Fabiola Santiago

Carnival cruise to Cuba discriminates against a class of Americans

Cuba News: Carnival cruises to Cuba & reports of attacks on dissidents

El Nuevo Herald journalist Nora Gamez Torres talks about Carnival Corporation's announcement to begin offering cruises to Cuba in 2016.
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El Nuevo Herald journalist Nora Gamez Torres talks about Carnival Corporation's announcement to begin offering cruises to Cuba in 2016.

Imagine a cruise line that won’t take African Americans on sailings to Africa. Or won’t take bookings from American Jews to Israel. One class of U.S. citizen banned while others get access. No company in contemporary America would ever survive such blunt discriminatory business practices.

But that’s exactly what Carnival Corporation is doing in cahoots with the Cuban government and with the endorsement of the U.S. Treasury — banning Cuban Americans from its upcoming cruises to the island starting May 1.

“They’re imposing repressive Cuban laws on American citizens,” says Maria de los Angeles Torres, a respected expert on Cuba and a longtime pro-engagement and anti-embargo academic who is a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It’s like they’re bringing Cuban law here.”

Torres also happens to be a Cuban American, sent to the United States as a child during the Pedro Pan exodus. She has been traveling to Cuba since 1978 to visit family and for academic research. But despite all her liberal credentials, in the age of engagement she has been refused a place on the Carnival cruises to Cuba.

“We didn’t build bridges to have others close them,” she tells me.

The Carnival Cruise Line website beckons: “Be the first to cruise to Cuba in over 50 years. Visit our sister Fathom Travel and reserve your spot now.” There’s not one mention that Cuban Americans need not apply. I’m a believer in free travel, so I proceeded to book an October sail, my U.S. passport in hand.

A conversation with Tara Russell, president of fathom and Global Impact Lead of Carnival Corporation & PLC, about Carnival's decision to offer cruises to Cuba in 2016. Carnival Corp also offers cruises to the Dominican Republic under the global i

The itinerary promises a seven-day cruise with stops and off-shore excursions in Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, plus all the bells and whistles of cruising. Only difference is that “cultural immersion” and designated “people-to-people” activities are mandatory, allegedly by U.S. Treasury design. I say allegedly because Cuba’s official travel office imposes or approves itineraries. They decide with whom travelers “engage.” Propaganda-peddling at its best.

Reason enough to ditch Cuba travel, but I continued booking with a Fathom agent who merrily took my personal information, put me on a waiting list for a $2,470 ocean view room and assured me I’d be generously upgraded if no one canceled. Even that far out in advance, only expensive balcony ($3,150 a passenger) and suites ($7,350 a passenger) were available. Port fees are an additional $283 per passenger. Carnival and Cuba are making a nice profit. Discrimination seems to be working for them.

After the agent said that my deposit was due in 24 hours, I asked the usual consumer questions: What happens if there’s a hurricane? I’ll get my money back or be rebooked. Finally, we get around to the passport. When I tell her it says I was born in Cuba, she asked me to hold. She returned to read me a statement from the legal department: “Current Cuban law prohibits Cuban-born individuals from entering Cuba via ship or other sea vessel, regardless of U.S. citizenship status. For that reason, at the present time, Fathom cannot accommodate Cuban-born individuals.”

Just like that, my booking was canceled.

Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell tells me that the cruise line is “just following the laws that have been set up. We have requested a change in policy, which has not yet been granted, but our hope and intention is that we can travel with everybody. We will continue to have conversations [with Cuba] and that’s the process we would work through.”

I ask him if Carnival would have been willing to take cruise ships to South Africa during the apartheid era and not carry black people because that was the law.

He repeats that Carnival follows the laws of the countries it travels to. I guess that means the answer is yes.

Forty-seven years in this country, 36 as a U.S. citizen, a voter — and I cannot sail on an American cruise ship because Cuba says so.

Now I know how Cubans felt when they arrived in 1960s Miami and found signs like this on rentals: “No blacks. No Cubans. No dogs.” Or no Jews.

I suppose you can call it progress that at least Carnival isn’t agreeing to ban African Americans or Jews.

Something precious is lost when a foreign government dictates what kinds of U.S. citizens can sail out of the Port of Miami. 

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