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Historic U.S. cruise docks in Havana

By Annie Rose Ramos and Catherine E. Shoichet

Ana Garcia was crying and could hardly walk as she left the cruise ship that took her from Miami to Havana.

It had been more than 48 years since she stepped foot in the country where she was born.

“I’m just thinking of that day when we left (Cuba) and shaking like a leaf,” she said.

Garcia is one of about 700 passengers on the first cruise in decades to travel from the United States to Cuba. The Adonia, a ship on Carnival Corp.’s Fathom cruise line, docked Monday in Havana.

The ship’s arrival marks the first stop on a historic, seven-day voyage that signals closer ties between the United States and its communist-run neighbor.

As the ship arrived, crowds onboard started chanting, “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!”

For Garcia, the city manager of North Miami Beach, Florida, pulling into the port was an emotional experience.

“I’m blessed to be here today,” she said, “and hoping for a better tomorrow for Cuba and my Cuban brothers and sisters.”

A warm welcome

 Large crowds waved to the boat from the shore as it approached Havana.

Bands and dancers greeted passengers at the port.

Cuban rum drinks awaited them as they made their way into Havana.

The seven-day cruise is scheduled to stop in three cities: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Ship left protesters in its wake

 The boat set sail from Miami on Sunday as salsa music played and protesters picketed nearby.

Standing beside Cuban and American flags, the cruise manager touted the journey as “the beginning of a new era.”

Not everyone was happy about the new route.

A small group of protesters gathered outside the port Sunday. And as the cruise ship was getting ready to leave Miami, police descended upon a nearby boat labeled Democracia, where demonstrators held a blue sign that said, “Castro why do you ask Cubans for a Visa to visit their own country?”

But passengers on the ship said they wanted to put politics aside.

As the boat sailed, a salsa band serenaded passengers on deck.

Jesse Mercado, a business owner from Los Angeles, was one of the first to hit the dance floor with his girlfriend, putting aside the small American and Cuban flags they had been waving at people on the shore as the ship passed by Miami’s South Beach.

He said he was looking forward to buying some of the island’s famed cigars, but he most likely wouldn’t try to bring them back to the United States, where an embargo on Cuban-made products still exists.

“I’ll probably smoke them all there (in Cuba),” he laughed.

Gary Carlson said controversy surrounding the cruise doesn’t add up.

“I’m not sure I really understand, because it’s time to put those things behind us,” he said. “Really the big issue is government to government, not people to people, and that’s what we’re excited about participating in.”

Cruise almost didn’t happen

 The voyage, the first U.S. cruise bound for Cuba in nearly 40 years, almost didn’t happen as scheduled.

Last month, controversy erupted over a Cuban law that prevented Cuban-born passengers from coming to the island on boats. The law stopped Fathom owner Carnival Corp. from selling tickets to Cuban passengers.

That move sparked a lawsuit from would-be Cuban passengers and an announcement by the cruise line that it wouldn’t sail unless Cuba changed its policies. Soon afterward, the Cuban government said it would scrap its longstanding ban on letting people born in Cuba come to the island by cruise ship.

But the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit aren’t on this week’s voyage, according to lawyer Javier Lopez, “not because they don’t want to be, but because the Cuban government requires people that were born in Cuba to jump through a whole bunch of other hurdles.”

Cruise officials said six of the passengers on the cruise are Cuban.

Beatriz Melendez is one of them.

The 52-year-old was 4 when she left Cuba with her sister and parents. Now she and her sister are taking the cruise to Cuba together.

“Is that where you had your birthday party when you were little?” Melendez asked her sister, pointing excitedly as the boat pulled into the Havana port Monday.

On Sunday, when the cruise ship left Miami, the sisters spotted a rainbow spanning the bright blue sky — a sign that the spirit of their parents was with them, Melendez said, as they began their journey back home.

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