For Carnival Corporation, its upcoming voyage to Cuba will be a marker in history. For some Cuban Americans, the trip will be a slap in the face.
That’s because, by Cuban regulations, Cuban-born Americans are not allowed to sail on the 704-passenger Adonia when it travels across the Florida Straits, taking American travelers on a U.S. cruise ship to the island for the first time in more than five decades.
About 50 protesters gathered Tuesday afternoon near Carnival Corp. headquarters in Doral, asking the cruise company to forego sailings to the island until the Cuban government policy is changed. The protest followed an April 7 column in the Miami Herald by Fabiola Santiago about the prohibition of Cuban-born Americans on Cuba cruises.
“Cuba discriminates against its own citizens” in cruising, as it does by prohibiting Cuban citizens from entering its hotels, said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement, which organized the protest. “Our demand is for Cubans to be able to normally travel by boat to their homeland.”
Carnival Corp. was the first American cruise company to receive Cuban approval to operate sailings to the island through its social impact Fathom brand. Beginning May 1, Adonia will offer people-to-people trips. The weeklong itinerary stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
Who is the Cuban government to tell Carnival who it can take to Cuba and who it can’t?
Norys Aguila, a Cuban-born American
Protesters at Tuesday’s event called on Carnival Corp. to take a stand against Cuba’s discriminatory policies.
“Who is the Cuban government to tell Carnival who it can take it Cuba and who it can’t?” said Norys Aguila, a Cuban American who came to the U.S. in 1961 as a child during the Pedro Pan exodus. “And for Carnival to accept such a baseness, it is completely disrespectful against all Cuban Americans, against the laws of this country.”
“Either every one can travel to Cuba or no cruises go.”
Protesters held signs saying “Carnival demand that Cubans don’t be discriminated” and calling on Carnival Corp. to stop “nationality apartheid.” The Cuban national anthem played to cries of “viva Cuba libre,” long live free Cuba, and “abajo los Castro,” down with the Castros. Several cars passing by honked in solidarity.
Cuban singer-songwriter Amaury Gutierrez denounced Carnival Corp.’s agreement with Cuba’s contradictory policies that allow Cuban Americans to fly to the island but won’t let them in by sea.
“It might be legal, but it’s not moral,” Gutierrez said. Several others in the crowd echoed his statement.
Carnival Corp. president and CEO Arnold Donald said in an interview following the protest that the cruise company is requesting the Cuban government change its policy.
We want to be in a position where everyone can travel.
Arnold Donald, Carnival Corp. president and CEO
“As soon as we understood [the Cuban law], as part of our process we began to petition for that to be not the case [so] that we would be able to sail Cuban-born people,” Donald said. “The reality is that [Cuban-born Americans] can fly there, so we are at a disadvantage with the airlines. We want to be in a position where everyone can travel.”
Donald said that by opening dialogue with Cuba as the first American cruise line to sail there, it puts Carnival Corp. in a position to help enact change in a decades-old policy.
“In the end, we just want people to experience Cuba. We think a way to do that is to start the process,” Donald said. “Overall we think that times are changing — changing for the better. Things are opening up, and the best way to connect and have the Cuban people prosper more is for the open exchange between the U.S. and Cuba.”
Still, Sánchez of the Democracy Movement believes Carnival Corp. can do more to take a stand, the way other cruise lines have in the past.
He cites an incident in March 2014 when Doral-based Norwegian Cruise Line stopped traveling to Tunisia after port officials in La Goulette barred Israeli nationals from disembarking the Norwegian Jade and entering the country.
“We want to send a strong message to Tunisia and ports around the world that we will not tolerate such random acts of discrimination against our guests,” said Norwegian Cruise Line’s then-CEO Kevin Sheehan in a statement issued following the incident.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the parent company that includes Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, does not currently sail to Tunisia.
Both Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises have applied to travel to Cuba.
According to Cuban law, Cuban-born Americans cannot travel to the island by sea.
Sánchez is requesting that Cuban Americans board the Fathom’s Adonia and sail to Cuban waters, then let the Cuban government be the one that turns them away. Carnival Corp. is required to vet passports and visa documents at the point of booking.
“Let the Cuban government be the ones, in the eyes of the world, that looks bad,” Sánchez said.
The Democracy Movement is seeking a permit to send a flotilla behind the Adonia when it sets sail on May 1 so that the Cuban government can turn it away when it reaches Cuban waters, as it would do to Cuban Americans aboard the Fathom ship.
Other decades-old Cuban policies have changed following normalization between the two countries.
Early this year, Cuba and the U.S. agreed to reinstate commercial flights between the two countries. Thirteen U.S. companies, including American Airlines and Delta Airways, applied for a slice of the 20 daily routes to Havana and 10 daily flights to nine other Cuban cities up for grabs. Airlines are pending approval from the Department of Transportation and flights could begin as early as this summer.
Cruise lines entered the mix in late March with Carnival Corp.’s approval. Last week, French luxury line Ponant received permission to fly U.S. passengers from Miami to Havana, where they will board a 64-passenger yacht and sail around the island. Cuban-born Americans aren’t allowed to travel around cruise ships in Cuba either, because according to Cuban law, Cuban-born individuals are barred from sea travel of any kind.
The laws surrounding ocean travel remain the last few remnants of Cold War policies, Sánchez said.
“Under the new approach of normalization, this is an anomaly,” he said.
Editor’s note: Reporter Chabeli Herrera was denied credentials to sail on the initial Fathom voyage because she was born in Cuba.