Cuban-Americans stream to the island for holidays

MIAMI - December 23, 2011

It is the place she visits roughly once a year to see her grandfather, aunts and uncles and cousins. She still considers it a second home, even though she has lived nearly all her 17 years in South Florida.

"The first thing I'm going to do when I get there is cry, and then give everyone hugs," she said Monday, as she leaned against her cart of bags secured in the festive, neon green airport plastic wrap. The duffel bags - cheaper to ship through than heavier, traditional luggage - bulged with food, over the counter medicine, toys and other necessities hard to obtain in Cuba's struggling economy.

Labrada was among thousands of Cuban-Americans flying to the island this week to celebrate the new year. These types of annual pilgrimages would have been sharply curtailed if two South Florida, GOP Cuban-American congressmen had succeeded in returning to the Bush-era limit of once every three years. The measure backed by U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera was tucked into the congressional spending bill, but Republican leaders jettisoned it last week as part of a last minute compromise.

Labrada said Monday she didn't appreciate the effort to restore the old restriction.

"I think it was very disappointing, because the least we can do is help our own families," she said. "We should go and take advantage of the opportunity to bring them things and help any way we can."

President Barack Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans shortly after taking office and removed the $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but the Cuban government said earlier this year it expected about 500,000 U.S. visitors annually, the vast majority of them Cuban-Americans. Cuban officials did not immediately respond to requests for corresponding statistics from past years, but they have previously said there were nearly 300,000 visits from Cubans living outside the island in 2009. It was not immediately clear whether that included repeat travelers.

Many Cuban-Americans, like Labrada have already been traveling to Cuba for years. They just had to go through special church trips or through a third country to get around the three year ban.

Of nearly a dozen families interviewed at the Miami Airport, all but two said they'd last visited the island in the last year or two.

"I don't think it should be any different for us than it is for anyone else going to visit family in any other country," Labrada said.

Except it is different.

Most Cubans who come to the U.S. are able to immigrate here as a result of U.S. policy that views them as victims of political oppression. And as Diaz-Balart is quick to note, not everyone can travel. While average Cubans may be able to visit family off the island, their visa requests can easily be denied. The Cuban government has refused to allow blogger and internationally renowned activist Yoani Sanchez to travel to the U.S. and Europe to accept human rights awards.

But Professor Andy Gomez of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American Studies says the flood of travelers isn't likely to stop any time soon, and he says trying to stem the flow makes no sense.

"I was at the Miami airport last week, and there were flights on the hour," he said. "Stopping it? Impossible. It is the people-to-people contact we want and need, and it is already happening."

Most of the flights to Cuba still originate from South Florida, with nearly 300,000 people departing to the island just from Miami International Airport in 2010. Numbers for 2011 were not yet available. But they also now leave from places such as Tampa, Fla.; Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta and Puerto Rico.

Flights to Cuba from the Tampa International Airport began in early September after a 50-year hiatus, and local officials are banking on it as a new source of revenue. Airport officials said about 45,000 passengers will travel the route in 2012.

Manny Martinez, a 21-year-old Tampa resident, was standing at the back of the long line four hours before Tuesday's flight. He said he's spending two weeks on the island and staying with family. Like Labrada, he said Cuba still feels like home, even though he's lived in the U.S. for 11 years.

When asked to name the first thing he would do once he arrived, he laughed.

"Party," he said. "Just go out with my old friends and have fun."

Not everyone goes just to see family.

Gomez said his maintenance man just returned from a trip to Cuba to visit his dentist because he has no health care insurance in the U.S. and can't afford the visit here. Meanwhile, media reports are on the rise in South Florida about Cuban-Americans involved in Medicare fraud fleeing to the island.

Back at the Miami airport, Isabel Baez, 39, teared up as she talked about visiting her family in Santiago de Cuba. Yet, she said she knows of people who also go as "mules," taking much needed provisions for others on the island who are not relatives, sometimes even for resale.

"But most of those people still go to see their family," she said. "They bring the packages as a way to get a free ticket."


Associated Press writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report from Tampa, Fla.

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