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Hundreds of planes and $4,000 tickets: Cubans migrating via charter flights

Cubans are leaving the island in record numbers thanks to an informal network of charter flights set up by less-than-transparent tour operators. Some question the motives of the Cuban and Nicaraguan governments. (Lea este artículo en español)
Publicado 29 Ago 2022 – 03:55 PM EDT | Actualizado 3 Nov 2022 – 07:26 PM EDT
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CubaMax, en Hialeah, es la mayor agencia de viajes de Miami que ofrece vuelos desde y hacia Cuba, así como entrega de paquetes y recargas de teléfonos móviles. Crédito: Univision / David Adams

In 1980 they came in boats, the so-called Mariel boatlift, which carried 120,000 Cubans to Miami.
In 1994 the so-called ‘rafter crisis’ brought tens of thousands more.

But the latest exodus, that has brought almost 200,000 Cuban migrants to the United States in the last 10 months, is being fueled by an unprecedented airlift, mostly charter airlines ferrying passengers at $4,000-a seat on a one-way trip from Cuba to Nicaragua.

The air-bridge, which started in January, is being managed by a network of charter companies, tour operators and travel agencies, flying several flights a day using an assortment of planes, from a 250-seat Airbus 330 to smaller 50-seat ATR turbo-prop. Based on a rough calculation, the flights are transporting between 600 and 1,100 daily and have generated as much as $750 million in revenue for the companies involved.

Flights are being tracked by the U.S. government

U.S. officials say they are tracking the flights on a daily basis and are concerned by the dramatic surge in “irregular migration” from Cuba via Nicaragua due to the worst economic and political crisis the island has witnessed in three decades. “ We have been closely tracking routes, the numbers, the airline companies, since mid-Spring,” a senior State Department official told Univision.

The State Department has worked with key countries in the region “to raise awareness that there is a mass migration event happening through irregular means," the official added. It has also expressed concern over the “exorbitant” fees being charged by the travel agencies.

The State Department says it has seen some success in closing and shifting of some routes, but there seems to be no sign of the flights slowing down. On one recent day, the arrivals board at Managua airport showed half a dozen charter flights – Air Century, Sky King, Air Aruba, Conviasa - arriving from Cuba via different cities in the space of a few hours.

The U.S. issues regular messaging from the embassy in Havana and U.S. Coast Guard to dissuade Cubans from leaving via extremely dangerous smuggling routes. “We encourage Cuba to do the same,” the official added.

Under Migration Accords between the two countries, Cuba committed to accept back Cuban migrants who entered the country illegally. But that stopped happening after the pandemic-related travel closures in 2020 shut down air traffic. Havana does accept the return of Cubans intercepted at sea, which is also sharply up this year, hitting 4,614 as of last week.

Ticket prices between $3,770 and $4,149

Univision inquired with two companies in Miami, the airline Air Aruba and the travel agency, CubaMax about the availability of tickets from Havana to Managua. Air Aruba offered tickets from Havana or Camaguey between August 31 and Sept 8 for $3,770, payable in cash or direct transfer at its Miami office. CubaMax offered a price of $4,149 on the Air Aruba flight from Havana on August 31, also payable in cash at one of several offices in the Miami area.

When Univision visited the main office of CubaMax in the city of Hialeah on two occasions, it was bustling with activity as staff attended dozens of clients seeking to help friends and family in Cuba. The list of services is comprehensive, from passports to cellphone top-ups, packages of food and medicines, even electric bicycles.

A member of CubaMax staff, wearing a t-shirt with the company motto ‘Acortando distancia’ (Cutting Distances) said no-one from the company was available for comment about its Cuba flights.

Unclear who is organizing the flights

“We don’t operate the charter flights, we but tickets through a broker,” said Robert Diaz, the Cuban-born CEO of Soy Tu Viaje, a Miami agency. He said prices hit $6,000 at their peak in April, though the travel agency only receives $200 for each ticket sold.

He said the company saw a huge surge in demand in January which came as a welcome relief for travel agencies that struggled to survive during the pandemic. He said the Cuba flights had impacted his other vacation packages. “People are investing so much to bring their families here they don’t have money left for their annual vacation,” he said.

Univision also visited the office of Air Aruba and were told that the company has an Airbus 321, seating 160 passengers, which is fully dedicated to flying Cubans between Cuba and Nicaragua.

Another company, Air Century, told Univision that it operates daily flights from Havana and Santiago, in eastern Cuba, and Managua, via Santo Domingo and Kingston, Jamaica. It began offering the routes to Santo Domingo in January to meet the rising demand of Cubans with permission to travel abroad to purchase merchandise to sell in Cuba.

