by Walter Lippmann, December 2002

(Some observations on and examples of the way the US media reports
on Christmas in Cuba and some good news with which to conclude.)


(Havana) Christmas day as I observed it here in Cuba had no religious significance that I could see, not at least in the homes and streets I saw. (I didn't go to church, but then, I'm not a Christian and only go to church for the occasional political meeting.) Here are some notes on Christmas here in Cuba as the year 2002 draws to a close, and a few words about my perspective.

My ethnic and religious background is Jewish, though I don't practice the Jewish or any other religion. In the United States I've always found the Christmas period to be rather overpowering. Displays of sanctimonious Christian spirituality, the omnipresent music and such are a constant reminder that I'm part of a non-dominant group. If I hadn't remembered, Christmas as celebrated in the U.S. would be a good reminder of this.

And then there is the ritual whining about the commercialization Christmas. It's all part of an effort infuse such moments with religion, even when negatively referenced. (When people ask me about my own religious beliefs, I usually say something like "I'm an atheist and, God willing, I always will be..." <g>)

And I can only begin to contemplate or imagine, and dread, how Muslims in the United States must feel at a time like this when thousands of their fellow-religionists are being rounded up, jailed and deported by the right-wing Christian fundamentalists running the country today.

Organized religion in Cuba, and above all that expressed through the Roman Catholic Church, is by no means a powerful an instruction, either politically or culturally, as it is in the United States. The Roman Catholic Church got a momentary boost in publicity and support during the period surrounding the Pope’s 1998 visit to the island. But these gains were quite likely lost when the church was demonstratively silent about the struggle to repatriate Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban six-year-old whose kidnap and rescue united the entire Cuban people .

The bigger celebration here in Cuba is Noche Buena (Literally "Good Evening", but actually "Christmas Eve") during which Cubans make big meals for family and friends. We had such a big meal where I stay, to which friends and family were invited. People ate and overate. People drank but no one got drunk. We had a bottle of rum, which was bought to toast the Commander-in-Chief, who had been laid up with an infected insect bite. Fidel's remarks early in the month about the abuse of alcohol hadn't lessoned anyone's desire for a drink, but at in my home, no one got drunk, though everyone had a drink, danced, and had fun. I led the brigade of cooks, but many others did one or another thing to help out, and a festive time was had by everyone.

I slept in on Christmas day and did nothing special. Cuban television, which gets most of its world coverage from CNN, transmitted the Pope's Christmas short (about three-minutes) homily, and had some other images of life in various parts of the world, but nothing in the way of Christmas commentary of any kind.

Cuban TV in the afternoon showed John Sayles' movie THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, in English with Spanish subtitles. I tried to watch it closely to add a bit to my Spanish. Since many of the pictures on Cuban TV from the US, especially on Saturday nights, are of the violent shoot-em-up type, it was nice to see something with a gentle and even lyrical emotional language.

Later on I went out walking to a friend's home in Central Havana. The streets were quiet but it was easy to see that there was a festive spirit in the air. It being a legal holiday, the big dollar stores were closed, but restaurants which cater to Cubans as well as those for foreign visitors, were open and doing business.

None had "Feliz Navidad" (Merry Christmas) in their windows, but many had "Feliz Ano 2003" signs, as well as hand-painted signs with wreathes, linked paper-chains, and other items of a seasonal nature. For most Cubans who have Christmas threes, it seems to represent for them more of a festive and seasonal thing, not connected with any religious observance.

Virtually all of these were hand-made, with care, suggesting to me that people put serious effort into putting up nice displays. Of course displays like these, mounted all year by bodies such as the Committees to Defend the Revolution and so on are typically done by volunteers and by hand as well.

I visited some friends and went to see a movie at the La Rampa theater. It was a dreadful example of those awful US cop-crime comedies, called SHOWTIME, starring Robert DeNiro, Rene Russo and Eddie Murphy. It was atrocious and I left early, after something like twenty minutes, after having paid the sum of two Cuban pesos (under seven us CENTS) to see the thing. Many Cuban theaters are showing US movies, projected on the big screen, in better or worse ways, from videos which cost Cuba little or nothing or downloaded from the internet, or brought in by travelers from the United States.

The evening's edition of the Mesa Redonda had more information on the Miami Five. It featured an interview with Bill Paparian, the former mayor of Pasadena, California, who had just visited the island.

