Curb your enthusiasm. Cuba isn’t truly ‘opening up’ to Cuban-American travel

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When the catchy announcement from the Cuban Foreign Ministry came through my Twitter feed, I was as culturally removed from Miami as it gets — meaning relaxed, the political button unplugged.

“The government of the U.S. closes and Cuba opens,” began the announcement, quoting Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, about new travel rules designed to make it easier for Cuban-born ex-pats, Cuban Americans, and their foreign-born children to return to the homeland.

My heart did skip a beat.

Does this mean I no longer need the permission of the Cuban government to visit the country of my birth?

Or, does it mean that now, like any other American citizen with a passport, I can count on the fact that when a visa to visit Cuba is issued to me by an airline or by a cruise ship I will actually be allowed to disembark? And not be denied entry, as some Cuban Americans have experienced at airports and cruise ship counters, losing thousands of dollars in paid travel fees that aren’t reimbursed by carriers or credit cards?

If that were the case, then Cuba’s move to liberalize travel would be a brilliant one in the age of Trump, and certainly, decades overdue. The 2014 Obama rapprochement, as ground-breaking as it was, seemed to cater mostly to American interests, leaving out what should’ve been a significant part of the equation: the restoration of the right of Cuban Americans to return to the homeland.

But, oh, what silly hope lies in the hearts of Cuban Americans waiting for the day when common-sense policy, respectful of basic human rights, will replace the 59-year nightmare of the Castro brothers’ repressive rule.

As it stands now that Cuba has begun delivering the fine print on the new rules, we’d all do well to curb our enthusiasm. As a Cuban colleague put it, these measures amount to “del lobo, un pelo.” From the wolf, one hair.

I fail to see how the new rules are designed to encourage Cuban-American travel to the island. Nothing changes for Cubans like me who left before 1971. I can travel with my American passport as before, but I still need special permission from the Cuban government, which reserves the right to turn me away at the point of entry. To an American, a visa means guaranteed entry. But because my U.S. passport says my place of birth is Cuba, I’m subjected to arbitrary treatment.

Most of the relaxed rules are aimed at a different kind of Cuban — the more recent émigrés, who now can forgo a $25 habilitación passport stamp, but still have to pay a whopping $160 to keep their Cuban passport updated every two years, and who can apply for Cuban citizenship for their children born abroad. The stamp issue is a minor bureaucratic benefit as a result of cuts in embassy staff in Cuba and the United States after the sonic attacks on American diplomats. As for the official lifting of the eight-year waiting period for those who left illegally, that hardly amounts to much in practical terms. Most Cubans who arrived by boat, cross-country trek, or overstayed visitor visas — and want to visit — go back to Cuba after they’ve been in the United States the year-and-a-day required by the Cuban Adjustment Act. Those who can’t — doctors, diplomats and athletes who abandoned posts while abroad — are still exempted from the benefit.

Perhaps the most significant change is that Cuba is putting down on paper what it has been quietly allowing via word-of-mouth channels for years before Trump: U.S. recreational boats anchoring or passing through Havana’s Marina Hemingway Matanzas’ Gaviota-Varadero Marina. Wealthy boaters in South Florida, including Cuban-American ones, have told me in past years that they’ve sailed to Marina Hemingway and have been well received. Southern Boating Magazine featured “Cuba’s Unspoiled Wilderness” on its Miami Boat Show issue earlier this year.

In a way, Cuba’s new rules are a lot like Trump’s topsy-turvy Cuba policy: a lot of roar and little bite.

Trump exempted from his alleged frivolous travel crackdown the cruise ships and airlines that continue to ferry U.S. tourists to Cuba unrestricted. Let the rum and cigar flow as long as the trip is “educational” while independent travel is made more difficult and limited.

Rodríguez is grandstanding when he says that Cuba, in light of Trump, is defending the right of Cubans “to visit this country, to visit their families and to family reunification,” when it’s the Cuban government that has kept us apart all these years.

Despite the bilateral travel-policy dance, Trump hasn’t completely closed off Cuba — and Cuba hasn’t completely opened up to Cuban-Americans.

It’s politics as usual between the arch enemies — and none of the two governments care one iota about the Cuban people, be they on the island or the diaspora.

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