Cubans who are required to fly to Guyana for visa interviews at the U.S. Embassy there are complaining that Havana-Georgetown tickets are selling on the black market for between $4,700 and $7,000, five months after the Cuban government suspended direct flights to Guyana because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Washington suspended visa interviews and other consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2018, after a string of alleged microwave attacks on American diplomats and others led the State Department to call home all but a skeleton staff. This has forced Cubans seeking consular services from the U.S. to travel to Guyana.
During the pandemic, Cuba later drastically cut back flights to and from at least six countries, including Guyana, in an attempt to control infections. Guyana, on the northeastern side of South America, is one of the few countries that allows Cubans to enter without visas.
What had been a four-hour flight from Havana to Georgetown, Guyana, is now an odyssey for Cubans who have visa interview appointments at the U.S. Embassy, sometimes requiring stops in countries as far as Russia and Turkey, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Cubans now scour social media in search of information about tickets, hotels and tips from others who have made the trek. Among the complaints posted on Facebook and WhatsApp reviewed by el Nuevo Herald are many that mention the prohibitive price of the airline tickets. One Facebook post said one ticket was on sale for $7,000, drawing a wave of protests.
Another Facebook member using the name of Carolina Rodríguez Pérez urged friends not to pay those prices. “They are killing us. Not everyone has that kind of money. The more you pay, the more they will continue to rise.”
Until Cuba suspended the flights, Copa, Caribbean and Aruba Airlines covered the Havana-Georgetown route. But the number of flights between the two countries began to drop in March of 2020, and then Caribbean announced in January that Cuba had suspended flights between the two countries because of the pandemic.
A TREK THROUGH FOUR OR FIVE COUNTRIES
Jorge Hernández, who has a U.S. visa application pending, said that in the absence of direct flights, the only way to get to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana is through flights that stop in third countries.
“There are people in Guyana who have said they have agencies that can arrange itineraries. For example, I was recently offered a flight from Varadero [Cuba] to Russia, then Russia to Turkey, Turkey to Panama and Panama to Guyana,” Hernández told el Nuevo Herald.
Russia is another country that does not require visas for Cubans.
Relatives abroad usually pay for the tickets, he said. “Those travel agencies do not operate here in Cuba, so we have no way of making payments to them unless we have relatives abroad. That’s why these people do these kinds of ticket sales,” he added.
Hernández said Cubans are simply desperate, because Guyana is the only way to contact U.S. consular officials and obtain visas after the embassy in Havana stopped performing those tasks.
“The price of a ticket to Guyana with stops in other countries can range from $5,700 to $6,500, equivalent to more than 375,000 Cuban pesos” at the street exchange rate, he added. “What’s more, when you get to a Cuban airport, officials ask you for confirmation of an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana. That is, only Cubans with applications pending can travel.”
Before the flight suspensions, some Cubans traveled to Guyana to buy merchandise for resale back in the island.
One Cuban woman said that someone in the hotel El Sol Guyana, a favorite of Cubans in Georgetown, offered her a Havana-Panama-Georgetown ticket on Copa Airlines for $4,700. She could not afford the price and had to postpone her visa interview. “There are many people who have been forced to reschedule their interviews, and that means further delays in the reunification of families,” she said, asking to remain anonymous because of fear of Cuban government retaliation.
“The other flight options are through Russia, Turkey, with stops in Colombia, Panama and finally Guyana. That trip takes three days,” she said. “Others had a similar itinerary, but instead of Turkey they had to go through Dubai, which is a four-day trip,” she said. “In the case of families with children, they prefer to avoid the risks and decide to take the Havana-Panama-Georgetown route” even if it’s more expensive.
Oscander Rodríguez, a Cuban who lives in Guyana and owns the Toma 1 travel and lodging agency that caters to Cuban visitors, said one of his clients spent five days on the trek, with stops in Russia, Dubai and Panama.
“During the last quarter of last year, Caribbean Airlines started to cover the Havana-Georgetown route. For us, it was the best option, despite the pandemic, because the airplane left Havana, made a stop in Trinidad and Tobago and then flew here. And the return was a direct flight Georgetown-Havana,” he said. “But just before December 31, the Caribbean Airlines flights were suspended.”
Jean Barrero, a Cuban who lives in the United States, was lucky enough to finally reunite last month with a son who was living on the island.
“I asked for [reunification with] my son in 2019 and he was given his first appointment at the U.S. Embassy for February 2021, which was canceled because of the pandemic and had to be rescheduled for May 17,” he said.
Because so few flights are available, Barrero had to look for other options to get his son to the interview. He managed to get a humanitarian exemption on the Mexican airline Viva Aerobus, but that was canceled because it lacked approval by the Cuban government.
He later bought a Havana-Panama-Georgetown ticket on Copa airline from the Tocororo Travel agency for $820, and figures he was lucky. “Unlike many others who have been forced to pay high prices and have even missed their interviews at the embassy, I managed to find a ticket for my son in early May. He just had to wait for his turn,” he said.
Barrero said the high price of the tickets is the result of Cuba’s restrictions on the number of Copa flights. But he added that people in the travel business in Guyana also buy up the few tickets available and resell them at higher prices.
“The good part is that the U.S. Embassy in Guyana is pretty flexible with those people who miss their interviews, because they are aware of the horrible conditions faced by Cubans,” he added. “So they are allowing those who miss the interviews or cannot find tickets to reschedule the interviews.”
CUBANS STRANDED IN GUYANA
Rodríguez also noted that many Cubans have been stranded in Guyana since December because they don’t have tickets home. Most of them went there to buy merchandise for later resale in Cuba.
Early this year, several Cubans managed to buy humanitarian tickets on Viva Aerobus, but the flights never took place. Even though the tickets said they were non-reimbursable, the S.W.V. Travel agency was forced to return the money because Cuban authorities had not approved the flights, according to Tania Vázquez Rodríguez, a travel agent who sold some of those tickets.
The Cubans stranded in Guyana have been demanding that the island’s government find a way to allow them to return home. Many have asked for help at the Cuban Embassy in Georgetown, but diplomats there blame Copa Airlines, according to one of the stranded visitors who was quoted in the web page CiberCuba.
“This is complete ping-pong. It’s a lack of respect. We have asked them nicely to find a solution, to approve a humanitarian flight, to adjust the Copa flights to Havana, but no one answers and it’s been weeks,” he told CiberCuba. “There are elderly people, people with children in Cuba, and they are running out of money.”
“I bought a Caribbean Airlines ticket before the pandemic, and it was canceled just days before. I rescheduled it when the flights returned a couple of months later, and days before the flight they again canceled me,” said Leonel Cabeza Crespo, another Cuban stranded in Guyana.
Crespo said he’s desperate. He’s been out of Cuba nearly two years and has started to work to make ends meet. He said the price of return tickets ranges from $500 on Copa to $650 on Caribbean Airlines.
“I am out of money, and I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait until Cuba allows the return of flights on my airline,” he said.
Florida Republican U.S. Rep. María Elvira Salazar condemned the Cuban government’s lack of effort to resolve what she called a “disaster.”
“This is yet another demonstration of how the regime profits shamelessly from the pain of the Cuban people,” she said. “Since I came to Congress I have been fighting to speed up the process of family reunification. In fact, with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart we submitted a bill to allow Cubans to process their visa applications at the naval base in Guantanamo.”
The Cuban government quickly shot down that option, saying that the U.S. lawmakers “use an issue sensitive to thousands of affected Cuban families to provoke and undermine authorities in our country.”
More than 100,000 family reunification petitions are pending since the consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana were shut down.