Passengers on historic Cuba cruise express mixed feelings

HAVANA (WSVN) — As passengers of the the Adonia cruise ship embark on their second day in Havana, Tuesday, Cubans on the island embrace the tourists and the newfound business they are bringing to the island nation.

On Monday, Carnival Corporation’s Fathom-brand cruise ship docked in Havana, making it the first cruise ship to arrive on the island from the United States in more than 50 years.

Monday night, Miguel Angel’s Moneda restaurant in Havana served nearly 200 Americans in one day alone. He said he hopes tourism between the U.S. and Cuba will help him expand his business. "Good tips and maybe an official opening for new jobs and new opportunities," he said. Angel would like to expand his restaurant, but at the moment, he does not have the license to do so.

Small business owners like Angel may finally get the opportunity to make a profit.

While the arrival of Americans via the cruise ship is a milestone for tourism and Cuban-American relations, it is also a bittersweet reunion for some of the handful of Cuban-Americans on board.

The voyage comes after Carnival successfully negotiated with the Cuban government to rescind a ban that prohibited travelers born in Cuba from taking part. "They really took control out of the Castros’ hands. I think the Cuban government was exposed," said one man.

While the visa process for Cuban-American passengers remains complicated and expensive, about two dozen Cuban-Americans made it on board the ship, including Arnaldo Perez, an executive of Carnival Cruiselines.

Perez, a Cuban American who left Cuba as an infant with his family, was the first person and United States citizen, to arrive on Cuban soil via a cruise ship in decades. "I was born in Cuba. I left when I was about 8 months old, so obviously this is a very special project for me."

Perez is one of hundreds of Cuban Americans whose parents, aunts, uncles or cousins left the country during the revolution and did not live to see the day they could return.

Monday afternoon, Perez was no longer a company executive but a son remembering his father, who passed away in October and never had a chance to return to his homeland. Since his passing, Perez has carried his father’s Florida driver’s license with him wherever he goes, and in Havana, his I.D. carried even more symbolism. "He’s with me; he’s with me here," he said. "I’ve always been true to his values, and I know he wanted this. I think he’d be very proud and happy."

Perez was joined by his wife, Carmen, and her sister, Beatriz Melendez, who recorded cell phone video of every moment of their arrival. "We were just trying to picture things and just thinking about my parents, that’s what I was doing, thinking about my parents," said Melendez. "How my parents left in their 20s with us and never returned, ever again."

When the Adonia pulled in to the port of Havana, Monday afternoon, crowds of cheering Cubans and media lined along Havana’s historic Malecón to greet the passengers. Hundreds of Cubans waved and clapped with enthusiasm as they witnessed a U.S. ship dock in Cuba for the first time in decades.  

"I never thought, in my wildest dreams that I would be here today," said Melendez as she reflected on her arrival.

Passengers aboard the Adonia will tour Havana until Tuesday night, in order to soak up as much as the city as they can before they take off to Cienfuegos on Wednesday.