For Vivian Mannerud, president of one of the oldest Cuba travel companies in Miami, the past two years could be described as the agony and the ecstasy.
Scene one: Her company, Airline Brokers, organizes the first charter service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Cuba in more than 50 years. Mannerud hands out maracas and straw hats to passengers on the Sept. 17, 2011, inaugural flight. Her company also offers several weekly flights from Miami to Cuba.
Scene two: She joyfully waves her arms in the front row as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Santiago, Cuba, in March after she makes all the travel arrangements for a Miami Archdiocese pilgrimage for the papal visit.
Scene three: A month later, she stands tearfully outside the hulk of her firebombed Coral Gables office. Around 3:30 a.m. on April 27, someone tossed a chunk of pavement through a window and ignited an accelerant-fed fire.
Then theres the cyber-attack on her reservations system, the mysterious flat-tire incident, and a fraud perpetrated by someone using a phone number from her burned-out business.
But the most devastating blow came in November when Cuba abruptly suspended landing rights for her charter business, forcing one of the areas longest and most controversial Cuba charter business to shift strategy. Mannerud no longer operates her frequent charters to Cuba, scaling back to mostly travel-related services to people heading to the island.
Through the years, Mannerud and other charter companies have been lighting rods for criticism from some exiles who think travel to Cuba enriches the Cuban government. Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a Miami radio commentator, says Manneruds longtime dealings with Havana has hurt her reputation in the exile community.
The charter business is almost like a concession with the Cuban government, Pérez said.
Mannerud is nothing if not resilient. Her company is no longer arranging charter flights to Cuba. But shes still in business.
She now occupies new offices several block from her old space. The fire, she said, is classified as a case of domestic terrorism, but the FBIs Miami office would not confirm that.
The company now sells tickets to Cuba on other charter airlines, arranges rental cars and hotels, handles passport services and is getting permission to handle remittances to Cuba.
Were trying to create a one-stop shop here, said Mannerud, a Cuban-American who favors lifting the embargo.
Mannerud also is reviving another aspect of her business: arranging charters for teams and other athletic organizations.
Other than that, I have no immediate plans of returning to the charter business, Mannerud said. The business has changed in the past 30 years and the cancellation of landing rights was difficult and painful for me.
Since 1982, Mannerud has been ferrying Cuban families, politicians, athletes and humanitarian supplies to Cuba. She left the business for several years as she battled cancer but returned in 2009 after the Obama administration began allowing Cuban-Americans to make unlimited family visits to the island. The charter companies also were allowed to fly new routes to Cuba from more U.S. cities.
As Cuban-Americans and other Americans on people-to-people tours made as many as 400,000 trips a year to Cuba, the charter business became more competitive, the Cubans more demanding and the business not particularly profitable.