Posted on Sun, May. 03, 2009
Selling trips to Cuba once was deadly
BY LUISA YANEZ, DOUGLAS HANKS AND LAURA FIGUEROA
There was a time when advertising Viajes a Cuba on a storefront was an invitation to a pipe bombing.
In the politically charged Miami of the late 1970s and '80s, the FBI investigated more than a dozen blasts at Cuba travel agencies -- considered nests of Communist agents by staunch anti-Castro exiles.
Selling tickets to Havana could even get you killed. That's what happened to Carlos Muñiz Varela, a 26-year-old exile living in Puerto Rico who opened the first Cuba-approved travel agency. Thirty years ago this week, he was gunned down in San Juan.
But times have changed, and the travel agencies today worry little about political retribution.
''They want to call me a communist -- thank you very much,'' said a strident Francisco Aruca, the owner of Marazul Charters. Aruca, also a Miami radio host, is one of the more outspoken of the seven agency owners who book charters to Cuba. They all have permission from Cuba and the U.S. Treasury Department.
The long-standing and sometimes violent clashes between exiles who oppose anyone doing business with the island have disappeared -- welcome news to the agencies, where business has been booming since last month, when President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to travel or send money to relatives on the island.
Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, points no further than the windows of his Westchester storefront as indication that the climate for trips to Cuba has changed.
More than a decade ago, he had to install bullet-proof glass following a 1996 bombing that nearly gutted the store, which is across the street from The Falls on South Dixie Highway.
It was one of several bombing attempts against the company's three South Florida stores. ''People were scared for their lives,'' Garcia said. ``None of the employees wanted to tell relatives where they worked for fear of retribution. ''
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Now customers sit in a row of chairs edged up against the window. Perception of those who travel to Cuba has also changed; it's no longer a dirty little secret.
''A lot of people were scared of telling their neighbors and friends -- they would lie about where they were going on vacation,'' Garcia said.
Miguel Saavedra, head of Vigilia Mambisa, a group that continues to picket those who do business with Cuba, said the travel agencies feed off Miami's poor exile community. ''Cuban exiles are victims of these agencies who prey off people traveling to see relatives by charging them exorbitant amounts of money that goes to the Cuba government,'' Saavedra said. ``These agencies make a pact with the devil.''
Bad blood between exiles and the Cuba travel agencies erupted in earnest in 1978 after a group of Miami Cubans, who became known as the Comité de 75, visited the island and negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners.
More significantly, they also negotiated for travel to the island on what were called viajes de la comunidad -- for the first time, trips by exiles to visit Cuba.
The deal created a need for agencies to open for business in Miami, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Cuba jumped in, creating Havanatur, a government agency charged with overseeing the venture with the U.S. travel agencies. But Aruca said Cuba originally had bigger plans. Cuban officials thought large American companies would jump in to book passage to the island -- much like they did before the 1958 Cuban revolution.
''They were ignoring the public relations aspect that many of these bigger companies would not want to get in the middle of U.S. and Cuban affairs,'' Aruca said. ``Once Cuba realized that no big travel outfits were signing on to coordinate trips, they realized they should work with the smaller Cuban-American businesses.''
The down side: The small agencies became a magnet for anti-Castro anger.
George Kiszynski, a special agent for the FBI in Miami during the late 1970s and '80s, was caught in the middle, assigned with stopping the rash of bombings. The bombings soon spread from the travel and packages-to-Cuba agencies to consulates of countries that did business with Cuba, and to persons believed to support the Cuban government and even the FBI and state attorney's offices in Miami.
''The interesting thing is that there were many bombers, not just one. That made it more difficult,'' said Kiszynski, now director of investigations for the Ackerman Group. It became so hectic, he created an ad hoc task force with other local law enforcement agents. ``We were pretty successful in arresting many of the bombers.''
Most of the bombs were set to go off in the early morning. ''If one had gone off during the day, it could have killed someone,'' he said. In Miami, no one was killed.
In Puerto Rico, Muñiz was not as fortunate. With the blessing of Cuba, he had wasted no time scheduling the first flight through Viajes Varadero in December 1978.
Although he was only in his 20s, Muñiz was a dedicated political activist who supported Puerto Rican independence. He was a member of the leftist Antonio Maceo Brigade, said his best friend, Raúl Alzaga Manresa, current owner of the company.
Viajes Varadero made its inaugural flight with about 90 people aboard; Muñiz was among the passengers.
Four months later, he was shot in the head as he drove to his mother's house in San Juan. No arrests have ever been made. ''There had been threats, and our office had been bombed, but I guess we were too young to take the danger seriously; it was a mistake,'' Alzaga said.
The anniversary of Muñiz's death is being marked this week by Cuban government news sites.
''I don't like to use the word martyr, but I guess you can call Muñiz our martyr in the Cuba travel industry. He was the first and the only one directly killed over it,'' Aruca said.
For those agencies in business with Cuba, there are rules to follow. Initially, the travel companies had to follow conditions set by Havanatur -- among them, all flights had to be purchased with a seven-day stay in one of the state-run hotels.
Eventually agency owners were able to bargain to only require one night's stay in a hotel, and by the 1990s the hotel requirement was lifted.
Aruca said Marazul charged customers the cost of the flight and hotel stay, but barely broke even.
In the 1990s, travel agencies diversified by seeking out organizations, sports teams and schools that wanted to travel to Cuba for humanitarian and educational reasons, Aruca said.
Despite the domestic political controversy, winning permission from Washington for the flights is considered the easy part of the equation, said John Kavulich II, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. ''From the U.S. side, if you meet the criteria, you cannot be denied. There isn't a quota,'' Kavulich said.
On the Cuba side, it's another story.
''The Cuban government is going to favor those operators who have stated publicly that they oppose certain U.S. policies'' -- like Washington's trade embargo against the island, Kavulich said.
''They'll Google you,'' he added. ``Have you written letters, have you given testimony, have you been in the media opposing what the Cuban government feels are policies doing [Cuba] a disservice?''