Cuba eases decades-long restrictions on sea travel

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MIAMI – Cuba rescinded a decades-old policy on Friday, lifting a restriction that prevented Cubans from entering or leaving the country by cruise ship or commercial ship, according to a statement in the country’s national newspaper, Granma.

The move, another easing of Cuba’s Cold War stance toward the United States, came after a fury in Miami prompted Carnival Cruise Line to announce that it would delay its inaugural May 1 cruise to Cuba at unless the country changes its policy. Carnival said on Friday that the cruise, the first by a U.S. cruise ship to Cuba in 50 years, would depart as scheduled.

Cuba stood at risk of losing millions of dollars next year if the cruise line was forced to cancel trips on the Adonia, a 704-passenger luxury ship, according to an analysis by the Cuban-US Trade and Economic Council. The directive, which goes into effect on Tuesday, also marked a rare turn of events: an American company persuades the Castro government to change policy.

Last month, Carnival became the first U.S. cruise line to gain Cuban approval to visit the island. European and Canadian cruise lines have already made the trip.

“We made history in March and we are making history again today,” said Arnold Donald, President and CEO of Carnival Corporation, adding: “We were very confident that there would have this result and we were proceeding in that direction. mode. “

Mr Donald said company negotiators have stressed to Cuban officials that Cuban passengers have long been allowed in and out of Cuba and that the same policy should apply to sea travel. Cuba’s tourism sector, as they make it possible to welcome more visitors without putting pressure on the country’s already limited hotel capacity.

Starting Tuesday, the government will also allow Cubans on commercial vessels, including freighters, to enter or leave Cuba.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, who at one point explored options for a lawsuit against Carnival, praised the resolution.

“This policy change was the right thing to do,” Cuban-born Mr. Gimenez said in a statement.

The Cuban government also hinted Friday at its next move: the possibility of allowing people born in Cuba to travel to the island on pleasure boats. This authorization, the government said, will come gradually and when the circumstances are right.

Cuban Americans in Miami who support the engagement with Cuba have long considered taking their own boats to the island, located 90 miles from Florida, to visit family.

Friday’s decision is important because the Cuban government has long been wary of sea travel between the United States and Cuba. For decades, Cubans fled the island aboard rafts and rustic boats, which continues today. The government also feared that allowing Cuban citizens to travel by sea would make it easier for hostile Cuban Americans to enter the country and undermine the government.

In 1980, after tensions escalated in Cuba as the economy collapsed, Fidel Castro allowed ships from the United States to pick up Cubans from the port of Mariel. More than 125,000 Cubans left the island by boat. Most of them were picked up by relatives, friends or Miami recruits.

The Cuban government has stressed that all passengers and crew entering or leaving Cuba must have valid documents to do so. He also pointed the finger at the United States, noting that US law continues to restrict travel by American tourists to Cuba, although regulations have been relaxed.

The uproar, which Carnival hadn’t anticipated, began this month when Cubans in Florida attempted to buy tickets for the week-long trip. Carnival agents refused to book them for the cruise, claiming that because they were born in Cuba, the Cuban government had banned them from entering the country by sea.

In the talks that followed, the company and the Cuban government tried to find a solution. This week, Carnival, who is based in a Miami suburb and is familiar with local sensitivities about Cuba, faced a class action lawsuit from Cuban Americans and harsh words from political leaders who expressed their outrage that an American company discriminates against Americans. citizens. Carnival initially delayed the trip, but remained optimistic.

“Carnival has acted responsibly against the backdrop of a horrific public relations environment,” said John Kavulich, chairman of the business board.

Pedro A. Freyre, whose law firm Akerman represents Carnival, and who was one of several lawyers advising the company, said Carnival began work on amending the guideline soon after approval of its cruise by the Cuban government.

Mr Freyre, who was born in Cuba and maintains closer ties with the island nation, even said he was surprised by the fervor in Miami during the cruise.

“I have been in my community long enough to know that the emotions run very deep here,” he said. “At first I said, ‘What? Why are people so upset – 300,000 travel to Cuba every year. ‘ But this one pulled on the strings of the heart.

Dr Andy Gomez, senior policy adviser for Poblete Tamargo, a law and public policy firm, said the confrontation served as a reminder that Cuba’s body of laws and regulations remain far from business-friendly.

But Mr Freyre said the episode also shows that a more measured approach from Cuba is working better.

“What Cubans have done today is to reflect that it is good to be engaged,” he said. “You can calmly talk about things instead of yelling at yourself. “

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