Though the Miami-Havana flight barely takes an hour, Cuban exiles returning to the island to visit family and friends often end up spending as much money as if they were traveling to Europe.
While Washington politicians debate whether to revise the Cuban Adjustment Act to stop abuses by those who have “fled communism” in recent years and yet return repeatedly to the island, Raúl Castro’s government and American companies enabling the trips squeeze the last penny from Cubans who go back in Santa Claus style — carrying suitcases overloaded with gifts, huge boxes with household appliances and badly needed essentials.
On both sides of the Florida Straits, people know how to exploit the emotional vulnerability of these immigrants who actually left for economic reasons and want the best for their loved ones — working here as hard as they can to make a decent living — and to enjoy a few vacation days in their homeland.
Even among Cuban exiles in South Florida, the topic of travel to the island is a touchy one. Many historic exiles, those who fled the repressive Fidel Castro regime in the 1960s and 1970s, are angry at the newer exiles’ open travel to the island.
To better understand the reality of thousands of Cubans in South Florida making the most of the relaxation of previous stricter restrictions to travel, with Havana’s blessing, a 49-year-old Cuban Miami resident spelled out for me a breakdown of his budget for the trip he will make in the next few days.
He was able to leave Cuba, where he was a doctor, in recent years thanks to the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery program. Here, he works 80 hours a week cleaning a gym and working as a guard at a posh Miami Beach nightclub. He has a valid Cuban passport. It costs $375 to get one for the first time through Cuba’s Interest Section in Washington.
The airfare cost him $450, a hefty price partly due to the regulations imposed on Cuba travel by the U.S. government and the lack of competition.
He plans to travel with two suitcases and a carry-on that are already packed. For each suitcase, he will pay $20 at Miami International Airport, in addition to $30 to wrap both in plastic for safety. Any weight over 44 pounds allowed by the airline will cost him $2 per pound or $3 per pound for electrical appliances. In his case, the first suitcase, carrying clothes and imperishable food, weighs 25 additional pounds. The second one, carrying electrical appliances, is 40 pounds over. This will represent an additional $170 in excess baggage, plus $40 for the carry-on that weighs 20 pounds.
When he arrives in Cuba, he will also have to pay excess baggage, incongruously, since overweight cargo is normally charged by airlines, not the destination country. For any weight over 66 pounds and up to 110 pounds, Cuban customs charges $5 for every additional pound; from 110 to 130 pounds, $10 for every additional pound, and for over 130 pounds, $15 for every additional pound.
In clothes and food, this Miami Cuban will carry 23 pounds of excess baggage, representing $115. In electrical appliances Cuba calculates the customs fees based on a list of prices it estimates. In a previous trip, he had to pay $440 for entering with a 32-inch television set, two electrical fans and two DVD players. This time he will bring lower-priced equipment that he estimates will require a $90 customs fee.
“It’s going to cost $950 to simply put down my baggage and say, ‘I arrived in Cuba,’ ” said the former doctor who asked me not to reveal his name for fear that he may be charged more in customs or be subjected to any kind form of retaliation.
Additionally, he spent about $1,000 shopping for the small appliances, food, clothes and medicine he will bring to the island.
And that’s not the end. Then comes treating his family to meals and fun activities with the money earned with his sacrifice. On this trip, he estimates that his contribution to the Cuban economy will be $1,200.
For starters, to exchange dollars for CUC, a dollar-like convertible currency unit (about 25 Cuban pesos,) he will pay a commission of 12 cents per U.S. dollar. Then he will give $100 in CUC to each of his parents, $50 to each of his siblings and so on. He will also be expected to fill the family refrigerator, as it has become a tradition among South Florida visitors.
Many Cuban exiles rent a car booked by Miami travel agencies or even at Cuban airports. In the high summer season, daily prices for car rentals range from $80 to $100, depending on the model. Though some prefer to stay with their families, others opt to stay in a hotel. The price for a basic room is never less than $50 per day. Some visitors also spend quite a bit of money partying and drinking, as well as on sexual tourism.
Exiles like him arrive in Cuba euphoric, boisterous and hopeful for stepping again on the land of their roots, reuniting with family and friends and rekindling memories. A few days later, they return to Miami taciturn, disappointed and depressed for having seen the Cuban reality and acquiring the perception that it has no solution.
Their pockets hurt. To top it all, they feel spiritually bankrupt. Its time to start saving once again from scratch to plan the next trip back to Cuba.