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Many Cuban exiles cheer policy change

The phones have been ringing nonstop at South Florida travel agencies that book flights from Miami to Havana since last month, when Congress eased travel restrictions for those who have relatives in Cuba. Many companies have doubled staff size, added flights and purchased larger planes to keep up with the demand.

And that was before President Obama went a step further Monday, lifting all restrictions on travel and remittances, or money transfers, for Cuban Americans. Now, travel agents specializing in flights to the island expect demand to explode.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls. I’m sure tomorrow we’ll get even more calls,” said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters in Miami.

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Eddie Venero, 24, has waited years for the chance to meet his relatives in Cuba for the first time, and he plans to go this summer with his father.

“I’m on a mission now,” said Venero, of Hollywood, Fla. “It’s going to be great; this is going to reconnect a lot of people.”

In Havana, Mercedes Savedra Garcia was picking up her daughter at school when she learned about the announcement in Washington. “We expect more change to come from this,” Savedra said. “Hopefully, this is only the beginning.”

She said she has relatives in South Florida whom she hasn’t seen since 1994. Often, the relatives spend exorbitant fees on illegal couriers who skirt limits on remittances, which had been capped at $300 a quarter and could be sent only to the sender’s immediate family.

About 1.5 million Americans have relatives in Cuba.

“Most Cubans and, I think, most Americans have been in favor of these changes,” Savedra said. “Maybe the Cuban and American governments will finally start listening to the people.”

Obama’s announcement, which signals a change from the hard-line policy of the previous administration, met many of the suggestions that the Cuban American National Foundation made last week.

“You need two to tango, and so far the U.S. government has taken the first step,” said Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, the powerful exile group’s president. “Now we have to see what the Cuban government will do.”

But some Cuban exiles in South Florida agreed with Fred Valdes, 60, of Hollywood, who called the move “disgusting” and “obscene” -- “a bad joke.” Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro need to make changes before Obama does, said Valdes, who left the communist island in 1961.

“They stole American industries, stole American companies and didn’t pay a penny,” he said. “Why should we take the first step?”

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apcampbell@sunsentinel.com

rsanchez@sunsentinel.com


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