Tampa-Cuba Ferry Proposed


TAMPA (2011-3-15) –

President Obama recently allowed flights from Tampa to Cuba. Now, two companies are vying to establish what would be the first regularly-scheduled ferry service to the communist country.

But first, some hurdles have to be overcome. The biggest is getting permission from the U.S. Treasury Department, which regulates contact with the island nation. One of the companies is United Carribean Lines, based in Orlando. Company president Bruce Nierenberg wants to take advantage of newly-relaxed rules on cultural and educational tours in Cuba for Americans.

“Since the Cuban-Americans who go quite often take a lot of stuff with them – clothing, electronics, medicines, to friends and relatives in Cuba, a ferry would make it much more capable for them to take as much as they like, and without it costing a lot,” he says.

Nierenberg says the cost of tickets without a cabin would be a fraction of the cost of an airplane ticket. He hopes to start the ferry service from the Port of Tampa early next year.


Port, ferry operators want to run a slow boat to Cuba

Orlandosentinel.com: WASHINGTON — Imagine boarding a deluxe ferry boat at Port Everglades or the Port of Tampa one evening, settling into a cabin or a reclining chair and sailing into Havana harbor as the sun rises the next morning, all for $150 to $300 roundtrip.

Florida port officials are planning for this tantalizing prospect, while ferry operators push the Obama administration to allow them to make it a reality.

For thousands of Cuban-Americans and other passengers scrambling for seats on charter flights to Cuba, ferry service would be a cheaper new way to get themselves and lots of luggage to the island. Some of them once fled to Florida on rickety boats; now, they want to return by water to bring money and goods to their families.

The ferry operators want a piece of the growing traffic to Cuba, which is overwhelming air charters. Port officials want to position themselves to tap a potential burst of leisure travel if the U.S. ban on tourist trips to Cuba is ever lifted.

The ferry operators and port promoters are also developing plans for ferry service to other destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, potentially conveying some of the millions of visitors who pass through Central Florida’s vast vacation complex.

“The Cuba part requires government approval, but we are talking about ferry service throughout the Caribbean,” said Bruce Nierenberg of Orlando, a former cruise line executive who has applied to the U.S. Treasury Department for permission to establish a ferry line to Cuba from Port Everglades, Tampa and the Port of Miami.

He’s pitching it as a low-cost service for consumers, especially Cuban-Americans clustered in South and Central Florida, who can travel more frequently if they avoid airfares that cost nearly $400 roundtrip.

During a 35-year career in the travel industry, Nierenberg was CEO of Scandinavian World Cruises, started the one-day “cruises to nowhere” on Seascape and founded Premier Cruise Lines. He envisions well-appointed ocean-going ferries to Cuba carrying about 1,200 passengers who pay $150 for a reclining chair or about $300 for cabins.

He hopes to start with service to Cuba as early as this year to take advantage of a ready-made market and begin ferries to Mexico and other countries in 2012.

Ports gear up

“Eventually, somebody is going to make this happen. And Tampa would be the right fit,” said Wade Elliott, senior director of marketing for the Tampa Port Authority. “We’re ready. We have the terminal facilities. Whenever we get the green light, we will look for an opportunity to do it.”

Port Everglades also plans on a burst of business if ferries are allowed to make the 250-mile trip to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale. Port officials have talked with Nierenberg and contacted other potential ferry operators here and in Spain, France, Norway and Latin America who have shown interest in providing service.

“It could be an explosion in the market once people see the convenience of being able to drive to the port, get on a ferry and — after a nice dinner and a bit of sleep — arrive in Cuba,” said Carlos Buqueras, director of business development at Port Everglades.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has joined the push. She cites census data indicating that 110,000 Cuban-Americans live in Central Florida, 71 percent of them within an hour’s drive of Tampa’s airport and seaport.

“We must continue to focus on creating jobs and diversifying Florida’s economy,” Castor said, “which is why I support the new business that is interested in launching a ferry service to Cuba and Mexico from the Port of Tampa.”

Traffic surge

President Barack Obama set off a surge of traffic to Cuba in 2009 when he allowed Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to see their families.

He ignited another potential burst of travel in January with new rules that allowed more airports to establish flights to Cuba and made it easier for non-Cuban-Americans — especially educational and religious groups — to visit the island.

Air-charter operators with service from airports in Miami, New York and Los Angeles estimate the number of passenger trips per year since 2009 has roughly doubled to about 400,000.

