Cuba rejoices: U.S. change means more money, visits

A woman is welcomed by relatives Tuesday after arriving from the U.S. at the Jose Marti airport in Havana. President Obama on Monday eased restrictions on dealings with the island nation. (Javier Galeano ~ Associated Press)

HAVANA -- Families separated by the Florida Straits rejoiced Tuesday and Miami-based charter companies rushed to add seats and flights to their Havana routes after the Obama administration decided to let more Americans visit Cuba as often as they want, and spend as much as they like.

The policy changes are sure to inject more money into Cuba's economy, and many would-be travelers are already clamoring for more barriers to fall. Even Fidel Castro, who belittled the changes Monday, conceded Tuesday that they were "positive, although minimal."

"Man, this is something they should have done a long time ago," said engineer Simon Rodriguez, 37. "To have bilateral relations between the two countries is good for the Cubans and for the Americans."

The United States still doesn't let most Americans without ties to Cuba visit the island or send in money. But the change, announced Monday by the Obama administration, was among the most significant openings in the half-century of hostilities between the two countries.

During the Bush administration, Americans with immediate family members on the island could visit once every three years and send up to $100 a month to their families.

Now, there are no limits to travel or remittances, and the definition of family is expanded to include relatives as distant as second cousins -- as well as anyone else who lives as family in the home of the authorized traveler.

Charter lines that fly authorized visitors between Cuba and the U.S. worked to add flights and seats, anticipating a surge in passengers.

Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, said she hired two full-time employees and one part-time employee immediately after Monday's announcement, and was moving from three weekly flights to Havana to four. She also plans to use a larger plane for the Saturday flight.

"We're already scrounging around for more aircraft," she said.

Gulfstream Charters International, which has daily flights between Miami and Havana, said it will use larger, 172-seat airplanes four days a week instead of three beginning in June. The other days it flies with 30-seaters.

"We've been getting a lot of calls, a lot of questions," company president Tom Cooper said. "People want to know who can go, if they can go, when are the rules going to be published" by the U.S. Treasury Department.

In Havana, Cubans with American relatives were hoping for more visits from loved ones, and the possibility of more cash to buy things they cannot afford on government salaries averaging less than $20 a month.

At the airport, people arrived from Miami on Tuesday pushing luggage carts loaded with goods hard to find in Cuba, such as jumbo rolls of toilet paper, and shopping bags stuffed with gifts including dolls, toy guns and Mickey Mouse bed sheets.

Allowing unlimited travel by family members, "is a humanitarian question, above all a thing of the heart," said Yulesvi Ramirez, arriving in Cuba for the first time since she moved to the United States in 2007.

Berta Maria Mayor could understand that sentiment. The 45-year-old was waiting for her husband, who lives in Florida, to come home for the first time in three years.

"You can imagine what it is like to have a marriage by telephone," she said. "I'm in love with someone I barely get to see."

Also arriving was Luis Perez, a naturalized American who has lived in Miami for 18 years. He now plans to visit his 83-year-old mother in Cuba "every time I can."

Castro criticized the changes in a column Monday night for not eliminating the embargo that bars most trade and travel between the two countries. He struck a slightly more conciliatory tone Tuesday, calling them "positive although minimal."

American supporters of easing U.S. sanctions also criticized the Obama administration for not going further, but said the move should greatly help Cuban families.

It could "bring an injection of purchasing power that will raise the incomes of Cubans who rent rooms in their homes or drive private taxis," Cuba specialist Phil Peters of the Washington-area think tank Lexington Institute wrote in his blog, The Cuban Triangle.

But he and other Americans wondered when they, too, will be able to travel freely to Cuba.

"If Cuban-Americans can visit, what about regular Americans like me?" asked John Parke Wright, a Florida rancher who does business with the island. "I'm ready to come every week."

Peters said the policy continues to treat Cuban-Americans as "a separate class."

"The rest of Americans aren't chopped liver," he said.

Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.