June 24, 2007
Havana Alejandro Iglesias stood with his family — two sisters, his father, also named Alejandro, and mother Iliana — inside Terminal 2 at Jose Marti International Airport below a dangling yellow sign that said "Security Control." Only passengers bound for the United States are allowed beyond the cordoned-off area.
The Iglesiases had returned for the first time in four years, and a dozen relatives came to see the family off. Photos were snapped and hugs exchanged. Young Alejandro tried to comfort his sobbing aunts. One wept uncontrollably.
"Everything's going to be fine," the 10-year-old told her with a confidence and poise beyond his years. "We'll be back. It's OK."The older Alejandro picked up his 2-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and walked slowly to immigration booth No. 2. After a final round of kisses, Iliana and the older kids squeezed into the booth. An immigration officer reviewed their travel documents and, minutes later, buzzed open a heavy metal door leading to the gates for the Miami-bound charters.
A final wave. Some blown kisses. More tears.
Every day, the human toll of the Bush administration's restrictions on travel to Cuba is displayed in Terminal 2. In 2004, the administration limited family visits to one trip every three years for a period not to exceed 15 days. Terminal 2 quickly became one of the saddest places in Havana.
"People are very emotional and tearful because they're not going to see one another again for at least three years — and maybe forever," said Wayne Smith, the top American diplomat in Havana from 1979 to 1982.
Smith, director of the Cuba Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., said the travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans were the worst component of what he called failed U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government of convalescing President Fidel Castro.
"If you come visit your aging mother in June and you go back to Miami, and then you get a call in September saying, 'Mother is dying. Please come quickly.' Well, you can't," he said. "There is no emergency provision. They tell you, 'Well, you can visit the grave in three years.' It's almost vindictive."
Hard-line exiles and other supporters of the restrictions say family and educational travel are fronts for tourist visits. The restrictions, they argue, deny the government dollars needed to stay in power. In 2003, 125,000 family visits to Cuba netted the government about $96 million, according to the Bush administration's Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba.
Still, all but the most hard-line exiles say the restrictions hurt Cuban families more than Cuba's government.
Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., has submitted a bill to rescind restrictions on Cuban-Americans' visits to family on the island. Also under consideration is legislation to allow any U.S. citizen to travel to Cuba and to remove tight limits on money and goods Cuban-Americans can send to their families. But the barrier most likely to fall first is the limit on visits to family.
"It has a better chance of passing than anything else," said Smith, who is part of a group of academics that last year filed a federal lawsuit in Washington aimed at lifting the ban on educational exchanges.
The five years Alejandra Gomez has spent selling Cuban music inside Terminal 2 have not made her immune to the painful scenes around her. She used to change the musical selections to more upbeat numbers.
"But at that moment," she said, "they don't hear anything."
Elderly women have fainted after sons crossed the security checkpoint, some airport workers said. The piercing wails of young children separated from their grandparents sometimes fill the terminal.
"You're always moved," added Gomez, who said she has aunts and uncles in South Florida. "It makes me very sad. I'm Cuban. I feel for them. Sometimes you get a truckload of people from the same town at the airport and they're all standing there crying like babies."
Lorenzo Buzon, Iliana Iglesias' father, said the couple hardly rested after arriving in Havana two weeks ago. "They're up talking with us every night until 2 or 3 in the morning," said Buzon, a retired electrician. "They try to take advantage of every second, not knowing when we'll get this chance again.
After Buzon's daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren crossed the metal door at the security point, the dozen relatives who came to say goodbye turned and headed out into a scorching sun. Buzon stopped momentarily and pointed to a little girl and an old woman in a weeping embrace.
"Look at their faces," he said. "They tell it all."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.