When American Airlines launched the first of an unprecedented 12 daily commercial flights from Miami to six cities in Cuba, the company rolled out the Cuban-American brass to mark the milestone at Miami International Airport.
At a pre-flight ceremony, the executives evoked their emotional connection to the business at hand — winning the bid to fly the largest number of commercial flights to Cuba.
“Today is historic not only for American Airlines, but also for Miami, the heart and soul of the Cuban-American community in the United States,” said Ralph Lopez, American vice president of Miami hub operations, before the Sept. 7 departure to the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of the island.
Fernand Fernandez, American’s vice president of global marketing, spoke of the “pride and excitement” he felt.
“This flight is not only important to our airline, to our 12,000 employees here in Miami — many of them Cuban-American — but also… this is of huge importance for Miami-Dade County, home to so many Cuban Americans like my parents."
Behind the scenes, however, another story was playing out.
When doing business with Cuba, all those American Airlines employees of Cuban origin Fernandez heralded in his speech don’t have the same rights as their U.S.-born counterparts, or their Latin-American counterparts, or their counterparts born anywhere else in the world for that matter.
The first “historic” flight to Varadero brought home the point.
A Cuban-born crew member arrived without a Cuban passport — required for anyone born there who left the country after 1970, even as babies — and a brouhaha ensued with Cuban authorities on the ground. The crew member was not allowed entry, much less the required overnight rest stop after a crew member flies 12 hours.
Questions were posed by AA to authorities: What happens in the future if there’s a flight with a mechanical delay and the crew that includes a Cuban American is grounded overnight? What will happen, routinely, with the two Varadero flights that require the overnight stay of the crew?
The answer: Only in the most “extenuating circumstances” would Cuba allow an exception to its separate set of archaic travel requirements for Cuban Americans. No overnights for Cuban-American crew members. Period.
Now the airline, which makes its schedules far from Cuban politics in Texas, had to identify Cuban-American employees and take them off Cuba flights that required an overnight stay.
“Please remember that those who are Cuban born should be removed with pay from Cuba flights until we can verify what requirements the Cuban government has for these crewmembers,” says an AA memo to managers that a source shared with me.
And I have to ask: Can you imagine in your company a staffing memo that says, “Please remember that those who are Israeli born should be removed?”
Or, please remember that those who are (fill in the blank any other place of origin) should be removed?
The Cuban government’s long arm is cherry-picking the assignments of employees of an American company. How is that for a historic development?
Sounds as outrageous as when Miami-based Carnival Corp. denied bookings to Cuban Americans on its cruises to the island because of an archaic Cuban maritime law that said Cuban Americans could not arrive by sea.
Now with commercial flights, an American company once again finds itself in the position of having to discriminate against a class of people — their employees of Cuban origin.
“No crew member born in Cuba is allowed to enter Cuba unless they meet immigration requirements,” American spokeswoman Alexis Aran Coello confirmed. “That’s a Cuban government demand. That’s not something we’re saying. We are abiding by the laws of the Cuban government.”
Cuba’s discriminatory rules also apply, of course, to the flight crews of JetBlue and Spirit, which also recently began commercial flights, and to the others that will soon follow them.
This is the price of doing business with the still-repressive and antiquated Cuban government: Giving up American ethics for a piece of the action.
Complying with the Cuban government’s discriminatory policies against Cuban Americans — spelled out in the U.S. Embassy’s website as a warning to travelers — is a choice. Airlines need to negotiate harder. Enough of an uproar from the traveling public convinced Cuba to change its maritime rule and allow Cuban Americans to travel there on cruise ships.
On the American side, strides have been made in the last 18 months since President Barack Obama announced an end to hostilities between the two countries. But the Cuban government remains stuck in anti-exile, anti-American bellicose mode despite documented evidence that a growing number of Cuban Americans strongly support President Obama’s engagement policy and the reestablishment of relations. For the first time since 1991 Florida International University began surveying Cuban Americans, a new poll shows that a majority — 54 percent — said support the lifting of the Cuban embargo.
Cuba, however, has a long way to go to show it is seriously interested in being a travel destination for all Americans.
Perhaps customer response, if not companies, might help move the needle: Saturday’s flight on American to Cienfuegos had 53 out of 120 seats empty as of this writing. It may be the slow season, but were it not for Cuba’s restrictive policies, there might not be a single seat left.
As Americans know well, discrimination is bad for business.