Their travail agency

Times Staff Writer

All around Mario Romero’s strip-mall travel agency, this immigrant neighborhood was alive with commercial traffic, all of it moving to a clave rhythm clunking from an outdoor speaker. In and out they went on a sunny Monday morning to the IGA food store, or the Gala hair salon, or La Epoca restaurant for a cafecito.

But few stopped in to see Romero. His business, Cojimar Express Services, is one of dozens of Miami-area agencies that hold federal licenses to sell plane tickets to Cuba. These days, he said, people are too scared to buy.

“There is no business,” he said. “You don’t see anybody in here.”

Romero, who left the island in 1991, sat at his desk in a crisp linen shirt and stared at a row of empty chairs beneath his black-and-white photos of the Cuban countryside: The banks of the Rio Miel. The fishing boats at Pinar del Rio.


A woman appeared at the door, but not to buy a ticket. It was his wife, Marisela, with a plate of chicken and rice from home.

This slowdown, Romero said, was the result of yet another shift in regulations on this side of the Straits of Florida. A state law passed this summer requiring agencies like his to post bonds of as much as $250,000. The state would use the money to open investigations of companies suspected of skirting the rules governing travel to Cuba.

Romero is one of 13 agency owners who have filed a legal challenge to the law; they recently won a restraining order until a federal court decides its fate.

Nonetheless, he said, customers were spooked. They wondered whether the law presaged a government crackdown: Nobody wanted to fly to Cuba only to find that their travel company had been shut down. Nobody wanted to be stranded in Castrolandia.

“The customers are saying, ‘If we pay our money, what’s going to happen if there’s a problem?’ ” he said.

To Romero, the new troubles were no surprise: For nearly half a century now, American lawmakers have been alternately loosening and tightening the regulatory spigot that controls the flow of U.S. visitors to the communist nation. That has made for a bumpy ride for entrepreneurs who have dared to make travel to Cuba their specialty, especially the mom-and-pop travel agencies that dot the working-class neighborhoods of greater Miami.


They are, typically, modest places. Cojimar Express’ tiny storefront is tucked between a dentist’s office and an eyeglass store. A sign in Spanish advertises the range of services one would expect at any travel agency: passport services, a notary public, tourist packages “to every destination.”

And, just as matter-of-factly: “Viajes a Cuba.”

It offers no hint of the complications involved -- or the fact that the business fuels one of the most emotionally charged foreign policy issues in the hemisphere. The federal government allows Cuban Americans to travel to the island once every three years -- only to visit immediate family members. There are no airline flights, only chartered planes, whose manifests are monitored by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Many Cuban Americans have long held that any travel to Cuba is a traitorous act that legitimizes the dictatorship of the Castros. Some of them are suspicious of, if not hostile toward, the travel companies that sell the tickets.

Republican state Rep. David Rivera, the sponsor of the new law, said he had fielded complaints about companies overcharging customers and failing to return deposits. During the Bush administration, he noted, a number of companies have had their licenses suspended for helping their customers violate the travel rules.

“There are a lot of unsavory characters involved with these travel agencies,” he said.

The travel companies, in their lawsuit, say they are being unfairly singled out. They note that agencies that do not sell Cuba tickets post a much smaller bond of $25,000.

Romero, in an affidavit, said that his company could not afford to meet the bonding requirements. If they took effect, he said, he would be forced to shut down.


The sunny South Florida morning wore on. Inside Cojimar, the air conditioner’s low hum threatened to overtake the room.

Another woman came to the door -- a friend who needed help with the math portion of a teacher-certification test. Romero and his wife were both trained as math professors at the University of Havana. Their ornate diplomas hang side by side in the front room.

As his wife chatted with their friend, Romero -- 65 years old and handsome, with clear olive skin and sad brown eyes -- sat in the back room and explained, in softly spoken Spanish, how they got from there to here.

Math professors deal with abstractions, not politics, and for years, he said, he regarded Castro’s revolution with ambivalence. Eventually, however, he grew disillusioned with life on the island, especially the anemic economy. He was tagged as a subversive and fired. In the early 1980s, he asked for permission to emigrate to the United States. Instead, he said, the government threw him in jail for a year.

After his release, he worked at factory jobs until he and his wife won permission in 1991 to leave the country. In Florida, he earned a teaching certificate, but struggled to find work.

His decision to open Cojimar Express in 1998 in this cantaloupe-colored strip mall was both practical and idealistic. He had left his son from his first marriage behind, in Havana. It was one of the many pains of an exile he shared with the Cuban diaspora.


