An Airlift, Family by Family, Bolsters Cuba's Economy
By VICTORIA BURNETT – June 11, 2011
HAVANA — Alejandrina Hernández packed only light clothes and a makeup
bag when she flew here from Miami this spring. As always, she kept her
baggage to a minimum.
Her own baggage, that is.
Ms. Hernández also brought more than 100 pounds of food, clothes and
medicine for her family and other Cubans whose relatives in the United
States paid her $8 a pound to ferry gifts.
"I need to see my family, but these trips are very expensive," said Ms.
Hernández, who has returned eight times to see her husband and mother in
the past 18 months. "This way, I more or less break even."
Ms. Hernández is part of a surge in Cuban and Cuban-American visitors
from the United States since President Obama lifted travel restrictions
in 2009 for those with family here.
Economists and travel agents estimate that 400,000 passengers will fly
to Cuba from the United States this year, nearly four times the number
in 2008 — and more than at any time since the United States cut ties
with the island some 50 years ago, they say. The visitors bring cash and
huge bundles stuffed with goods that the embargo and Cuba's economic
woes have put beyond reach, from basics like milk powder, bouillon cubes
and vitamins to luxuries like BlackBerrys and flat-screen televisions.
Much of it goes into the living rooms and pantries of relatives, or to
retailers who operate Cuba's voracious informal market.
But the money and goods also feed Cuba's budding private sector, the
frail backbone of President Raúl Castro's plan to reinvigorate the
country's feeble economy. Many entrepreneurs say they get capital and
supplies from relatives abroad — colored beads from Miami for religious
trinkets, pepper mills for restaurant tables, beautician's wax.
Opponents of greater contact with Cuba say such openings simply help to
keep the Castro government afloat. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican
from Florida whose parents are Cuban exiles, has called remittances and
travel by Cuban-Americans "perhaps the single largest source of revenue
to the most repressive government in the region."
A State Department official, who requested anonymity because the policy
is politically delicate, said that "additional people-to-people contact
and enhanced economic independence from the state" helped to "undermine
repression." In an e-mail responding to questions, the official said
such benefits outweighed concerns about "the Cuban government profiting
In 2004, President George W. Bush limited family visits to once every
three years, reducing them from once a year, but now Cubans and
Cuban-Americans may visit relatives as often as they want and send them
any amount of money.
The Obama administration also relaxed restrictions on travel by
non-Cuban Americans. In March, it expanded the number of airports that
can handle direct flights to Cuba, to 11 from 3. And it now allows any
American to send Cubans up to $2,000 a year to help private businesses.
Manuel Orozco, an expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a center for
policy analysis, said remittances to Cuba — estimated at $900 million to
$1.4 billion last year — were important to the small businesses
springing up on the island. But he said Cuban expatriates would wait for
deeper reforms in Cuba — or details on the nation's new rules allowing
property and car sales — before they sent larger amounts.
"Nobody in the diaspora is going to invest $10,000 right now," he said.
Still, the stream of visitors is fueling Cuba's small but growing
consumer culture. And in a country where most people earn about $20 per
month in return for social services and subsidies, consumption of any
kind is conspicuous.
Arnól Rodríguez, who left Cuba 11 years ago and lives in Rochester,
N.Y., sat at a fancy Havana hotel this spring, watching his son and some
friends eat pizza and jiggle to reggaetón.
"This is something they could never, ever, afford," said Mr. Rodríguez,
49, who spent $200 treating 10 local friends and relatives to a day at
the pool. "I don't care how much it costs me."
Mr. Rodríguez, on his 14th trip home, said he brought seven suitcases
carrying test kits for his diabetic brother, shoes, clothes, chocolate,
a PlayStation 2, two hard drives and a DVD player.
Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, which operates daily
flights between the United States and Cuba, said Cubans of all kinds
were buying tickets. But frequent visitors were mainly those who left in
the early 1990s and after, when the hardship of the post-Soviet era led
to an exodus.
"This is a generation that is not informed by cold war politics, but by
the politics of survival," Mr. Orozco said.
Unlike those who left soon after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, more
recent émigrés tend to stay in touch, exchanging jokes and news by text
message, telephone or e-mail.
"It is helping destroy the myth of separation" between islanders and the
1.8-million-strong Cuban community in the United States, said Katrin
Hansing, a professor at the City University of New York.
Once on the island, the émigrés slip back into their social networks,
taking relatives to dinner, going dancing with friends, baptizing their
children and getting checkups from doctors in Cuba's health care system.
Leonel Morales, 34, who left for Miami three years ago, came back in
February for the first time to be inducted into santería, a religion
practiced here. The process would have cost three times as much in
Florida, he said.
While in Havana, Mr. Morales also saw a doctor he knew about a chronic
stomach complaint. A visit to a doctor in Florida had cost him $7,000.
Ms. Hernández, who has lived in Florida for six years with her son,
tells her husband and friends about her long hours working as a
chambermaid, about the perils of mortgages, about the delights of
ubiquitous air-conditioning and the Internet.
"Cubans are a bit mistaken about what life is like in America," said Ms.
Hernandez, 50. "They don't know how hard it is, how much you have to
work. At the same time, you see the fruits of your labor. You come back
here and see that everything is falling apart."
Although she misses her family and the distinctive smell of Cuba's sea,
enough to bring tears to her eyes, Ms. Hernández said she would stay in
Florida until her son finished college or her sore joints prevented her
from working, shuttling between her trailer in Hialeah and her husband's
noisy home in a warren of apartments carved from a once-grand Havana
"I have half my heart here and the other half there," she said. "The sad
thing is, I am not really happy in either place."