UBAN EXILE’S PLAN FOR FERRY TO HAVANA AWAITS US APPROVAL

MIAMI, Florida — 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 lechon on deck, 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,” Ruiz said, referring to President
Barack 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
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 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 in
September — entrepreneurs are stepping up with ideas for expanding links with
Cuba.

        Ruiz’s
ferry is one of several proposals that aim to push through the door that Obama
opened just a crack. Direct flights from Los Angeles to Havana started in June.
Several other cities, including Tampa, Florida, 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 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 travellers 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,” Aral said. “But we’re not there yet.”

        At
this point, 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 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. Ruiz’s eyes brightened behind his Dolce &
Gabbana eyeglasses when he said that someone who could take only 20 kilograms
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 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 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 Ruiz, a
Republican who voted for Obama and carries a photo of him in his BlackBerry.
“This is not a dream. This is a right.”

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