Paparian spoke about the case, and about his visit with Gerardo Hernandez, one of the five Cubans imprisoned for massive terms for their undercover investigations of Cuban-American exile terrorist activities in the South Florida area. Paparian spoke about the issues which had been raised, and which now needed to be brought forward, to help get the facts about the frame-up of the five out to the people of the United States. They can make a decisive contribution to freeing the five if the facts and their meaning can be gotten to a large number in the United States.

Each evening, Cuban television's main daily broadcast provides a summary of the events of interest and importance to its producers. Last evening's broadcast featured the anchor, Rafael Serrano, reading the text of Fidel's "Chronicle of a Repose", the partly-serious, partly humorous message he'd written. It was published in the Christmas edition of Granma newspaper.

Serrano, who television viewers in the US might roughly equate with Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather, obviously was enjoying the reading, smiling at the softly ironic ways in which the leader of the Cuban revolution described his disciplined obedience to his doctor's orders. (He'd been bitten by a bug, literally, and had scratched it to infection.)

While the Cuban media has been preparing the people here for potentially harder and more austere days ahead, due the Bush administration's prospective invasion of Iraq and the sabotage of the Venezuelan PDVSA oil industry by right wing oppositionists, we had one bit of genuinely good political news:

The Chavez leadership of the Venezuelan government announced measures to move ahead and deepen the Bolivarian process, removing saboteurs from the national oil industry and resuming production of the country's most precious commercial asset: petroleum.

US media reports on Cuban Christmas are invariably negative, falsely suggesting that the religious observance of the holiday had been banned in the past. They then imply that Cuba is observing Christmas in the same vulgarly commercial manner that is seen the United States. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, maybe it's a "misery loves company" thing.

Karen Lee Wald, the activist-journalist-teacher who has devoted most of her adult life to working in defense of the Cuban Revolution has sent out some great comments. These are reproduced below.

Still more news on Cuba is available here:

By Walter Lippmann, Havana, Cuba, December 2002

One of the good things about being here in Cuba is that one can personally witness and comment on these media report. There is a radical disconnect between the facts as given - not necessarily inaccurate in and of themselves - and the reality as seen from right here on the island.

One factor not mentioned, which I think underlies much of this, is the decline in the influence of organized religion, above all of the Roman Catholic Church. The institution's power was broken here over forty years ago. It's THAT power, which has declined precipitously, and the political and cultural influence which goes with it, that is missing from the Cuba of 2002.
While the church got an obvious bump up in support around the time of the Pope’s 1998 visit, this ground was lost two years later. The Catholic Church was demonstratively silenct during the Elian Gonzalez struggle. This probably cost it whatever gains it had made from the Pope’s visit.

Reuters' "man in Havana", Anthony Boadle has no idea how many people were looking for Christmas trees in Cuba. How many did he actually speak to? Christmas decorations, hand-made, could be found in all sorts of places, even at the government-owned
agro-pecuario markets which were open on Christmas, a legal holiday here in Cuba.

Not in any way unsurprisingly, the biggest display of capitalistic Christmas stuff was at the US Interests Section here in Havana. I haven't gone to look at it. Hopefully, when my repaired camera arrives in a few days, I'll try to get a photo of the thing and add post it for you to see forever.

Reuters' suggests there's is a mass upsurge in Christianity in Cuba. This is the nonsense. It's just a seasonal cultural event which includes a paid holiday for most Cuban workers, not little more than that. I've seen homes with Christmas trees and others without them, including the homes of Communist Party members. Trust me, there is no religiosity at all involved in this for most people and no one cares that they have Christmas trees, except perhaps for the children who get toys at such times.

There's no increase in church-going here, as you might expect in a society where a religious revival is supposedly going on.  I'm not saying there is no increased interest in religion or in spiritualist ideas. Seeing many women dressed in all-white which lets us know they are Santeria initiates, confirms that there IS some spiritual hunger here expressed in such ways. I see no
political consequences of such things, if there are any.
Christmas Creeps in for Communist Cuba's Consumers
By Anthony Boadle  Tue December 24, 2002 03:49 PM ET 

HAVANA (Reuters) - Despite government's efforts to rein in Santa Claus, people seeking food, gifts and trees jammed the shops on Tuesday in a last-minute buying spree as a capitalist Christmas creeps in to communist-run Cuba.

Consumers left supermarkets in leafy residential Miramar with carts loaded with meat and chocolate, cheap plastic toys made in Asia, bottles of bubbly and some Italian Panettone Christmas cake.

At downtown Havana's largest shopping center, Plaza Carlos III, plastic Christmas trees made in China were a top selling item for Cubans reviving the Christian tradition of decorating their homes after decades of life in an atheist state.

