The change in Cuban policy came too late for Francisco Marty and Amparo Sánchez, who were born in Cuba and had been denied bookings on Carnival Corp.’s first cruise to Cuba, to shift their travel plans.
So when Carnival’s Fathom line ship Adonia steams out of PortMiami Sunday afternoon on the first U.S. cruise to the island in more than half a century, they won’t be aboard even though Cuba relented, dropping a decades-old policy on April 22 that prevented those born there from entering or leaving by vessel.
After Marty and Sánchez were thwarted in trying to book a Fathom voyage to celebrate a special occasion, they filed a class-action suit, since withdrawn, against Carnival and Fathom alleging the companies were violating civil rights by denying tickets to Cuban-born individuals and going along with the Cuban policy.
But Tucker Ronzetti, one of their lawyers, said the pair would like to go on a future cruise to Cuba.
“We filed our case with one, simple goal: to end discrimination against Cuban-born Americans who were being denied cruises to Cuba based on their place of birth,” said Ronzetti when the suit was dropped Thursday. “We look forward to all U.S. citizens, Cuban-born or otherwise, now equally enjoying cruises to Cuba.”
There will be about a dozen travelers born in Cuba, including several Cuban-born Carnival executives, making the seven-day trip that circumnavigates the island and includes stops in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos, said Roger Frizzell, Carnival’s chief spokesman.
Arnie Pérez, Carnvial’s chief legal officer, and his wife Carmen, both born in Cuba, are expected to be the first ones off the ship when the Adonia docks in Havana, its first port of call, at 10 a.m. Monday. The arrival will be marked with pomp and circumstance, including a traditional exchange of plaques with Fathom’s Cuban partner, Havanatur.
Our arrival in Havana will be a special moment in history that contributes to a more positive future
Roger Frizzell, Carnival’s chief spokesman
“Our arrival in Havana will be a special moment in history that contributes to a more positive future,” said Frizzell. “We are extremely excited and very humbled by this historic opportunity for our guests to experience Cuba.”
But in recent weeks, it has been anything but smooth sailing for Carnival and Fathom. Protests, two lawsuits, exile ire and condemnation by politicians threatened to scuttle the cruise indefinitely. In the face of it, Carnival said the Adonia wouldn’t sail until Cuba dropped its discriminatory policy and all its potential passengers would be able to travel on an equal footing.
Then on April 21, Carnival got a phone call from Cuban authorities saying it was “likely” they would be ending the policy barring vessel arrivals and departures by those born on the island, said Frizzell. But Carnival didn’t learn of the actual shift in policy until around 5:30 a.m. the next morning after a statement about the change was published in Granma, the Communist Party’s newspaper.
It capped intense negotiations by Carnival to hasten the end to the Cuban policy. Pérez, Carnival Chief Executive Arnold Donald, and Fathom President Tara Russell made several trips to the island to try to break the impasse.
Amidst the controversy, Adonia reservations slowed to a trickle, said Frizzell. But after Cuba’s announcement, he said, “We saw the floodgates begin to open.”
All the cabins on the 704-passenger-capacity Adonia have been sold out, but the actual passenger count is 600 because of higher numbers of single occupancies.
There will be full refunds or the ability to book on a future Fathom cruise for anyone who couldn’t get the proper credentials in time, said Frizzell.
Fathom will send off the Adonia with Cuban flair. Passengers can pick up a café Cubano at a coffee kiosk and the cruise line will be handing out hand fans. As the Adonia heads out to sea from PortMiami, a band will play and the ship will be saluted with a water spray canon on a tugboat.
Before the Fathom imbroglio was resolved, it bubbled over into what lawyer Pedro Freyre called “a quintessential Cuban drama. It was definitely a very Cuban, very emotional issue.”
It was definitely a very Cuban, very emotional issue
Pedro Freyre, laywer
Although some people referred to the vessel restriction as a Cuban law, it wasn’t.
“We believe it was an executive action,” said Ronzetti. “It had the face of a law but it wasn’t a piece of legislation.”
And that meant Cuban leaders could change it at will.
It had its genesis in security concerns that date back to a time when Cubans were stealing boats to come to the United States and there were fears they might return by sea for sabotage or people-smuggling operations. In 2003, a group of armed Cubans, for example, hijacked a passenger ferry west of Havana, holding nearly 50 hostages, until they ran out of gas in international waters. Three of the hijackers were charged with terrorism and executed after a quick trial.
But by 2016 when the United States and Cuba had renewed diplomatic ties and were trying to forge a new relationship, and both sides had given their approval for the new cruise service, the policy had “become an illogical anachronism,” said Freyre, an engagement proponent who serves as a lawyer for Carnival and two other cruise lines.
As the issue of discrimination galvanized the Cuban exile community, it also created some strange bedfellows.
Some hardliners saw protesting the policy as a way to possibly stop the Fathom cruises altogether; others simply didn’t like the idea that those born on the island would be treated differently from other cruise passengers and the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who take charter flights to the island every year.
Some of the protestors had no intention of ever returning to the island, and still others saw it as a triumph of the new policy of engagement.
“There’s never been a mechanism before for the Cuban government to respond to demands to change something and then to have the change actually happen. I think it speaks volumes about the new process,” said Freyre.
But others looked at Cuba’s dropping the vessel restriction as only a partial victory because passport and visa restrictions remain in place for some Cuban-Americans.
Organizers of a flotilla that was being organized to protest the vessel policy said they still planned to sail Sunday afternoon. Cubans should have the right “to freely enter and leave the national territory without there being a discriminatory visa process,” Ramón Saul Sánchez, national executive of the Democracy Movement, said in a statement.
Dr. Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat, co-founder of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, remains a cruise opponent. “Thousands of Cubans are lying at the bottom of that sea, which the cruise ships will sail on, and the money from those cruises will simply enrich that regime, which forced [them] to their deaths,” he said.
But for Marty, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, it was a victory. “I once landed on the beaches of Cuba to fight for its liberty,” said the Bay of Pigs veteran. “I did this with a rifle. I was not successful. I engaged Cuba again by sea, this time armed with the law, and I won.”