Cuba Eases Decades-long Restriction on Sea Travel

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A cruise ship from a Semester at Sea program approached the port of Havana in November 2014. Cubans will now be able to travel to and from the island by ship. Credit Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MIAMI — Cuba reversed a decades-old policy on Friday, lifting a restriction that prevented Cubans from entering or leaving the country by cruise ship or commercial vessel, according to a statement in the country’s national newspaper, Granma.

The decision, another softening of Cuba’s Cold War stance toward the United States, came after a furor in Miami prompted Carnival Cruise Line to announce that it would delay its inaugural May 1 cruise to Cuba unless the country changed the policy. Carnival said Friday that the cruise, the first by an American cruise ship to Cuba in 50 years, would depart as scheduled.

Cuba risked losing millions of dollars in the next year if the cruise line had been forced to cancel its trips on the Adonia, a 704-passenger luxury ship, according to an analysis by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The directive, which will take effect on Tuesday, also marked a rare turn of events: an American corporation persuading the Castro government to alter a policy.

Last month, Carnival became the first American cruise company to obtain Cuban approval to sail to the island. European and Canadian cruise lines have already been making the trip.

“We made history in March, and we are a part of making history again today,” said Arnold Donald, the president and chief executive of the Carnival Corporation, adding, “We were very positive there would be this outcome and were proceeding in that fashion.”

Mr. Donald said the company’s negotiators underscored to Cuban officials that Cuban passengers have long been permitted to fly in and out of Cuba and that the same policy should apply to sea travel. Cruises are crucial to Cuba’s tourism sector because they allow for more visitors without pressuring the country’s already strained hotel capacity.

Starting on Tuesday, the government will also allow Cubans aboard commercial vessels, including cargo ships, to enter or leave Cuba.

The mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos A. Gimenez, who at one point explored options for a lawsuit against Carnival, praised the resolution.

“This policy change was the right thing to do,” Mr. Gimenez, who is Cuban-born, said in a statement.

The Cuban government on Friday also hinted at its next move: the possibility of allowing Cuban-born people to travel to the island aboard recreational boats. That authorization, the government said, would come gradually and when circumstances are right.

Cuban-Americans in Miami who support engagement with Cuba have long envisioned the possibility of taking their own boats to the island, which is 90 miles away from Florida, to visit family.

Friday’s decision is significant because the Cuban government has long been wary of sea travel between the United States and Cuba. For decades, Cubans have fled the island by raft and rustic boats, something that continues today. The government also feared that allowing Cuban citizens to travel by sea would make it easier for hostile Cuban-Americans to enter the country and to undermine the government.

In 1980, after tensions in Cuba escalated as the economy plummeted, Fidel Castro allowed boats from the United States to pick up Cubans in the port of Mariel. More than 125,000 Cubans left the island by boat. Most of them were picked up by relatives, friends or recruits from Miami.

The Cuban government stressed that all passengers and crew members entering or leaving Cuba must have valid documents to do so. It also needled the United States, pointing out that American law continues to restrict American tourist travel to Cuba, although regulations have been eased.

The uproar, which Carnival did not anticipate, began this month when Cubans in Florida tried to buy tickets for the weeklong voyage. Carnival agents refused to book them on the cruise, saying that because they were Cuban-born, the Cuban government barred them from entering the country by sea.

In subsequent talks, the company and the Cuban government tried to find a resolution. This week, Carnival, which is based in a Miami suburb and is well-versed on local sensitivities about Cuba, faced a class-action lawsuit by Cuban-Americans and harsh words from political leaders who expressed outrage that an American company would discriminate against American citizens. Carnival initially delayed the trip, but remained optimistic.

“Carnival acted responsibly within the context of a horrific public relations environment,” said John Kavulich, the president of the trade council.

Pedro A. Freyre, whose law firm, Akerman, represents Carnival, and who was one of several lawyers to advise the company, said Carnival began working on getting the directive changed soon after its cruise was approved by the Cuban government.

Mr. Freyre, who is Cuban-born and supports closer ties to the island nation, said even he was surprised by the fervor in Miami over the cruise.

“I had been around my community long enough to know that emotions are very deep here,” he said. “At the beginning, I said, ‘What? Why are people so upset — 300,000 travel every year to Cuba.’ But this one tugged at the heart strings.”

Dr. Andy Gomez, a senior policy adviser for Poblete Tamargo, a law and public policy firm, said the face-off served as a reminder that Cuba’s thicket of laws and regulations remained far from business friendly.

But Mr. Freyre said the episode also shows that a more measured approach to Cuba works best.

“What the Cubans did today is reflect that it’s good to be engaged,” he said. “You can talk calmly about things instead of shouting at each other.”

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