Opening the agency, Romero said, was “a chance to realize a dream -- to end the separation of the Cuban family.” Still, some of his family members in the United States became angry with him.

To sell tickets to Cuba, he had to apply for a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces federal sanctions on rogue nations, terrorists and narcotics traffickers.

He joined an industry that had been riding the vicissitudes of Cuban-American relations since 1977, when the Carter administration lifted a 14-year ban on U.S. travel to the island.

One of the first companies to offer flights was started by Francisco Aruca, an economist and talk show host who became well known for mixing business and politics. Using his Miami AM radio show as a platform, Aruca called for less restrictive travel rules, and more open relations with Cuba. His portrayals of the Castro government were moderate, and sometimes sympathetic.

Aruca’s travel offices were bombed in 1989 and 1996.

Also damaging to the industry were the shifting travel policies issued from Havana and Washington. In the mid-1980s, Fidel Castro banned family visits for more than a year, in retaliation for the U.S. government’s start-up of Radio Marti, the station aimed at countering Cuba’s communist regime.

In 1994, the Clinton administration severely tightened restrictions on family visits, an attempt to punish Castro for allowing thousands of Cubans to sail to Florida.


The industry suffered, but the hardy survived, and eventually the rules were loosened again. By the time Romero opened Cojimar Express, Cuban Americans were allowed to visit family on the island once per year, and more often if a relative was sick.

When the current Bush administration, advised by hard-line anti-Castro Cubans, changed that interval to once every three years, it again caused havoc for the travel agents. Romero’s business plunged 60%. The number of Cuban Americans to visit the island in 2004, about 58,000, was half the total from the year before, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

For the Romeros, the effect was more than economic, as evidenced by the homemade sign that hangs in the back room. Marisela carried it to a 2004 demonstration. In the center is a photo of a frail, bald man with a kind smile and a dull stare.

“My father. 87 years old,” the sign says. “Alzheimer. TELL ME MR. BUSH IF HE CAN WAIT FOR ME 3 YEARS.”

Before the 2004 restrictions, Marisela used to visit her ailing father in Havana as often as six times a year. She took him medicine, along with dollars to pay for his caregivers. She last visited him in May 2004, then applied for a permit to travel again, knowing she would be rejected.

Marisela, 57, keeps a copy of the rejection letter in the office as proof of what she considers a great injustice. She walked to the back of the office and pointed to the sign. She had written the date of his death on the poster.


“My father,” she said, bitterly, “was alone.”

With fewer tickets to sell, the Romeros relied on their other services to make up the difference. They process passport applications for $20. They fly over-the-counter medicine or food to customers’ relatives in Cuba for $12 per pound.

They both sell real estate on the side. But that is not going well these days -- and now they have David Rivera’s law to deal with.

It was passed at a time when the Romeros should otherwise have been hopeful. Recent polls suggest that a growing number of Cuban Americans in South Florida -- about 55% -- favor unrestricted travel to Cuba. Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, supports lifting the restrictions. (His rival, Republican Sen. John McCain, opposes lifting the restrictions, arguing that doing so would reduce pressure on the Castro government.)

Rivera is 42, the U.S.-born son of emigres who left the island just after the revolution. He has never visited Cuba. By visiting, he said, “you’re almost legitimizing the regime, by saying there’s really no problem in Cuba.”

In Mario Romero’s eyes, Rivera is the kind of Cuban American for whom Cuba has become an abstraction. Such people, he said, don’t understand the importance of traveling back to see family.

“We think differently,” Romero said. “Because we lived a reality that they didn’t live.”

A day later, business was still molasses-slow. Marisela brought rice and fish for lunch. Her husband sat at a desk with his chin in his hand, clicking and reclicking a pen.


A young man walked in. His father in Cuba was sick. Marisela helped him fill out his application to travel, and faxed it to the Treasury Department for approval.

The customer, a 25-year-old ballet dancer, declined to give his name. He hadn’t been back to the island in 13 years. He paid the Romeros $20 for their help but did not buy a ticket -- he thought he could buy one at the airport.

Marisela told him it didn’t work that way. But he wouldn’t listen.

Mario didn’t say a word. He was asked what he was thinking.

“No pensando” -- not thinking -- he said. “Esperando.” The latter verb means waiting, expecting, hoping.

Romero last visited his son in Havana in February 2006. Soon his three years of waiting will come to an end.

Then he will be the one filling out the forms at Cojimar Express. He will be the one who buys the ticket.