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US Flight to Cuba Reunites Families

July 16, 1998

HAVANA (AP) _ Some called out the names of relatives they had not seen in decades. Others wept as they fell into the arms of their returning family members.

The Havana airport was full of heart-tugging moments Wednesday as more than 200 people arrived aboard the first direct commercial flight from the United States to Cuba in two years.

For Gladys Cardentey, a 62-year-old now living in Boston, Wednesday brought the first glimse of her 18-month-old granddaughter and namesake. At her sister’s small but bustling Havana apartment, Cardentey beamed as her daughter bounced the child on her knee.

``I see the new faces of my family,″ the grandmother said. ``I feel good.″

Most of the others who made the trip from Miami visited relatives they hadn’t seen for years _ even decades. One of those was Cardentey’s 9-year-old grandson Joslyn Alvarez Dominguez, who after 3 1/2 years in the States had to ask whether the tall, nervous man standing at the airport gate waiting to greet him was his father.

He was, and Joslyn attempted a hug over the fence separating them.

Hundreds of waving and screaming Cubans crowded in and around Jose Marti International Airport when the chartered Boeing 767 rented from United Airlines landed from its 45-minute flight from Miami International Airport.

President Clinton canceled direct flights in 1996 to punish Fidel Castro’s government for shooting down two unarmed civilian aircraft.

Those planes carried members of the anti-Castro exile group Brothers to the Rescue who were searching for refugees over international waters when Cuban military jets shot them out of the sky, killing four people.

Cuba maintains that the planes were shot down after violating Cuban airspace. But a U.N. panel ruled in 1996 that the planes were shot down over international waters and that Cuba violated international law.

Clinton lifted the ban on direct flights in March, two months after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. 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 Department, which administers it, has granted approvals to nine companies to resume direct flights.

Miami’s Airline Brokers Co. _ also known as ABC Charters _ made the first trip. Seven small charter companies were also approved, along with American Airlines.

During the past two years, flights to Cuba had to stop in the Bahamas or Mexico, increasing travel time to three hours or more. The indirect routes also bumped up ticket prices by more than $100.

The passengers on Wednesday’s flight each paid $399 for a round-trip ticket, more expensive than direct flights used to be. With the resumption of nonstop flights, travel agents say ticket prices likely will inch downward again.

Wednesday’s passengers brought hulking handbags filled with clothes, vitamins and basic medicines such as Tylenol and Motrin. Cardentey said she and her daughter also brought powdered milk _ one of many items that are difficult to obtain in Cuba.

``We brought all we could bring,″ she said at the family reunion.

Across the room, her 31-year-old daughter, Daisy Dominguez, chatted with a lifelong friend about working at a supermarket in Hollywood, Fla.

``We have to work at night,″ she told her.

``Here,″ replied Marlene Gallardo, ``the market is only open in the daytime.″

The simple, easy conversation began to knit the far-flung family back together.

``We’re all healthy,″ Cardentey said. But most importantly, ``I’m with my family.″

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