A restaurateur is so excited, she’s booking a trip for January – while a law professor says he won’t set foot on a plane bound for Cuba while there’s a Castro still in power.
Ask Charlotte Cuban-Americans how they feel about the new direct commercial flights (which start today) between Charlotte and Havana, and you’ll get an array of different, nuanced answers – a symptom of the politically and emotionally complex history between the two nations.
Charlotte’s Cuban-American community is small: 1,361 people to be exact, according to a 2015 Charlotte immigrant survey. Some are hesitant to talk, or to give their names, to journalists – out of fear, they say, that it may anger the Cuban government and jeopardize their chances of traveling to the Caribbean nation again.
Here’s what four had to say about the American Airlines direct flights that begin today out of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, bound for Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.
Desperate for an easier passage
Belkis Plasencia, a 42-year-old restaurateur who owns the city’s only Cuban restaurant, Piece of Havana, has gone home to Pinar del Rio in western Cuba three times in the last year to visit her ailing father. Each time she goes is a travel nightmare, she says, losing a day on either end to get to Miami, where she must arrive at the Miami International Airport charter terminal well before dawn, to wait hours for her flight.
For Plasencia, the Charlotte-Havana commercial flights couldn’t come quickly enough.
She won’t be on today’s flight, although she will be at the airport when it takes off – American Airlines has hired her to cater the inaugural flight festivities at the gate beforehand. But she says she’ll be traveling in January to see her father and the rest of her family and friends still in Cuba.
Plasencia left Cuba in 1998 to study economics in Stockholm, Sweden. She later came to the United States and was punished by the Cuban government for not returning: She was not allowed to return to Cuba until 2013.
She’s a critic of the late Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, who now leads the country, and says she understands why some Cuban Americans will refuse to go back or support the country in any way. But she says she can’t afford to keep her distance, with so many family members and friends there who depend on her. On Monday, she wired money to friends there who help care for her father.
“I have my umbilical cord still attached,” Plasencia says.
Visiting is ‘a betrayal’
For Humberto “Beau” Baez, spending even one day in Cuba while the Castro-led government is in power would be a “betrayal” to the Cuban people.
Baez is a 51-year-old Charlotte School of Law professor whose parents were born in Cuba: Mom left in 1948 before the Cuban revolution; dad fled in 1959 during the revolution. He grew up hearing stories of a family member executed by Fidel Castro’s firing squads, and of the life his family lost in Cuba.
“I will not go, I will not support the communist country in any way with my dollars,” Baez says.
“For people my age and older, there is so much resentment of the Castro brothers that there is no desire to go as long as they’re in power, because we know any money we spend there goes to support the military, and that just further enslaves the Cuban people,” he says. “It’s just sort of a betrayal of those who came before us and died.”
Baez says he believes Obama’s thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba is also a betrayal, and he believes flooding Cuba with tourist dollars from the U.S. will not bring democracy to the island.
“When did things change in Russia? When the founders of the revolution died. It wasn’t during Lenin’s time, or Stalin’s,” Baez said. “I think the same thing will happen in Cuba. I think it’s naïve to think we can force that process.”
Michele Kelleher has traveled all over the world, but for most of her 46 years she’s had reservations about visiting Cuba, which her parents fled during the revolution, before she was born.
She grew up in Miami surrounded by Cuban immigrants and always heard stories about how idyllic Cuba used to be, “where the Coca-Cola tasted sweeter and the beaches were better.”
With almost all of her family in the States and not wanting to support Castro’s government, she had not been overwhelmed by a tug toward Cuba.
But now, after the death of Fidel Castro (which she says she sees as largely symbolic and unlikely to change the political climate short-term) and the start of direct flights, she’s contemplating a trip.
“It’s like a double-edged sword. I want to go see it before a Starbucks pops up and it looks like Ballantyne, although I know it won’t be as quick as that,” she says. “But I want to at least – depressing as it may be – I want to be able to envision what it looked like before it looks like everywhere else.”
She says she knows a lot of tourists will want to visit the “time capsule” that is Cuba, but hopes they understand the reasons it’s been frozen.
“Don’t take it as ‘I’m going on a beach vacation,’ but remember that (for) coming up on 60 years, people have been suffering on the island,” she says.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful place and they’re going to get great service, but the people who are serving them are not getting any of the money. I’m not saying don’t go, and I’m not saying don’t enjoy it, but be sensitive (to the plight of the people). If it’s so wonderful, why are people throwing their children onto a handmade raft to get out?”
Chance to help?
Twin sisters Magdalena Flores Hague and Margarita Junker were 13 when they left Cuba in 1968 and they spent the rest of their childhoods in Charlotte, one of the city’s few Cuban families in the 1970s.
Both have traveled to Cuba as adults and are applying for visas now so they can travel back this spring to see family members and vacation. (Cuban-born U.S. citizens must apply for special visas from the Cuban government to be able to visit Cuba.) The cheaper direct flights between Charlotte and Havana mean they’ll have more money to give to cousins in Cuba, the sisters say.
Hague says she’s seen an improvement in the conditions and accommodations during her travels to Cuba over the last three years, and says she thinks increased tourism is helping the people there.
“Their lives are better and the reason is more tourism,” she says. “People bring them clothes. They leave tips in the hotel rooms for them.”
The sisters bore scars from the revolution – their brother was 5, they say, when he was murdered by Castro revolutionaries lashing out against their anti-Castro father.
On Tuesday night, the sisters and several friends were gathering in Charlotte to toast the death of Fidel Castro with Dom Perignon champagne and Cuba Libre cocktails – a party they say they had been dreaming about for years.
But they both dream of a time when they’ll be able to travel easily between the two countries, they say – and maybe even own property in Cuba.