“Business is booming,” reported Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters in Miami, which flies to Havana five times a week. “The flights are full. We have more demand right now than we have flights.”

The demand intensifies pressure to allow ferry service from Florida’s seaports, which already have Customs and immigration facilities to process cruise line passengers.

“We need to open more gateways. The desire to travel is such that with the new regulations there just are not enough seats,” Silvia Wilhelm of Miami said last week while packing for one of her frequent trips to Cuba to visit relatives and escort cultural and religious groups.

Wilhelm, a longtime advocate for unlimited travel, said passengers now arrive at a remodeled terminal in Havana, a sign the Cuban government would welcome more visits.

Political objections

Some Cuban-Americans are appalled by the rush to Cuba, which they say sustains the Castro regime with a crucial infusion of American dollars. They and other defenders of the five-decade U.S. embargo hope to choke the Cuban economy and force political reforms, much like what is happening in parts of the Arab world.

When asked about the prospect of a ferry, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, cited a recent Cuban crackdown on human-rights activists. “Now is not the time to be giving unilateral concessions to this terrorist dictatorship,” he said. “The Obama administration should immediately rescind its recent lifting of sanctions and send a clear message that the U.S. will not tolerate Cuba’s lawless behavior.”

Sources with ties to the administration say the ferry proposal was considered when officials devised the new rules in January, but it was shelved for the time being because of security concerns.

Impatient to begin, Nierenberg said a ferry would simply offer consumers a different mode of transportation at a lower cost.

“The market is sitting there waiting to be activated,” he said, “and we would like to be the first.”



The opening of Cuba will put Keys at risk of mosquito-borne illnesses


There is little doubt that travel to and from Cuba is on the horizon. Whether this will be good or bad remains to be seen. There is plenty to be said about the benefits of opening the gates and how it will give a much-needed boost to the local economy. However, this being paradise and not Eden, you might expect a few problems to arise from all the back and forth travel.

Outside Cuba, information regarding the presence of mosquito-borne diseases in that island country is essentially nonexistent. We can speculate that dengue and West Nile virus are present, and know from history there were devastating yellow fever epidemics in Cuba prior to 1900. That is when Maj. Walter Reed, a U.S. Army physician, and his team confirmed that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes. Between 1867 and 1888, Key West suffered nine yellow fever epidemics without knowing mosquitoes were the cause. Despite the development of an effective yellow fever vaccine, and its commercial use beginning in the 1950s, non-vaccinated populations in Central and South America continue to be at risk.

The only thing preventing a recurrence of epidemics of mosquito-borne diseases in this country is mosquito control. All the mosquito species that were responsible for the great epidemics of the past still are with us today. We also have a very susceptible human population. The causative agents commonly are transported through the Keys via infected birds and humans. Infected travelers arrive almost daily at the Miami airport. Some are showing signs of illness while they are clearing through Customs and are detected. While others are in the early stages of the infection and show no symptoms of illness. They get through Customs without being detected and proceed to their destinations, where they may be bitten by a mosquito that then can spread the disease to unsuspecting individuals in the community.

This is where mosquito control comes into play. The causative agent, susceptible humans and the mosquito all are present in the same area, which constitute conditions that are required for an outbreak of a disease. In this case, the mosquito usually is the easiest to remove from the equation, thereby interrupting and, hopefully, preventing the occurrence of an outbreak.

Many of the very serious mosquito-borne diseases seem to originate in Africa. This is the case of an exotic mosquito-borne viral disease known as chikungunya, which was first isolated from the blood of a febrile patient in Tanzania in 1953. Chikungunya is a serious disease similar to, but more debilitating than, dengue. In the language of the Makonde people of Tanzania, chikungunya is derived from the word meaning “that which bends up.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chikungunya virus has since been cited as the cause of numerous human epidemics in many areas of Africa and Asia, and most recently in Europe. The epidemics in Europe occurred in two neighboring villages in the province of Ravenna, Italy. The two villages were separated by a slow-moving stagnant river and lock system that produces large numbers of mosquitoes, including the Asian tiger mosquito that was the vector species in this case.

An excellent example of how such diseases are spread can be illustrated by the way chikungunya was transported from India to Italy. A male resident of one of the villages in Ravenna traveled to the chikungunya-active Kerala state in India during June of 2007. He had two episodes of fever in late June 2007. While ill, and back in his home village, he visited his cousin, who became ill on July 4. By Sept. 21, 2007, 292 chikungunya cases were identified within the transmission zone. However, by the end of August, cases were reported with no known exposure in the two villages. This indicated that local transmission in adjacent areas was probably fueled by the dispersal of infective mosquitoes.

