When Sulema Cabrera heard about a special Valentine’s Day cruise to Cuba from the Port of Palm Beach that was billed as an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, she thought it would be her chance to see her sister.
But when the Grand Classica, chartered by Viva Travel from Deerfield Beach-based Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, arrived in Havana Friday, Cuban authorities didn’t permit it to dock. It headed out to sea again headed toward Nassau, Bahamas, with dreams of family reunions shattered.
The Feb. 14-18 cruise, with prices starting at $599, offered a proposition that was enticing for Cuban Americans who for various reasons have had trouble returning to their homeland: their Cuban relatives living on the island would be able to visit them aboard the ship, enjoy a concert, and eat and drink with them while the ship was off the coast of Havana.
Later, according to advertisements, the relatives would be delivered to shore.
That’s what hooked Cabrera, said her uncle, Fernando Dorrego. “We were all very doubtful about this but she wanted to see her sister. She said, “If there’s even 1 percent chance this will work, I want to try.’ ”
Cabrera, who came to the United States around two years ago, was a doctor in Cuba.
Defecting doctors, many who abandoned medical missions abroad, are considered deserters by the Cuban government and aren’t allowed to return to the island for a period of eight years.
Cuba has professionals working in more than 67 countries, and, in many cases, the Cuban doctors receive only a fraction of what the host countries pay for their services. The rest goes into Cuban government coffers.
“I wanted to give a kiss and an embrace to my mama. What harm does that do to this damned government?” asked Yordi Santana, one of the doctors aboard the cruise. “I didn’t commit any crime. I’m not anyone’s slave.”
But it would be highly unusual for visitors to board a cruise ship at a port of call anywhere in the world.
“Cuban port authorities are very strict. In my experience I have never seen any blanket authorization of visitors to a cruise ship in Havana,” said Pedro Freyre, who represents five cruise lines with sailings to Cuba. Bahamas Paradise isn’t among his clients.
It was not immediately clear if the decision to turn away the cruise ship resulted from a misunderstanding or if Cuban authorities changed their minds about allowing the ship to dock.
Viva Travel insisted that it had prior approval to dock in Havana and to allow Cuban relatives to come aboard.
“Our company has all the necessary contracts with the Cuban government so that the ship can dock,” said Eduardo Castillo, vice president of Viva Travel.
“First they said we would be able to enter the island without problems, but a little later port authorities told the crew that the minister of transportation had prohibited the visit and asked that the cruise ship leave national waters,” he said.
Castillo said he couldn’t provide the documents signed with Cuba because they were aboard the ship, but said he would share them once the Grand Classica arrived in port.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line also said the approvals were in place and said the Cuban government was to blame.
“Due to the Cuban government denying entry into Havana without reason and despite advance approvals in place, Viva Travel’s charter of Grand Classica is headed for Nassau, Bahamas, to complete her four-day cruise,” said a spokesperson. “Guests’ safety and security continue to remain a top priority.”
The Cuban Embassy in Washington did not answer a request for comment.
“Many people were excited about seeing their relatives again. We wanted to offer a reunion experience among Cubans that unfortunately has been frustrated,” said Castillo.
The Grand Classica passengers were in a festive mood as they set sail for Havana Thursday. Videos posted on the Facebook page of Viva Travel show smiling faces as passengers set sail amid hearts and other Valentine’s Day decorations.
“Invite your relatives in Cuba,” Viva Travel advertised on its Facebook page.
“They arranged everything and they marketed it as your family can get on the ship and you’ll have time together,” said Dorrego, who lives in Tennessee, as does his niece Cabrera. “There were a significant number of Cuban Americans on that ship. My niece in Havana told me there were also people in Cuba who had traveled from other provinces in hopes of seeing their relatives.
“What happened is not right. This involves our whole family. We’re just simple Cubans with hopes and feelings,” he said.