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Their travail agency

It specializes in tickets to Cuba, but its exile customers are in short supply.

August 16, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

HIALEAH, FLA. — All around Mario Romero's strip-mall travel agency, this immigrant neighborhood was alive with commercial traffic, all of it moving to a clave rhythm clunking from an outdoor speaker. In and out they went on a sunny Monday morning to the IGA food store, or the Gala hair salon, or La Epoca restaurant for a cafecito.

But few stopped in to see Romero. His business, Cojimar Express Services, is one of dozens of Miami-area agencies that hold federal licenses to sell plane tickets to Cuba. These days, he said, people are too scared to buy.

"There is no business," he said. "You don't see anybody in here."

Romero, who left the island in 1991, sat at his desk in a crisp linen shirt and stared at a row of empty chairs beneath his black-and-white photos of the Cuban countryside: The banks of the Rio Miel. The fishing boats at Pinar del Rio.

A woman appeared at the door, but not to buy a ticket. It was his wife, Marisela, with a plate of chicken and rice from home.

This slowdown, Romero said, was the result of yet another shift in regulations on this side of the Straits of Florida. A state law passed this summer requiring agencies like his to post bonds of as much as $250,000. The state would use the money to open investigations of companies suspected of skirting the rules governing travel to Cuba.

Romero is one of 13 agency owners who have filed a legal challenge to the law; they recently won a restraining order until a federal court decides its fate.

Nonetheless, he said, customers were spooked. They wondered whether the law presaged a government crackdown: Nobody wanted to fly to Cuba only to find that their travel company had been shut down. Nobody wanted to be stranded in Castrolandia.

"The customers are saying, 'If we pay our money, what's going to happen if there's a problem?' " he said.

To Romero, the new troubles were no surprise: For nearly half a century now, American lawmakers have been alternately loosening and tightening the regulatory spigot that controls the flow of U.S. visitors to the communist nation. That has made for a bumpy ride for entrepreneurs who have dared to make travel to Cuba their specialty, especially the mom-and-pop travel agencies that dot the working-class neighborhoods of greater Miami.

They are, typically, modest places. Cojimar Express' tiny storefront is tucked between a dentist's office and an eyeglass store. A sign in Spanish advertises the range of services one would expect at any travel agency: passport services, a notary public, tourist packages "to every destination."

And, just as matter-of-factly: "Viajes a Cuba."

It offers no hint of the complications involved -- or the fact that the business fuels one of the most emotionally charged foreign policy issues in the hemisphere. The federal government allows Cuban Americans to travel to the island once every three years -- only to visit immediate family members. There are no airline flights, only chartered planes, whose manifests are monitored by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Many Cuban Americans have long held that any travel to Cuba is a traitorous act that legitimizes the dictatorship of the Castros. Some of them are suspicious of, if not hostile toward, the travel companies that sell the tickets.

Republican state Rep. David Rivera, the sponsor of the new law, said he had fielded complaints about companies overcharging customers and failing to return deposits. During the Bush administration, he noted, a number of companies have had their licenses suspended for helping their customers violate the travel rules.

"There are a lot of unsavory characters involved with these travel agencies," he said.

The travel companies, in their lawsuit, say they are being unfairly singled out. They note that agencies that do not sell Cuba tickets post a much smaller bond of $25,000.

Romero, in an affidavit, said that his company could not afford to meet the bonding requirements. If they took effect, he said, he would be forced to shut down.

The sunny South Florida morning wore on. Inside Cojimar, the air conditioner's low hum threatened to overtake the room.

Another woman came to the door -- a friend who needed help with the math portion of a teacher-certification test. Romero and his wife were both trained as math professors at the University of Havana. Their ornate diplomas hang side by side in the front room.

As his wife chatted with their friend, Romero -- 65 years old and handsome, with clear olive skin and sad brown eyes -- sat in the back room and explained, in softly spoken Spanish, how they got from there to here.

Math professors deal with abstractions, not politics, and for years, he said, he regarded Castro's revolution with ambivalence. Eventually, however, he grew disillusioned with life on the island, especially the anemic economy. He was tagged as a subversive and fired. In the early 1980s, he asked for permission to emigrate to the United States. Instead, he said, the government threw him in jail for a year.

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