“We don’t sell the tickets, we just rent out our planes to tour operators. We didn’t realize until we started hearing rumors that a lot of these people were not returning to Cuba,” said sales manager Fabio Nina. “That’s when we began to wonder what’s going on here. You hear a lot of rumors, but we never know what's going on," he added.

Nina said the charters cost around $1,000 per person, on a typical flight on one its 50-passenger planes. He wasn’t sure what the cost was on a larger Airbus, which the company leases from another Dominican company Sky Cana.

Air Century said its planes were chartered by several tour operators, including CDC Travel in Panama and Chagod Tour in Jamaica. Carlos Del Cid Mora, chief executive and founder of CDC Travel in Panama, responded by email to a question from Univision, saying, "unfortunately, we do not believe it is appropriate for us to be the ones to give these types of interviews."

Chagod Tour did not respond to requests for comment from Univision.

The Dominican Republic passed a resolution June 21 banning Cuban non-visa holders from transiting on charter flights to Nicaragua, but tour operators got around that with a clever technicality, adding a new leg, via Kingston, Jamaica. The resolution explains that "due to the increase of cases... the General Directorate of Migration (DGM), after an exhaustive analysis and consultation with the pertinent agencies, deems necessary to implement more practical and effective immigration controls in relation to foreigners of Cuban nationality traveling in transit through the Dominican Republic, to another destination."

Cuban migrants generally have no complaints about the cost. “In Cuba there's no way to make that kind of money unless you have family who give it to you,” said Adrian Suarez, a 26-year-old electrical engineer who paid $3,700 to leave Cuba on a charter flight from the city of Holguin to Managua, via Santo Domingo, in January.

“My first time on a plane. It was one of my dreams; to ride in an airplane. I wanted to be a pilot when I was a kid. We were offered a soft drink, some cookies,” he added. “Luckily it was my father-in-law who paid for me, otherwise God knows what would have become of me,” he added.

Some Cuban travelers complain of fraudulent tickets being sold online, via Facebook. Numerous amateur-looking adverts do not appear to be published by professional travel agencies. Some also offer additional coyote services from Managua to the U.S. border.

Many migrants post videos on the internet thanking those who helped them complete the journey.

Charter flights have higher overhead costs

While the ticket prices may seem high, aviation industry experts point out that operating a charter is vastly more expensive than scheduled airline services, due to airplane brokerage costs, landing fees, and less regular operational use to amortize the costs of maintenance. The flights often fly back virtually empty, except perhaps for some commercial freight, adding to the cost.

“It’s a highly regulated industry. Every country has its own process for certifying charter operators,” said one industry expert, who asked that his name not be used. Frequently, when tour operators are looking to charter planes they use a broker, adding a middleman to the pricing structure.

“When a broker is involved the broker is going to mark up the price,” he said.

While the flights are entirely legal, some question the manner in which tens of thousands of Cubans are arriving in Nicaragua without legal permission to travel onwards. Instead, they are forced to pay another $5,000 to ‘coyotes’ to cross Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, before reaching the U.S. border, a perilous journey that takes two to four weeks.

“At first glance it is worrying because no company wants to be involved in anything negative. We all want to make money naturally, but no company wants to be linked to shady things,” said Nina.

But he said charter companies were simply filling the need of their customers. In the end, “it's the governments that have to sit down to see how they can come to an agreement over this,” he added.

"People traficking at its worst"

“This is a wonderful business enterprise, it’s a racket. This is people trafficking at its worst because it involves governments,” said Emilio Gonzalez, a Cuban-born financial services executive and former director of Miami International Airport, who was also head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as well as National Security Director for Central America and the Caribbean during the George HW Bush administration.

“Nicaragua is aiding and abetting this migrant surge. It was done on purpose, firstly to help the Cuban government and secondly to make money,” he added.

Cuba blames the exodus on U.S. sanctions as well as the impact of the covid pandemic on its tourism sector. “In the case of Cuba, it’s not just the consequence of the pandemic, it’s the consequences of the reinforcement of the policy of ‘maximum pressure’, economic pressure, of the U.S. towards Cuba,” deputy foreign minister, Josefina Vidal told CNN.

The Nicaraguan government's decision to let in all Cuban citizens without a visa was based on "humanitarian reasons", to "facilitate commercial, tourist and family travel" for Cubans, the government of Daniel Ortega announced in November.

Univision wrote to the Nicaraguan government to ask for more details about the announcement. Vice President Rosario Murrillo responded by welcoming the question, without providing an explanation. "Thank you for your interest...!" she wrote via email.

"For a Free People and Homeland Always...! Hugs," she added.

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