says charter operator Vivien Mannerud.
Castro himself has permitted this quiet tear in his iron curtain. It’s not another Mariel boatlift, the chaotic 1980 escape of 125,000 Cubans. This year’s travel is more like a gigantic tourist exchange, bringing people both ways for happy reunions-and drawing Miami and Havana closer together than at any time in the Castro era. The charter flights are legal under the 28-year-old U.S. embargo against Castro because family tourism was never banned. And they have prospered since early this year, when Havana dropped the minimum age requirement for exit visas from 60 to 40-provided that U.S. relatives pay the inflated $900 travel and visa costs.
Cuba needs the dollars and consumer goods. But the flights also serve as a safety valve for Havana’s restive artists and academics. “Some people stay for a couple of weeks or even months, others just don’t go back,” says Oscar Alvarez, an actor and former political prisoner who arrived in Miami 18 months ago. “Sometimes I have a sensation of being neither here nor there.”
Miami itself is loosening up. One charter company operates what amounts to an informal Cuban consulate, even processing visa applications. The Miami Herald’s Spanish-language offshoot runs cheerful ads for companies offering to send food packages to Havana, arrange a visit to relatives on the island or hand deliver 500 pesos for $100. (The official exchange rate is one to one.) Last month south Florida’s anti-Castro radio stations got some new competition: Radio Progreso, which calls for negotiation from the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.
Nostalgia is overwhelming anti-Castroism. Earlier this month a Cuban-born Miami TV reporter breathlessly took viewers undercover on a one-day, $189 package tour out of Jamaica to Cuba’s second largest city, Santiago. Even exile leaders like Jorge Mas Canosa, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation, are opening up. “We will talk to any Cuban, in any position, with the exception of Castro himself,” he says. “I have talked with a Cuban official right here in this office. ” Mas worries that many of the visitors may be “plants,” but adds: “It’s amazing what is going on. ”
Cubans brought up on anti-Miami propaganda are amazed too. “I never realized that Miami is Cuba,” says painter Arturo Cuenca, a 35-year-old hero of the Havana avant-garde, who left in 1990 and moved to Miami two months ago after a year in Mexico. Even official detectors, who used to get the red-carpet treatment, now find a buyer’s market; a third secretary from the Cuban Embassy in Moscow was reduced to selling pizza. Oficialista visitors still keep a low profile, but find a ready audience. “I talked with about 50 people,” says Mercedes Arce, head of the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of Political Alternatives, who visited last month. “We didn’t agree, but the fact that we could converse about things other than the revolution and Fidel is evidence of change.”
Inside the U.S. Interests Section on Havana’s waterfront, hundreds of would-be visitantes sit watching cable TV movies and waiting for their interview with a consular officer. To the relief of U.S. immigration officials, Cuba’s own age limit for exit visas has helped ensure that most who go are too old to be overly attracted by Miami’s bright lights once their visas expire; that is almost sure to change, especially if, as senior Cuban officials have been hinting, the age limit is dropped to 18. Indeed, the current wave of waterborne refugees (who automatically get asylum) has south Florida officials worrying about a Mariel II.
The Cubans allow returning visitors only 44 pounds of baggage; one recent returnee tried to board the plane wearing an upside-down electric rice cooker, disguised Carmen Miranda-style with plastic flowers and fruit. The government continues to jam the U.S.-sponsored TV Mart!, but ordinary south Florida radio and television still get through. In a two-room Havana apartment, a 28-year-old draftsman has been watching Miami’s Spanish-language Channel 23. Sure, he’d like to visit the city, he says. But stay? “If I win the lottery or something, then maybe.” Some day he might feel at home in Miami–knowing he can always go back to Havana.