Are the Keys at risk? Absolutely. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been at least 38 confirmed cases of chikungunya in travelers to the U.S. during the past three years. One of these cases occurred in Volusia County, Fla.

In addition to being a seasoned medical entomologist, I also have a master’s degree in epidemiology from Yale University School of Medicine. As such, I follow the spread of mosquito-borne diseases and I feel that our greatest potential vulnerability in the Keys will come when travel is resumed between Key West and Cuba. The risk could be lessened if strict procedures are followed at ports of embarkation in Cuba and entry ports in the Keys. These measures could prevent the entry of disease-carrying mosquitoes and travelers that are infected with a disease organism such as chikungunya virus or any other mosquito-borne disease causative agent.

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Cuban-Americans Mark an Anniversary Wearily

New York Times: HIALEAH, Fla. — Four months after they appeared in the waters between Havana and Miami, the four dead men remain nameless. At a morgue in the Florida Keys, they lie on stretchers stacked like bunk beds, their bodies chewed by sharks, their faces too putrified to be recognized.

Ramon Saul Sanchez and Nilda Garcia, who is waiting to learn whether one of the bodies that washed ashore in Florida in August is that of her son, Osmani, who fled Cuba on a raft.
Maggie Steber for The New York Times

The police suspect they were Cuban rafters. Nilda Garcia thinks one of them might be her son — and the thought makes her weep. Fourteen years after she left Cuba on her own makeshift boat, she finds herself wondering once again: When will it end?

“How many mothers are going through this?” Ms. Garcia said in an interview at her daughter’s apartment here as she awaited DNA results on the bodies. “How many more are crying for their losses? How many young people have drowned in this sea? How many?”

Fifty years ago today, many Cubans cheered when Fidel Castro seized power in Havana, and even now, the revolution attracts many fans — as evidenced by the Canadian tour agencies advertising trips “to celebrate five decades of resilience.”

But the bodies speak to a different legacy. Here in South Florida, where roughly 850,000 Cubans have settled over the years, repeated waves of painful exile and family separation define the Castro era. The revolution never met their hopeful expectations, the island they love has slipped into decay, and for many, this week’s golden anniversary provides little more than a flashback to traumas, old and new.

“It pounds in everybody’s conscience every day,” said Ramon Saul Sanchez, 54, the founder of Movimiento Democracia, a Cuban-American group known for using boats to stage protests. “Fifty years is something very hard to accept.”

Some Cubans remain defiant. Huber Matos, a former revolutionary leader who came to Miami after Mr. Castro sent him to jail in 1959 for suggesting that the Cuban government included too many Communists, said that the anniversary inspired him to keep pushing for change.

“When you think of what you have to do, you can’t be sad,” Mr. Matos, 90, said. “To continue working, that’s the key.”

But for many, the revolution’s 50th anniversary has inspired a period of reflection. Cubans across Florida say they are mourning privately, or trying to forget, and formal commemorations are being kept to a minimum. If Miami in the 1980s was a place of militants, where “Havana vanities come to dust,” as Joan Didion wrote, today it is also a home to newer arrivals who ask, Must the pain go on?

A poll released this month by Florida International University shows that 55 percent of Cubans in Florida favor lifting the United States embargo against Cuba, up from 42 percent a year ago. It is the first time a clear majority has held that position since the survey began in 1991.

President-elect Barack Obama — while backing away from an earlier pledge to meet with Cuban leaders during his first year in office — condemned the current “failed policy” during the presidential campaign and promised to make it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island or send them larger amounts of money.

Even among those who support the 46-year-old embargo, like Senator Mel Martinez, a Republican, continued damage to families has become a more prominent concern.

“This is an ongoing tragedy,” said Mr. Martinez, who left Cuba at age 15 and spent four years without his parents. “How many people today are still being separated? How many people in Cuba are making plans to leave?”

Ms. Garcia was a “balsera,” one of the 38,000 rafters who fled Cuba in 1994. She said she left her suburb of Havana because her daughter needed medical care she could not get in Cuba for a brain tumor. Her son, Osmani, stayed. He was 20 at the time, a speaker of English and French, who became an independent journalist.

