Cuban Americans Plan for a Ferry from Miami to Havana

MIAMI – Imagine a ferry from Miami to Havana that costs far less than a flight. Cuban-Americans, who can now visit the island without restriction, could eat lechón on deck, and then deliver a shipping container of food to needy relatives by morning.


Armando Ruiz, 72, a Cuban exile and former concert promoter, has dreamed of this for a decade. Now he thinks it might actually happen – if the Obama administration approves his application for a license.


“He says he wants to help the Cuban people,” Mr. Ruiz said, referring to President Obama. “How can he do it without a ship?”


Until recently, Miami’s community of Cuban exiles was considered far too volatile to handle a ferry cruising from Florida to Cuba for the first time since 1962 . But Mr. Ruiz’s proposal shows how much the political climate here has changed.


It is faith in pent-up demand for a new approach that has led Mr. Ruiz to consider chartering a $23 million, 600-cabin cruise-ferry from a dealer in Lithuania. It may also be the dream of riches, which he denies, or family legacy, which he does not. But for the White House, his proposal mainly shows how a shift from policymakers can produce demands that outpace diplomatic deliberation.


Ever since the president announced plans in April to encourage contact with Cuba by letting Cuban-Americans travel back whenever they wanted and send more money and gifts, the administration has found itself fending off pressure to move more quickly toward normalized relations.


Cuban officials, some members of Congress and travel companies like Orbitz have all demanded that the travel ban be lifted, not just for Cuban exiles but for all Americans. Charter flight operators in Miami, after praising the new approach, spent the summer complaining that the administration took too long to publish regulations that put the policy for Cuban-Americans into effect.


And now that the new rules are out – published in the Federal Register this month – entrepreneurs are stepping up with ideas for expanding links with Cuba.


Mr. Ruiz’s ferry is one of several proposals that aim to push through the door that Mr. Obama opened just a crack. Direct flights from Los Angeles to Havana started in June. Several other cities, including Tampa and New Orleans, may also soon offer flights to Cuba through charter companies.


Cultural exchanges that could grant travel rights to Americans who are not of Cuban descent are in the works with charter operators in Miami – a tactic widely used under President Bill Clinton and severely restricted by President George W. Bush.


Eddy Levy, 75, co-owner of Xael Travel, said the entire travel industry, including charter companies like his own, were laying the groundwork for what they hoped would be a more significant opening.


“The important thing is the relationship between the two countries,” said Mr. Levy, who has focused on connecting Jewish families in Cuba and the United States. “It’s one very big step toward normalizing relations if the United States opens travel to the non-Cubans.”


He said that allowing all Americans to go to Cuba would mean enough travelers to go around – on commercial flights, on ferries and on charters.


Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, which flew 10,500 passengers to Cuba this summer, up from 6,000 last year, agreed.


“I think all of that will be wonderful when all travel restrictions are lifted,” Ms. Aral said. “But we’re not there yet.”


At this point, Mr. Ruiz sees his proposed ferry service mainly as an alternative for those with less money, more gifts or an inability to fly because of illness or fear. He described the seven or so charter companies – the only businesses with landing rights from both the American and Cuban governments – as a monopoly that charges too much (around $500 round trip) because of minimal competition.


He said he got the idea for a ferry about 15 years ago on a trip to Cuba. He was buying cigars in a poor section of Havana from a man who said no one in his building could afford a television.


“I thought, we have so many televisions that get thrown out,” said Mr. Ruiz, in an interview at his luxury apartment building overlooking the Atlantic. “If I had a ship, I could bring so many and donate them.”


Cargo seemed to excite him the most. Mr. Ruiz’s eyes brightened behind his Dolce & Gabbana eyeglasses when he said that someone who could take only 44 pounds of luggage on a plane without paying extra would be able to carry four times as much onto the boat. It would all be part of the ferry ticket price, he said, which would probably run about $100 less than plane fare.


The schedule would include at least three overnight round trips a week.


Think of the possibilities, he said: bicycles and toys for Christmas; food, medicines and construction materials after hurricanes. He said his company, Florida Ferry International, had interested investors, including Cuban-Americans, and management companies ready to staff the ship. He said the business would cost somewhere from $300,000 to $1 million dollars a month to operate, depending on the boat leased and the partners involved.


Critics of greater engagement, like Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, said it would never happen “without reciprocity on democratic reforms and human rights by the Cuban regime.”


Cuba could also refuse to let Mr. Ruiz dock his boat or – struggling with an economy as bad as it has ever been – try to charge exorbitant fees.


But in his eyes, Washington is the source of the holdup. His application notes that the law governing travel allows licenses not just for aircraft but also for vessels. The State Department, where Mr. Ruiz’s lawyer has been told the license request now sits, did not respond to calls or an e-mail message.


“How could he deny it if he says he wants to open up Cuba,” said Mr. Ruiz, a Republican who voted for Mr. Obama and carries a photo of him in his Blackberry. “This is not a dream. This is a right.”

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