Cubans Welcome Flight From U.S.

Cubans welcomed the first direct flight between the United States and Cuba in two years on Wednesday, greeting more than 200 passengers from Miami with screams, waves and tears.

It was also an emotional moment for those arriving, who clapped and cheered as Cuba came into view from the air, then wept when they saw their relatives waiting for them in the airport terminal.

Angel Perera said he and his wife, Mirely, who now live in Miami, hardly slept the night before in anticipation, eager to see loved ones they had not seen in years.

"It isn't easy to see your country in ruin your friends, your family, practically with nothing," said Perera, who left Cuba four years ago with one daughter and came back with two. The couple's second child, now 18 months old, was born in the United States.

The flight ended a two-year ban meant to punish the communist island for shooting down two unarmed civilian planes.

The resumption of flights means families separated by the Florida straits can see each other more easily, without having to spend more money to fly to a third country such as the Bahamas or Mexico.

"I always wanted to fly directly. It's easier and more comfortable with the kids," Perera said. "Especially with all these bags."

Relatives and friends crowded in and around the Havana airport terminal to meet the passengers, many of which they had not seen since long before direct flights were canceled.

The visitors, who each paid $399 for a round-trip ticket, waved at the crowd and rushed through Cuban customs with packages of clothes, vitamins and basic medicines such as aspirin.

Nine-year-old Joslyn Alvarez Dominguez waved at the crowd, knowing his father was in there somewhere, but not remembering what he looked like after three and a half years.

"Is this my father?" he asked his mother as he reached over a rail to touch a tall man waiting for them outside customs. "Yes," she said, and the boy, dressed up for the occasion in a black tie, smiled broadly.

"He knows a lot of English now," said his father, Alberto Yuri Alvarez, who works in a bakery. "He's a man."

The Boeing 767-300 rented from United Airlines landed at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport about 10 a.m. after a 45-minute flight from Miami International Airport.

It was the first nonstop commercial flight to the island nation since 1996, when U.S. President Bill Clinton canceled direct flights to punish Fidel Castro's government for shooting down two unarmed civilian aircraft.

Clinton lifted the ban on direct flights in March, after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in January. At the time, Clinton said the resumption of flights and other measures were designed to build on the Pope's trip and "help prepare the Cuban people for a democratic transition."

The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba remains in place. But the Treasury Departmen, which administers it, has granted approvals to nine companies to resume direct flights.

By IAN JAMES