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Cuban-Americans Caught In Middle

By CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum
At 8 a.m. on Saturday, I slip past a middle-aged man and into my first-row window seat of Continental Flight 2981 from Havana to Miami. I begin rummaging through my handbag looking for something to read. The passenger next to me seems to be leaning unnecessarily close, transfixed by the flat airport terrain visible out the window.

When the plane begins to taxi down the runway, he begins to talk. "Who knows when we'll see this place again?"

I shrug, knowing I'm returning on Monday morning.

Like most of the 124 passengers on the plane, the man sitting next to me is a Cuban-American. Under stiff new U.S. rules effective Wednesday, he won't be able to return to visit his family in Cuba for three years. Previously, relatives were permitted to visit family members in Cuba once a year.

The newly imposed restrictions approved by the Bush administration have split the Cuban-American community along generational lines. Older exiles who left Cuba in the early 1960s generally support the get-tough policy. These exiles no longer have many relatives in Cuba, and their ties to the island are virtually non-existent.

Newer arrivals who came to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s generally oppose the new restrictions. These exiles tend to maintain very close relationships with both family and friends left behind. Frequent telephone calls and visits have helped sustain those ties.

And, like the man who sat next to me on the plane, many regularly send cash and goods to the island. But the new rules also prohibit U.S. residents from sending items such as clothing and shampoo in gift parcels to relatives.

And they strictly limit to 44 pounds the amount of luggage that can be taken to the island. Until now, Cuban-Americans were famous for the vast amounts of gift-stuffed baggage they took with them.

We never exchange names, but during the next 45 minutes of the flight, my fellow passenger tells me the essentials of his life. "I left Cuba in 1995 to work in Miami and send money home." Left behind—his wife, two sons, grandchildren. "Usually I travel home two, three times a year. Now who knows?" he says, never taking his eyes off the window.

"I want so badly to stay with my family today but my son said to me, 'If you don't go, who will send us pesos?'"

On Monday, the talk at Miami International airport was bitter - all about the pending implementation of the new travel restrictions.

The restrictions are intended to hasten the collapse of the Castro regime, but airport employees in Miami were not discussing the long-awaited collapse of communism on the island.

Skycaps and other airport workers were only talking of possible layoffs brought about by a sharp cut in the number of travelers going To Cuba. Some ironically dubbed George Bush "Jorge Castro," saying he was worse than Fidel Castro.

So it was no surprise that on Tuesday - the day before the new rules were to take effect - Cuban-Americans waving plane tickets jammed MIA's Terminal E. They argued with officials who refused to let them board charter planes for the hop across the Florida Straits.

The news media reported anxious men and women yelling, "Yes we can…Freedom…We want to travel."

At the same time in Havana, Cuban-Americans worried about the midnight deadline for getting off the island crowded into Jose Marti International Airport's Terminal Two to get on one of the specially scheduled flights

In fact, the Treasury Department had issued an extension giving those Cuban-Americans already in Cuba until July 31 to leave. But the word was slow getting out and some simply didn't believe it. "I can't risk tens of thousands of dollars in fines," one harried looking mother exclaimed as she tried to calm her crying baby.

That extension led many people in the U.S. to believe that they could still travel to Cuba. To meet the demand and to avoid losses from flying empty "ferry" flights, Gulfstream charters asked the Department of Transportation if it could continue to carry passengers to the island.

No such permission was forthcoming. In Washington, the State Department's Adam Ereli said the new policy is intended to reduce the flow of cash to the Castro regime. Therefore, the extension was only intended "to ensure that travelers could come and go in an orderly and safe fashion." It would be "inconsistent", he said, to think of it as "an extra window so let's rush to get in there and rush to get out…"

But judging by the scene in MIA, many Cuban-Americans believed they now had that "extra window" of opportunity to visit friends and relatives.

Numerous families in Cuba also believed it, waiting for hours outside the arrival gate for the Miami flights hoping against hope that their sister, son, mother would appear. But 11 of the day's 16 flights arrived empty of passengers.

A representative of the Xael charter company sat inside the Havanatur office at the airport checking the passenger list for their next flight to Miami.

He confirmed that all the charter companies would be cutting back flights and would no longer be using Continental. "The planes are just too big. We can't use them to fly down 10 passengers." Instead, he said, they would be renting American Eagle planes that seat only 59 passengers.

Maria Hernandez, a Miami registered nurse, was one of the hundreds waiting to leave Havana on Tuesday afternoon. She'd flown in on Friday for one last visit to "family", in her case aunts and cousins. The new regulations will only permit Cuban-Americans to visit immediate family members.

"I'm sorry Mr. President," she told CBS News, "but you can't tell me who is my family. I'm a Cuban and all these people are my family."

Hernandez has been a Bush supporter in the past but now she's not sure. "I don't want to break the law, but I have to see my family and friends."

Hernandez is one of many Cuban-Americans who hint that the newest Bush initiatives on Cuba, intended to garner votes in the November presidential election, may backfire.

However, supporters of the measures, like Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz Balart and Ninoska Perez Castellon of the Cuban Liberty Council, dismiss the criticism.

They say Mr. Bush is not playing election politics but trying to end an oppressive regime. Perez told Associated Press: "What we're talking about is freedom for 12 million Cubans and not for an elite who can afford to travel there."

Portia Siegelbaum is a CBS News producer in Havana. She has covered the story of Cuba for more than 10 years. During that time, she worked on a number of documentaries on Cuba for Discovery and the BBC.