Five-foot trees sold for $14.40, more than the average Cuban's monthly wage in pesos.

"There is far more consumption, but prices are much higher this year," said Billy Garcia, an economy student looking for a dress to give to his girlfriend.

Christmas Day holiday was banned in 1969 by President Fidel Castro's government and only restored in 1997 on the eve of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba, as a concession to the Catholic Church.

Each year since then, Christmas decorations, particularly lighting, have multiplied inside Havana's dollar-priced shops, and in hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists, though not on the streets of the city of 2.3 million.

Having a Christmas tree at home used to be an ideological statement that could run afoul of the communist authorities of Cuba's one-party state.

Almost five years after the pope's visit to the island, many Cuban homes have some form of decoration, though the imported items must be paid for in hard-to-come-by dollars and are devoid of religious content.

Many shops lit up their windows and put up "Happy Holidays" signs that could equally be interpreted as a Christmas greeting or a celebration of the Jan. 1 anniversary of Castro's 1959 revolution.


A shop manager on colonial Old Havana's Obispo Street said the government had sent out instructions that Santa Claus was not allowed in displays, or images of snow.

The largest Father Christmas in Havana was on display inside the compound of the diplomatic mission of the United States, which has sought to restore capitalism in Cuba for four decades.

The bright red Santa, a 30-foot (10 meter) Christmas tree and lights in the shape of a sleigh and reindeers on the bunker-like building shone across the badly lit Malecon waterfront of Havana like a beacon.

The Catholic Church said the government has tolerated Christmas holidays without religious symbols, and no Nativity scenes were to be seen in public except outside the Havana Cathedral and inside the American mission.

"The government recognizes Christmas as a holiday now, but does not do anything to encourage the religious nature of the day," said Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the archbishop of Havana.

"Christmas trees are sold, but not religious images. The government does not block Christmas, but does nothing to encourage it," Marquez said.

As a result, he said, the Christmas revival has been more akin to the consumer event in capitalist societies.

School holidays have been extended until Jan. 6, which has contributed to a Christmas atmosphere that reminds many Cubans of pre-revolutionary days, along with the crowded shops.

This year's shopping has been boosted by more cash in circulation because the government has been printing pesos to prime a slowing economy. Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, in an annual review of Cuba's battered socialist economy on Saturday, said more than 2 billion pesos ($77 million) were pumped into the economy this year.

"There is more money around. I've never seen this shopping center so full. It is really packed compared to previous years," said Helen Marsten, from London, England, as she shopped for roller blades for her son at Plaza Carlos III.

"But the toys are more expensive. In England you would pay half the price," said Marsten, a translator for state-run newspaper Granma's international edition in English.



From: "Karen Wald" <>
Thursday, December 26, 2002 10:19 AM
Christmas in Cuba through the eyes of Capitalist Media

The yearly ritual of commenting on how Cubans do and do not celebrate Christmas is once again filling the corporate media "news" services.... all of them missing or twisting two basic points: 

First, Christmas is supposed to be a RELIGIOUS holiday (not a buying orgy), and that most modern states, like Cuba, profess separation of Church and State.

So we see articles that bemoan the fact that the Santa Claus-buying spree aspect of Cuba has been "suppressed" by the "atheistic communists", somehow equating the lack of northern pine trees decorated with artificial lights and the European-initiated Father Noel (Santa Claus) with suppression of religion.

This is especially ironic since Christmas as a RELIGIOUS holiday was never banned, and has actually flourished in Cuba more than in most industrialized countries precisely because that is the only aspect that has continued throughout the years of the Revolution.

It is the very fact that the (mostly US and British) reporters so totally accept the commercial aspect of Christmas as an integral, necessary part of the holiday that they fail to recognize the difference.

One of my young Mexican ESL students (recently arrived in California with his family) was sharper than most of those reporters who considered the presence or absence of Santa Claus as a sign of Cubans' relative "freedom": Jose commented: "It wasn't Santa Claus who was born on that day".



From:  "Walter Lippmann"<>  
Date: December 22, 2002  (but edited slightly)
Re: Cubans mark season -- barely
It's  hard to know if "reporters" like this Mike Williams [whose report follows below] are either so blinded by their years of receiving disinformation on Cuba, or else they are deliberately writing in such dishonest ways. Mark Twain was right when he said [I think it was Twain, anyway] that a lie can go half way around the world while the truth is putting its boots on. But the reality does somehow find its way out...

