Cuba is easing a long-standing ban on Cuban-born people returning to the island by sea, clearing the way for Carnival Corporation to launch a Miami-to-Havana route that spurred national controversy when the company declined to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans.
Cuba made the announcement Friday via Granma, the official voice of the Cuban government.
Carnival Corp. said it has been working closely with the Cuban government to reach an agreement that would allow the Doral-based company to take travelers to Cuba, according to a release.
The change marks the first time in decades that Cuban-born individuals will be able to travel to the island by sea. Carnival’s Fathom line will sail to the island on weeklong itineraries beginning May 1.
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Earlier this spring, on March 21, Fathom became the first company to gain approval to sail from the U.S. to the island in more than 50 years.
“We made history in March, and we are a part of making history again,” said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp. in a statement. “Today’s development will impact countless lives in the future.”
We made history in March, and we are a part of making history again.
Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp.
According to the new Cuban regulations, Cuban citizens, regardless of immigration status, can enter and exit the country as passengers on merchant ships and cruise ships. Cuban citizens can also apply to be crew members on merchant and cruise ships. The new policy goes into effect Tuesday, April 26.
Granma also reported that at a later date, Cuban citizens will be allowed to enter and exit the island, regardless of immigration status, as passengers or crew on recreational boats, such as yachts.
When Carnival first offered the cruise, it declined to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans, in accordance with the Cuban regulation. A Miami Herald column by Fabiola Santiago decrying the discriminatory practice created a community uproar. Government officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, lashed out against Carnival Corp., one of the county’s largest private employers, over the policy.
Two lawsuits were filed in federal court in Miami, a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom. The lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.
Earlier this week, Carnival Corp. announced it would sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans in anticipation of a regulatory change and said it would delay cruising to the island until that change occurred.
The civil lawsuit was dismissed following Cuba’s policy change. The class-action lawsuit remains active, with lawyers seeking equality for Cuban-born travelers who have to jump extra hurdles to travel to the island.
Cuban-born travelers on Fathom will follow similar processes as those traveling by air. (Cuban-born Americans can travel to the island on air charters). They will have to present Cuban passports, even if they are American citizens, and present the proper visa.
The visa-passport application practice is still considered discriminatory by some, but at least the incident with Carnival and the ensuing backlash were enough to move the needle in the Cuban government, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, who writes the blog Capitol Hill Cubans and is the co-founder of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.
“It shows you what a lawsuit, media outrage, unanimous bipartisan condemnation, a public relations fiasco and fear of lost revenue can induce the Castro regime to agree to,” Claver-Carone said.
Donald said in a media call Friday that the cruise company had been working to reach an agreement with the Cuban government since the beginning of discussions about sailings to the island nation. After the recent public outcry, Carnival worried that negotiations would stall.
“The noise that was generated a few weeks ago, frankly we were concerned it would disrupt the process,” Donald said. “But the reality was that we got it done.”
Early this week, when it became clear Cuba might change its policy, Fathom began selling tickets to Cuban-born Americans, easing a threat by Miami-Dade to block the company from having access to its terminals at the county-owned PortMiami.
Fathom parent Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company, announced then that it would delay its inaugural visit to Cuba slated for May 1 until Cuba changed its Cold War-age policy.
This policy change was the right thing to do, and I congratulate both Mr. Arison and Carnival on their efforts.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
But Cuba relented, possibly in part, Donald said, because of the benefits cruise travel will afford to Cuba’s economy.
“My opinion is simply that once [Cuba] decided to accept cruise as a contributor to the people exchange and additional economic development within Cuba, that they also realized having a disparity between air travel and cruise could be an inhibitor,” Donald said on the media call. “I think the rest was them figuring out how far to take it.”
Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia will leave PortMiami for Havana every other week on weeklong voyages beginning May 1, with stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. On alternate weeks, the ship will travel to the Dominican Republic for “social impact” trips.
CNN’s Havana bureau reported the news early Friday morning, shortly after Granma announced the policy change; Carnival Corp. issued a release confirming the shift shortly thereafter.
On Friday, Gimenez issued a statement praising Carnival chairman Micky Arison. Three days prior, County Commissioner Javier Souto, Cuban-born and a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, took aim at Arison’s role as the owner of the Miami Heat, which receives county subsidies and plays in a county-owned arena. “I was appalled and surprised,” Souto said. “We’ve been so good to the Heat.”
Gimenez had accused Carnival of violating the county’s human-rights ordinance through its original booking policy for the Cuba cruises, but has also been in touch with Arison throughout the dispute to ease tensions.
“Mr. Arison and Carnival have been great corporate citizens in Miami-Dade County for more than 40 years,” Gimenez said in the statement. “This policy change was the right thing to do, and I congratulate both Mr. Arison and Carnival on their efforts.”