HAVANA (AP/WSVN) — The first commercial flight from the United States to Havana in more than 50 years landed in Cuba, Monday morning, arriving as the island begins weeklong memorial services for revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Passengers at Miami International Airport lined up at Gate D30 for the first of four regularly scheduled flights to Havana in over 50 years.
American Airlines held a small celebration, serving typical Cuban staples like croquettes and cheese-filled pastries for its passengers in Miami before departing.
“We’re beaming with pride that we’ve become the first airline to launch service to Havana,” said Ralph Lopez. vice president of American Airlines in Miami.
Priya Bhat, a woman looking to vacation in Cuba, booked her flight about a month ago with no idea that it would be the first commercial US-Havana flight in over 50 years or that it would come just days after Castro’s death. “I just happened to be looking for an itinerary to bring me to Cuba from my hometown, which is where I was spending Thanksgiving, and this was a great itinerary, so I chose it!” she said before boarding the historic flight.
“I think it’s kind of a once in a lifetime experience to get to experience the culture in a truly different way,” she explained. “Castro was such a polarizing figure, and it will be interesting to see how people are responding to his passing.”
Other passengers onboard the historic flight acknowledged the historical significance and looked forward to their time in Havana, despite the hardships the country is facing.
“I am a tourist and I’d like to go to Cuba, to Havana, to enjoy the music, and the bars, and the jazz club,” said tourist Ricardo Pontes from Brazil. “But, as far as I know, everything is closed now.”
7News also caught up with some passengers fresh off a flight from Cuba.
Rosana Marquez said she didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. “You don’t feel pain in the people. It was like two normal days,” she said.
Sunday night, 7News spoke with Ernesto Bejel, who just returned from the island nation. “That’s so hard to live in Cuba,” he said. “I hope sometime in the future my country can be free but not now.”
Bejel was visiting family in the communist country, when news hit that Castro had died at 90-years-old. He said the city immediately shut down and everyone was forced outside.
“When I go out, the police was outside with big cars and if people say something about it they’d make you get into a car,” said Bejel. “They’d pull you into a car.”
Others arriving at MIA from Cuba said the Cuban flag is at half staff in the country, and the streets are quiet, while the country is in a mandated nine-day mourning period.
“Stopped selling liquor, beer and everything,” said Yosmani Vanlaszquez, also arriving at MIA from Cuba. “They lose everything. If you talk or say something about it, you could be in jail. Havana has a lot of police in every place.”
Meanwhile, in the streets of Little Havana, thousands of Cuban exiles celebrated the death of the dictator over the weekend.
Mercedes Najara, another Cuban exile, stopped at the Bay of Pigs Memorial on her way home from work, Monday night “Those people that gave their lives on April 16, 1961, they have never been forgotten,” she said.
For those getting ready to depart for Cuba, Monday, some were too worried to share their opinions. However, one man who visits the island nation every month said he’s already put Castro’s passing behind him.
“To me it’s the same,” said Alexander Martinez. “I always go. I’m not even thinking about that. I go to do my thing and what happens there doesn’t interest me.”
“I think from a safety perspective, I don’t think it’s necessarily gonna be like any worse or any different,” said Bhat. “I think it’s actually, probably a really historic time to be there.”
Najara said she is still processing Castro’s death. “This is something I haven’t really digested, but meanwhile, I feel great,” she said as she stood near the memorial’s flame.
Like many others, she is getting ready for a massive rally being held there on Wednesday, beginning at 5 p.m.. Miami Police will shut down five city blocks along Southwest Eighth Street.
“If I have to walk twenty blocks, I don’t care,” said Najara.
She said she’s hopeful about the future for the people of Cuba. “I think there will be a change in Cuba. I am hoping and I am praying and I ask all the Cuban people all over the world to please pray,” she said.
American Airlines has already been flying to five other cities in Cuba, but the first flight to Havana in over 50 years took off, Monday, at 7:30 a.m. Several other flights from the U.S. also were scheduled to arrive on Monday.
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