As it so happens, I was at Carlos III  shopping mall just yesterday and can personally testify as to just how  absurdly false this "reporting" is. In the United States, people have been filled with so much false information about Cuba over the last forty+ years that this is designed to fit into prejudices which have been diligently nurtured by the US media all these years.

I went there with a Cuban friend to see what was going on and to do a bit of Christmas shopping, This period is one of the biggest events on the Cuban social calendar [Mother's Day and Valentine's Day are also very big here in Cuba]. Let me tell you that all these dollar stores are FILLED TO OVERFLOWING with people who are shopping and buying.

Cosmetics are important all year round while Xmas is only here for a week or two at the most, so it's obvious that shoppers who prefer bargain shampoos which will be used all year are making intelligent decisions with tight funds. The lines on stairwells and elevators are incredible for a country whose economy is said to be a failure and where salaries are said to range from $10-20 US dollars per month.

It's good that more and more people are finding their way down here to see the island for themselves. Now big segments of corporate leadership in the US want to promote trade and an end to the blockade. This helps open more and more people to alternative sources on Cuba and beyond.

To start with, there are not a lot Christmas trees up in public here in the Cuban capital, but the holiday season (and the 25th has also been a public holiday since the Pope's 1998 visit) could is quite evident. It's a cultural thing, however  and lacks the powerful religiosity with which such things are drenched in a country like the United States. Clearly the writer is trying to give you the idea that Xmas is somehow being denied or suppressed here on the island. Lots of Cubans have little plastic Xmas trees in their homes.

Traditional religious observations, which have a largely commercial character in the United States, simply resonate in an much more faint voice in a country where the institutional power of the Roman Catholic Church was broken ages ago. Abortion is free and legal. Contraception and safer sex practices are the policy of the national government. Gays are not murdered for their sexuality and there is no religious programming on Cuban airways. That absence is very refreshing.

Cuban churches are open and no one is prevented from attending them. Few seem to attend Catholic churches, at least as I walk around the capital of this island. The author is compelled to admit that attendance was down until the early nineties to nearly nothing  and the Catholic Church is struggling to attain some kind of audience in a land where religiosity is not crammed down everyone's throats as it is in the United States.

While the author talks about previous limits on religion, he omits the famous 1992 decision to open Communist Party membership to people who believe in a supreme being or practice religion. This decision broadened the party's base in society and enabled those who had concealed their beliefs in the past to be be more open about them now. This is better for everyone.

There's no doubt the rise in interest in various forms of religious, spiritual or mystical ideas is linked with the reality of material privation the Cubans have suffered in this so-called "Special Period in a Time of Peace", and the social differentiation which has occurred since the rise of tourism and the legalization of the US dollar.

Alternative religions, most prominently Santeria, have a broad cultural influence as any resident who has to listen to drummers marking the festival of San Lazarus up to quite late at night within a block of such celebrations will tell you.

Sorry I cannot go on at greater length with this but it's Sunday morning and  preparations for the Xmas dinner here are in full swing. The dollar stores  [called "the shoppings" here] as well  as the "agro-pecuarios" where you go for fresh vegetables, meats and chicken will be packed to the rafters and if we're not out early, the lines here in Cuba, as they also are in the U.S., will be worse...

By the way, there's plenty of rum in the stores, in case anyone mistook Fidel's remarks about liquor awhile ago as having a temperance edge. Also, the news about Fidel's leg was broadcast here on Cuban radio and television right away.

Cubans mark season -- barely 
By Mike Williams
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer 
Sunday, December 22, 2002

HAVANA, Cuba -- The holiday decorations are up at downtown Havana's Plaza Carlos III shopping center, but the banners and balloons all refer to the coming New Year. The only hint of Christmas is a string of red and green lights draped from a banister.

Of the dozens of stores in the bustling, four-story complex, only one small shop with the unadorned name "Christmas Articles" sells holiday items. Tiny plastic Christmas trees and a string of 200 lights go for $4.80 each in U.S. dollars, while small packages of shiny red ornaments made in China fetch $1, a not-insignificant sum in an economy where the average monthly wage is about $12.

While a small line forms at the cash register to buy the Christmas decorations, it's nothing compared to the horde of 50 people lined up outside a cosmetics store hoping to get their hands on shampoos and soaps going for a special sale price.

But more than the lack of cash to buy Christmas items, Cubans seem reluctant to express much enthusiasm for the holiday because they know that during most of the 44-year regime of Communist dictator Fidel Castro, the Christian celebration has been taboo.