His work often put him at odds with the Castro government. In one dispatch, published on Oct. 26, 2007, he condemned Cuba’s foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, for mischaracterizing comments from President Bush.

“I will not take the time to point out all the lies told by Felipe Pérez Roque at this press conference, but I will say there was a worried look on his face and those of his cohorts,” Mr. Garcia wrote, in an article posted online. “It almost seems that they too are realizing there is little time left to the Castro dictatorship and that change is very near.”

Instead, over the next year, political pressure on Mr. Garcia increased. In June, according to a report in a Cuban online forum, he was arrested and interrogated by state officials. Two months later, his mother said, he was filmed by a Cuban television reporter at a protest against the government, scaring him enough to flee.

Mr. Garcia’s relatives said that on the night of Aug. 15, he climbed aboard a boat with no motor and seven or eight other people, pushing off from an area near Havana with hopes of reaching Florida within a few days.

The pace mattered; the sea was churning. By early Monday morning, Tropical Storm Fay had moved through Cuba into the Florida Straits, bringing nearly a foot of rain, swells of several feet and winds that would strengthen to 60 miles per hour.

Ms. Garcia, 64, a home health aide, said she was not sure if her son had known the storm was coming. Even if he had, she said, “he was desperate and needed to go.”

She said her son had done all he could to change Cuba from the inside. “How can Cubans confront the government, with rocks and sticks?” Ms. Garcia said. “Everyone has nothing, and the people are afraid.”

She found out about the bodies from the news. The first one, tagged 0107 in morgue records, appeared in the waters off Craig Key just after 5 p.m. on Aug. 21. A fisherman called the Coast Guard, and two Monroe County police officers pulled the dead man from the teal-blue sea. Three other bodies followed, appearing offshore over the next 24 hours in a line heading north.

Detective Terry Smith, one of the lead detectives investigating the case with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, said the locations and currents suggested that the bodies had probably spent several days in the water, drifting from somewhere to the south, though the Coast Guard’s computer analyses were not definitive.

Their identities have been even harder to determine. E. Hunt Scheuerman, the medical examiner for Monroe County, which includes the Keys, said all four bodies were naked and gnarled, with only three defining characteristics. Body 0107 wore a ring with a Celtic cross and green stone on the fourth finger of his left hand; 0109 arrived with a white sock and blue Lotto running shoe on his right foot; and 0110 had a tattoo on the inside of his lip that said “Raquel.”

Ms. Garcia said the ring sounds similar to one she gave Osmani, but the ring in the morgue is yellow, suggesting gold, and the ring she gave her son was silver.

She said she hoped her son was at the American military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where she was processed before coming to the United States. And initially it seemed possible. The Coast Guard stopped a boat near the Bahamas with eight or nine Cuban rafters a few days after Aug. 15. But it must have been another group, Detective Smith said; Mr. Garcia’s name could not be found on the Coast Guard’s list of repatriated refugees.

At least two other Cuban families in Miami are in a position similar to Ms. Garcia’s. In emotional phone calls, they have told Detective Smith about relatives who left Cuba on Aug. 15 in a boat, never to be heard from again.

“What if the four we received are not any of their relatives?” the detective said, discussing what haunts him most.

DNA may be the only way to know for sure. In September, Detective Smith swabbed Ms. Garcia’s mouth and sent the sample to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a comparison with the bodies. For the other two families, the DNA must be collected from closer female relatives, who live in Cuba.

Mr. Sanchez, of Movimiento Democracia, has been trying to arrange for secure samples from the island. “There are hundreds, probably thousands of Cubans who think they lost relatives in the high seas,” he said. But so far, he has received little help from either the Cuban or American governments.

And so the cycle continues. According to Coast Guard statistics, 10,489 Cubans have been stopped at sea since the beginning of 2005, more than double the 4,223 who were caught in the previous four years. A report in May from the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami found that 131,000 Cubans had settled in the United States permanently over the last four years, and its title predicts more of the same. “Not Going Away,” it says. “Cuban Mass Migration to Florida.”

Ms. Garcia said she just wanted an end to the 50-year pattern: the uncertainty, tears and tales of woe.

Three months after her DNA reached the F.B.I., she is still waiting for answers. Conversations about her son are drenched with tears, and she is never far from a photograph that shows him staring straight ahead, with a stern face, a few wrinkles and thick, dark hair.

It looks like a passport picture — of a man who may have only reached a Florida morgue.