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Local Cuban Americans welcome new Cuba travel rules

click to enlarge CUBA LIBRE :  Jorge Milanés of Los Osos, shown here with musician Pablo Menéndez, is planning a trip to Cuba after travel restrictions were eased last month for Cuban Americans. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • CUBA LIBRE : Jorge Milanés of Los Osos, shown here with musician Pablo Menéndez, is planning a trip to Cuba after travel restrictions were eased last month for Cuban Americans.

With the simple stroke of a pen in Washington, D.C. last month, the lives of Avila resident Delvis Fernandez and his family changed for the better.

A $410 billion spending bill signed by President Obama on March 11 eases travel restrictions imposed by former President George W. Bush on Fernandez and other Cuban Americans who want to visit their family members living in Cuba.

He wasted no time taking advantage of the change.

The new rules redefine “family” to include aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews of three generations, rather than the narrow Bush policy definition of parents and siblings—a policy that had made it illegal for Fernandez to visit the aunt who raised him. Cuban Americans now have the legal right to visit their families in Cuba each year for as long as they like, rather than just once every three years, and they can spend up to $179 a day while they’re there, up from $50 under Bush.

“It’s very exciting. I’ve had calls from Cuban Americans from all over the United States. They were crying because they’re so happy. It’s very touching,” Fernandez, the president of the Cuban American Alliance, told New Times on the eve of his departure to the Caribbean island nation on March 31.

Joining him for the trip are his wife Norine and 12-year-old grandson Cian, a sixth-grader at Pacheco School in SLO. It’s Cian’s first trip to see his Cuban relatives—including the aunt who’s now 102 years old—and Fernandez said he’s “tickled to death” to be able to go.

Fernandez left California with a group of 18 people, including a “Cuba Reality Tour” group he is leading for Global Exchange. The tour is dubbed “Faces of Cuba, A Citizen Research Delegation.” They flew to Cancun, Mexico, to catch a flight for Havana, where they will 
“see, research, enjoy, and explore the rich legacy of Cuban culture and multifaced aspects of Cuban life,” according to Global Exchange’s website. Such academic tours were prohibited under the Bush policy.

Another local Cuban-American, George “Jorge” Milanés of Los Osos, is also planning a trip to see his family in Cuba. He’ll be accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter.

“She’s been wanting to know more about her Cuban roots. We’ll be able to legally visit my aunt and my cousins, which wasn’t allowed under Bush,” said Milanés, the president of the West Coast Cuban American Alliance.

The new rules are “a great first step, the proverbial foot in the door,” he noted. “But why am I allowed to go to Cuba, and you’re restricted? Why is there still discrimination against our American brothers and sisters? It’s your Constitutional right to travel freely.”

A bill recently introduced in the Senate, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, would allow all U.S. citizens and legal residents to travel to Cuba. At a Washington, D.C. press conference on March 31, bill sponsors Senator Byron Dorgan, D-ND, and Senator Michael Enzi, R-WY, were joined by representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Human Rights Watch in support of the legislation, S428.

It was the government’s enforcement of travel restrictions that turned Fernandez into an activist on the issue, he explained. In 1994, his sister in Cuba was close to death, and he decided to take his family, including his mother, to see her, even though the visit was prohibited under the U.S. policy. He made a public statement about the family’s trip before their departure.

His sister had died by the time they arrived, but they were able to visit her gravesite and “close the cycle of sadness,” he said. But when they returned to the U.S., they were “severely questioned” by officials at the port of entry, and the family heirlooms they brought with them were confiscated.

“I’ll never forget the look of incomprehension on my 1-year-old granddaughter’s face when they took away the little pinwheel she was playing with, which was handmade in Cuba and given to her by her aunt. And to tell a mother that she could not travel to see her dying daughter, that’s just not American. And if you defy the restrictions and go anyway, you’re put on some kind of blacklist.”

The family’s treatment inspired Fernandez to retire early from his position as a tenured professor of mathematics at a Bay Area college and move to the East Coast to become a full-time lobbyist for Cuban travel. He set up the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, a humanitarian group that he now runs from his See Canyon home.

For Milanés, easing restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba makes economic sense.

“Cuba is just 90 miles from the U.S.—closer than Santa Barbara—and it has 11 million people. There’s certainly a lot of opportunity for exchange, just a more neighborly relation,” he said, adding, “And I’m looking forward to having Cuban musicians be allowed to come here.”

Fernandez said he’s now “cautiously optimistic” 
about future relations with Cuba, adding, “With Obama, there’s hope.”

Contributor Kathy Johnston may be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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