"For years Christmas was abolished," said Denise Rodriguez, a 70-year-old grandmother checking out the items in a toy store for her grandchildren. "Families that gave gifts or had a Christmas tree got bad looks from other people. Now it's allowed again, but people are still nervous about doing much."

Indeed, while visitors to Havana will find sparkling Christmas trees and holiday music in the tourist hotels, there are very few signs of the season out in the streets where average Cubans live and work.

An evening walk through Vedado, one of the city's once-proud, middle-class enclaves, reveals Christmas lights twinkling in only one or two windows out of dozens of homes and apartments in each block. There are no public displays or lights hung from lampposts, and the few stores with decorations mostly celebrate the coming New Year, which happens to coincide with the anniversary of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

A tentative ambivalence In a way, the austerity isn't surprising. Cuba is, after all, a poor, socialist nation in which a zealous Marxist convert -- Castro -- has had four decades to wipe out any signs of capitalism and commercialism.

Then again, Cuba before Castro was a deeply religious nation, a Latin society in which the Catholic Church was almost as powerful as the government, even if many  everyday Cubans practiced Santeria, a fascinating mix of Afro-Caribbean myths and Catholic iconography.

The result is a tentative ambivalence about Christmas.

Castro officially banned the holiday in 1969, saying it interfered with the all-important sugar harvest, but then restored it in 1998 when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba.

"Christmas was still celebrated in the churches and among families, but from the official point of view, it was just another day of work and school," said the Rev. Jose Felix Perez of Havana's Santa Rita Catholic Church. "Today there is a great ignorance among the people about Christmas, especially the youngsters. They have no idea why it's celebrated."

Castro's government never officially outlawed religion, but his regime made it clear that those who attended church would not be counted as good communists. More than 100 priests were expelled in the early 1960s, while religious schools were shuttered. The first class of new would-be priests after the revolution wasn't allowed to begin training until 1970, and today there are only about 300 priests working in a nation of 11 million.

"During these decades, religion was largely ignored," Perez said. "The regime wanted to confirm its ideology and rejected any other ideas."

Church attendance fell dramatically. As recently as the mid-1990s, Perez's parish typically drew only two or three dozen worshipers each Sunday.

Pope's visit effected change The 1998 Papal visit reversed the trend, although it has not sparked the widespread religious revival that many hoped for. Santa Rita's Sunday services now draw several hundred parishioners, however, and Perez is particularly hopeful because many of his newest converts are young people.

Maytee Mena, 24, is a typical new Catholic. Born in 1978 to parents who were both members of the Communist Party and had no religious faith, she felt drawn to the church shortly before the Papal visit.

"I had no background in religion, but one day I felt touched by God in my heart and began reading the Bible," she said. "Two years ago I took my confirmation. My parents have not objected. We have so many problems here in Cuba, and I have no interest in politics. I prefer to believe in God."

Mena, who works in a government agency as a computer data specialist, has a full-size Christmas tree decked out with ornaments and lights in the tidy apartment she shares with her parents.

"It cost $60 and I had to go all over town to find it," she said. "Christmas is very special to me."

While some Cubans have found new hope in religion and celebrate Christmas for spiritual reasons, the island's tough economic situation makes it unlikely that the holiday will soon become the commercial, gift-giving extravaganza of free-market economies.

In other Spanish-heritage countries, children receive gifts on both Christmas Day and Three Kings Day, which falls on Jan. 6. Families also traditionally have a large Christmas Eve dinner, which in Cuba typically includes the favorites of pork, rice and beans.

Many Cuban families still gather on the holiday and serve a special meal, but Christmas gifts appear out of reach for most.

At the Plaza Carlos III center, a teenage boy's multi-speed bicycle goes for $138, while a baseball and glove are $18.50 and a set of plastic army men and trucks fetches $18.45. There are no Barbie dolls for girls, but a line called "Fortunate Constella" offers a different doll for each sign of the Zodiac at $18.25 each.

Most of the toys are made in China but have English-language labels.

For adults, there are exercise machines for $500 and even water skis for $200 at a sporting goods store, but few takers.

"It's difficult," said Alejandro Pena, a 32-year-old barber who said his family always celebrated Christmas, but that his typical gift as a boy was an orange. "Kids know their parents don't have money to buy toys, so there isn't much fantasy here about it."
From:  "Walter Lippmann <>"  
Date:  Thu Dec 26, 2002  5:40 pm
Holiday trips to Cuba soaring

(Nice to see this in the Miami Herald which, among other things, helps readers to grasp why there's so much spending going on in all the big dollar stores: there are lots more dollars coming into the country brought by such Cuban-Americans as are described here. If you were to believe Reuters, all the activity in those dollar stores came about because the Cuban government was priming the pump by printing more Cuban pesos.

