MIAMI - Fears that the Trump administration will ban all flights to Cuba have sparked a spike in demand for tickets to the island, according to employees of travel agencies in Miami.
"We have seen a strong increase in the demand for tickets. There's a lot of fear because people believe that at any moment the flights will end and they will not be able to see their relatives any more," said Maritza Diaz, an employee of CubaTur, an agency based in Cutler Bay that sells tickets to Cuba.
Diaz estimated that she's selling double the normal number of tickets to the island.
The Department of State last week asked the White House to prohibit charter flights from the United States to nine Cuban provincial airports starting March 10. Only flights to Havana will still be allowed. The Department of Transportation will also put a limit on the total number of annual flights to the Cuban capital.
In Miami, home to the largest Cuban community outside the island, there's fear that all flights to Cuba will eventually be eliminated. The Trump administration eliminated all commercial airline flights to the same nine cities in November. They included large cities such as Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba.
Diaz said that even if the U.S. government bans all flights to the island, that will not stop Cubans living in the United States from traveling to the island. The Bush administration banned flights to Cuba, she said, "and people continued to go" via third countries.
In 2004, President George W. Bush, trying to push Havana to adopt changes, limited Cubans' travel to the island to once every three years. He also restricted remittances to $100 per month, and only to spouses, parents, children and grandparents. Those restrictions were lifted after Barack Obama became president in 2008.
Elena Argudin, a Cuba native who has been living in Homestead for four years and still has many relatives on the island, said she fears the deteriorating U.S.-Cuba relations "will put more obstacles" on the possibility of visiting her family.
"I left my elderly parents in Cuba. My mother is 78 years old and my father is 81. If they stop the flights, they will die from sadness from not seeing me. I call them every day," she said.
Argudin came to Florida eight years ago, after traveling through much of Latin America and crossing several borders. She travels back to Cuba "at least two times" every year, and sends money back to her parents on the island.
The Trump administration also banned cruise ship visits to the island and significantly limited flights, eliminating all destinations except Havana, in reprisal for Cuban government's support for the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela, the island's main economic ally.
The U.S. government measures are designed to limit Havana's access to hard currencies. The White House has said the money the Cuban government receives from visitors is used to repress the domestic opposition and help the Maduro regime.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez recently said during a recent interview with el Nuevo Herald that a decision to end the flights is controversial because while affects many Cuban families in South Florida it is intended to limit the amount of cash going into government coffers..
"That money goes into the hands of the (Cuban) armed forces. In Cuba, people still live in misery, without food or medicines. We cannot support that," he said.
A number of business people in South Florida have found a market under the new restrictions, offering private transportation to areas outside Havana. The Cuban government also owns a transportation agency for tourists that charges in Convertible Cuban Pesos, known as CUC and roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar.
American Airlines said there was "great demand" for seats on its six daily flights to Havana "throughout the year." It added that "prices continue to vary."
The price of a round trip ticket Miami-Havana in March, on commercial airlines, stands at about $200, pretty much the same as at the same time last year. Charter flight prices are slightly lower.
But the prices will start to rise as demand increases when the new restrictions take hold, said economist Emilio Morales, director of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group.
"There will be no more than nine flights to Havana per day. That will have an impact, because the demand will be more than the supply," he said in a telephone interview.
In the past, before the Obama administration resumed diplomatic relations with Havana and allowed the start of commercial flights, the cost of a ticket to the island could be as high as $800.
Morales added that travel within Cuba will also substantially increase the cost of a visit to the island. A trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba "does not cost less than $500 if you use a private service," he said. "Public transportation is cheaper, but doesn't run often and charges for suitcases."
"With fewer flights, there will be fewer opportunities to transport merchandise and cash," Morales said. He added that the U.S. restrictions will have a severe impact on remittances to Cuba, the second largest source of hard currency for the island.
"Nearly half the remittances get there in unofficial ways, that's to say with 'mules,' people who travel from Miami to Havana. That will change with the reduction in the number of flights," he said.
The economist estimated that about half of the Cubans who live in the United States and travel to the island will be affected by the new restrictions.
Adonis Rios, 35, a Cuban native who lives in Homestead and travels to the island every week to deliver merchandise and cash, said his business will be affected by the restrictions.
"If they increase the price of the tickets, I will have to stop doing what I have been doing or I will have to raise the price of the pounds that I carry to Cuba," said Rios, who arrived in the United States in 2014 after a long trek that started in Ecuador.
Rios, who is allowed to carry 40 pounds on each trip to the island, charges $9 per pound and delivers the merchandise in the Havana municipality of Regla. He also delivers cash, and sells his annual allowance for imports to Cuba as an island resident – about 220 pounds.
"My business isn't making anyone rich, but at least it lets me live a decent life and maintain my family in Cuba," he said. "I don't care about politics. I just want to live and help my family to live better," he said. "I don't know if Trump or (Cuban ruler Miguel) Diaz-Canel are good or bad. The only thing I know is that those most affected by this brawl are the common people."
Rios said his wife and a three-year old son are in Havana. He's filed a petition to bring them to the United States under Cuban Family Reunification Program, but that program was halted in 2017, when the U.S. government called home most of its diplomats in Havana following a string of mysterious incidents. Some 22,000 CFRP claims are on hold, sparking protests among Cuban residents of South Florida.
Cuban travel agencies outside Florida that were contacted for this story said they have not experienced a substantial increase in demand for tickets to the island.
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