HAVANA: Cuban Americans wept with joy Monday as they stepped onto their parents’ homeland off the first US cruise ship to sail to the island in half a century.
A handful of Cuban Americans born in the United States or taken there as children were among 700 passengers on the cruise, a new milestone in the rapprochement between the old Cold War foes.
A crowd waved Cuban and American flags and filmed with their cell phones as the Adonia, a Carnival cruise liner, sailed into port in Havana in the sun. The crowd cheered when it blasted its horn.
The ship had set off Sunday from Miami, the heart of the Cuban diaspora in the United States.
“I’ve been crying since dawn. I can’t believe I am here,” said Maria Eugenia Pena, a 47-year-old lawyer born in Miami.
Her parents left Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro launched the revolution that brought him to power in 1959.
“I really longed to see the land where my parents, and cousins whom I have never met, were born,” said Pena.
“I’ve come here with my first cousin. We are sharing this experience together.”
On the seafront, Yaney Cajigal, a 32-year-old dancer, could barely contain her excitement as she waited for her niece to disembark.
“This is incredible for me, this is very exciting,” she told Agence France-Presse.
“We’re welcoming them with the flags of Cuba and the United States so everything will be unity, peace and tranquility.”
The voyage is the first of what Carnival says will become week-long cruises twice a month to promote cultural exchange between the United States and Cuba.
Ties began openly warming in December 2014 and the two countries restored full diplomatic relations last year.
The “cultural exchange” aspect is key, since ordinary tourism to Cuba is still banned under a US trade and financial embargo, which remains in force despite the diplomatic thaw.
For the time being, Americans can travel to Cuba only for cultural, academic, sports-related or religious events.
Carnival is the first cruise line company to win permission from both governments to offer trips, which ended after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
The Adonia has scheduled cultural activities in its ports of call in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, including meetings with artists, musicians and business owners, as well as dance classes and guided tours.
The cruise “offers a truly historic opportunity for travel to Cuba: a chance to help build new bridges to a rich and vibrant culture that, until now, most US travelers have only seen in photographs,” the cruise ship’s webpage says.
Cubans free to sail
Carnival initially refused to accept reservations from Cuban-born customers because of the communist government’s restrictions on seaborne visits by Cubans to and from the United States.
The cruise line’s policy prompted charges of discrimination.
Carnival, the world’s leading tour ship operator, eventually relented and began allowing reservations from Cuban-born customers. But its conditions to start the visits were for Cuba to allow its citizens to sail freely.
Cuba backed down after intense negotiations as part of the normalization process, which culminated in US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in March.
One of the Cuban-born passengers was Isabel Buznego, 61, who left the island when she was five and was returning for the first time.
“My dad wanted to come… but he passed away,” she said. “So I’m coming in his name. That is why I have so many different emotions, but I am mostly happy.”
Another passenger, 58-year-old Regina Patterson from Delaware, said she wanted to take the cruise because it was historic.
“And it is a place I always wanted to visit,” she said. “I want to see how they live, the music, what they eat, and shopping, shopping, shopping!”
The cost of a ticket on the cruise ranges from $1,800 to $7,000 per person.
Regular flights from the United States to Cuba are expected to begin later this year. AFP