(So what was that about Cuba's failing travel and tourist industry we keep hearing about???)

Posted on Wed, Dec. 25, 2002
Younger travelers send number
of holiday trips to Cuba soaring

Cuba-bound U.S. flights and reservations are reaching historic levels during the holiday season this year, according to several travel agencies.

''This month of December has been extraordinary,'' said Armando García, vice president of Marazul Charters. ``The number of reservations is almost double those in July and August, when there is also an increase in sales.''

Not only are there more travelers but they are younger.

''When I started my transportation business in 1991, the average age of people traveling to Cuba was 68 to 75 years old,'' said John Cabañas, owner of C&T Charters in Miami. ``Now, the average age is 40 and below.''

The spike in reservations for this month is up an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent compared to December 2000, when Miami experienced bookings not seen since 1959, agents said.

Additionally, the actual number of flights to Cuba also has increased. C&T Charters, for example, has scheduled at least 27 flights to Cuba this month compared to its average of 16 monthly flights.

''All the flights are full,'' Cabañas said. ``We are at a 93 percent of our capacity for all the month of December in airplanes that have 206 seats.''

That amounts to about 5,000 travelers in December, up from the average of 3,200 passengers on C&T Charters flights each month.


Overall, at least 26,500 passengers were booked on 240 flights out of Miami this month, agents said. At Miami International Airport, a total of 99 flights left between Dec. 16 and 24, and an additional 11 are scheduled for Christmas Day, an MIA spokeswoman said. Compare that to a total of 144 flights in the full month of November.

''In general, there has been an increase from year to year,'' said Zachary Mann, a spokesman for U.S. Customs in Miami. ``As additional airlines have been given permission to travel, there are more flights and more travelers.''

National statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration were not available.

Analysts attribute the rise to a change in travel policy, as well as to a new breed of younger travelers.

''Most of the Cuban-American community that travels to Cuba nowadays is younger than it used to be,'' said Pedro González Munné, director of a Miami-based company that promotes travel to Cuba. ``They are people who came to Miami in the past eight or nine years and also the second generations born here who are in touch with their families in Cuba.''

Cabañas also attributed the increase to newer arrivals.

''More people are in touch with their families in Cuba and that is something crucial to explain this growth. Family is family and it surpasses any political situation,'' he said.

Mariza Surribas is among the new, younger travelers.

The 29-year-old from Hialeah left to her native Havana from Miami on Christmas Eve. It was her first trip since she left the island four years ago. Traveling with Surribas to Cuba were cherished presents for her mother and grandmother: los nietos.

''I'm bringing the grandkids as the Christmas present for them,'' said Surribas, as her 2- and 5-year-old children scurried around the luggage at the check-in line. ''I'm very nervous but happy at the same time.'' Surribas' older son, Kevin Velando was only 1 when the family left Cuba. The younger, Kristian Velando, was born here.


''I'm going to see my abuelitos [grandparents],'' Kristian said, smiling and showing two fingers to indicate his age.

Junior Mauris also traveled Tuesday to Cuba for the first time since he left 2 ½ years ago.

''I'm a little bit nervous for the trip,'' said Mauris, 24, of Hialeah. ``But I think it's worth it because I'm going to see my father and the family I left behind when I came to Miami.''

Surribas and Mauris are among 20,000 Cubans who are granted legal exits from Cuba each year as part of migration accords with the United States.

Family reunification is not the only reason people travel to Cuba. More native-born Americans also are starting to travel to the island, González Munné said.

``People are receiving more information about Cuba, its culture and reality, so they find it interesting and travel to learn more about its art, its music and everyday life.''

An estimated 180,000 Americans visit Cuba each year, and about 30 percent of those are not on the island to visit relatives, Cuban government statistics indicate. About 50,000 of the travelers go through third countries, circumventing the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.

Under current U.S. laws, legal travel to Cuba is restricted to people with relatives there, students, educators and such professionals as journalists, doctors and athletes. Cultural exchange programs count.

Bob Guild, Marazul Charters New York's organizer of trips for professors and students, agrees that this year there is a bigger interest among Americans in travel to Cuba. The agency sent 1,300 academic travelers to Cuba this year, compared to 800 last year.

''We found out,'' Guild said, ``that Cuba is a particularly intriguing place for people to go compared to other destinations.''