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Air-charter ‘queen’ finds arranging trips to Cuba is risky business

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 there’s 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 area’s 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 Mannerud’s 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 she’s 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 FBI’s 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.

“We’re 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.

Until last summer Cuban-Americans with with everything from flat screen televisions to bicycles were common at charter check-ins. The excess baggage fees helped the charter companies stay afloat. But the Cuban government increased import fees on such baggage, causing cargo revenue dry up. Many of the flights became unprofitable.

Cuba then terminated landing rights for Airline Brokers and another South Florida-based charter company, C&T Charters, because of delays in payments, according to industry sources.

But Mannerud said, "There were various and complicated issues. It's not something that happened overnight.''

Mannerud said she told Cuban officials that she “didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel and I didn’t see the business being profitable.”

The cancellation also doesn’t sit well with Carlos Saladrigas, a successful local businessman who was one of the pilgrims on the papal trip.

“What the Cuban government did to her is very hard to understand,’’ he said. “I don’t think the Cubans understand the importance of long-term business relationships.’’

He’s equally outspoken about the Airline Brokers fire, which evoked memories of the 1970s and1980s, when bombings of Miami businesses whose owners were perceived as pro-Castro were frequent.

“I thought we had gotten over this phase of the Cuban exile community — evidently not,’’ said Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuban Study Group, an organization that hopes to encourage change and the development of a civil society in Cuba.

The Coral Gables Fire Department found the fire was caused by “an incendiary device containing flammable accelerant.’’

When Mannerud moved her business into temporary quarters, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski blessed the space.

“There was an outpouring of support from the community — from the right, the left, competitors, people I haven’t heard from in years,’’ she said. “But there was one group I didn’t hear from, elected officials.’’

Wenski questions why there wasn’t outrage from politicians and other leaders. “What was so disquieting was this reticence in the face of an act of terror.’’

Wenski first met Mannerud in 1996 when he was organizing a Caritas relief effort to Cuba after Hurricane Lili. Back then even the idea of sending relief to Cuba was controversial. When Mannerud walked in the room and offered to help, “some people in the community raised their eyebrows and wondered ‘Why is she here?’ ” he said.

Pérez said she doesn’t have a problem with exiles visiting their relatives, but objects to Cuban economic refugees who weren’t politically persecuted coming to the United States, seeking asylum and then traveling back to Cuba “like it’s nothing.’’

Sylvia G. Iriondo, whose organization works in support of women dissidents in Cuba, was among those opposed to the papal pilgrimage. She said the trip gave a “false projection of normalcy in a country where nothing is normal’’ where power is in the hands of “an illegitimate communist regime.’’

Wenski said Mannerud’s work with the archdiocese during Benedict’s visit was “extraordinary.’’

Meanwhile, problems for Airline Brokers didn’t stop with the fire. There was a cyber attack on the reservations system in August, said Mannerud.

A scam also developed involving an old Airline Brokers telephone number. Mannerud leaned about it when those who had been defrauded contacted her to get their money back. She called the FBI.

“But the police said since I wasn’t the victim that customers would need to file their own reports,’’ she said.

Then in December the car of an employee was attacked with a nail gun in the parking lot adjoining her office.

“It was a hard year,’’ Mannerud said.

As in many only-in-Miami sagas, there are polarized opinions. Some think radical Cuban exiles must be behind the fire; others see the handiwork of Havana in the attacks. Still others think someone using the cover of exile politics for financial gain may be responsible.

“Anyone not in Miami could not understand what this is all about,’’ Wenski said.