By Chabeli Herrera and Douglas Hanks
Carnival Corporation’s upcoming voyage to Cuba has struck a nerve among part of Miami’s Cuban American population, inciting a federal lawsuit, protests and criticism from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
The cruise company’s social-impact line, Fathom, is scheduled to travel to the island beginning May 1, after Carnival Corp. became the first American cruise company to gain approval from the Cuban government to sail from the U.S. to Cuba.
But there’s a catch: Cuban-born Americans cannot visit the island by sea, due to a a Cuban law that dates to the Cold War era, and therefore are barred from joining in Carnival Corp.’s sailings to the island. Individuals born in Cuba can, however, travel to the island on an airplane.
A class action lawsuit filed against Carnival Corp. and Fathom alleges that the cruise company is violating civil rights by denying tickets to Cuban-born individuals
According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Miami on Tuesday, plaintiffs Amparo Sanchez and Francisco Marty were denied a ticket on Fathom’s May 1 sailing to Cuba when they revealed they were born in Cuba.
Similar to airlines, cruise lines are required to collect passport information, including place of birth, for all cruises leaving from the U.S.
A Fathom representative told Sanchez and Marty, who is a Carnival Platinum Club member, that Carnival Corp. has been “working on the issue for months” and did not want to lose the loyalty of its customers, according to the lawsuit. However, the cruise line told them it had to abide by the Cuban policy and could not complete their bookings on the Cuba sailings.
“I was born in Cuba, and haven’t been back in 58 years… and [am] unable to fly for health reasons. I wanted to go back to see my native country and share its culture with a surprise trip with my children, but Carnival will not allow my Cuban-born daughter and me to go on its ship,” Marty said in a statement.
Fathom is scheduled to take passengers on week-long voyages to Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
The lawsuit alleges that the cruise line and its parent company, Carnival Corp., have “adopted a policy to support Cuba’s boycott” of Cuban-born individuals.
“It violates our fundamental rights as a nation,” said Tucker Ronzetti, of Coral Gables law firm Kozyak, Tropin and Throckmorton, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys. “When it comes to our fundamental values as a nation, when it comes to following our laws against discrimination, those trump a foreign nation’s policies.”
On Fathom’s website, the cruise line says it is “Carnival’s policy to obey the regulations and laws of the countries we sail to around the world.”
Carnival Corp. president and CEO Arnold Donald said in an interview Tuesday that the cruise company has been working to petition the Cuban government to change the policy.
“Cuban-born individuals are allowed to fly to Cuba and we just want a similar process,” Donald said. “We expressed that respectfully and appropriately [to Cuban authorities].”
But some Cuban-born politicians don’t think Carnival’s attempts have been sufficient.
On Wednesday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez called a press conference to raise the possibility of a court fight between the world’s largest cruise company and the county that owns the port where Carnival plans to launch its first cruises to Havana.
Gimenez said the policy violates the county’s human-rights policy. He has also asked county lawyers to determine whether Carnival Corp. is in violation of local law that bans discrimination based on national origin.
“As a Cuban-born, naturalized American citizen myself, it is clear to me that this policy violates the Code,” Gimenez wrote in a memo titled “Inquiry Regarding Possible Human Rights Violation the Code of Miami-Dade County.”
Gimenez stopped short of saying he would block Carnival from using Port Miami for its upcoming Cuba cruise but said he wanted to know what authority he has to enforce the human-rights law.
“What can we do about it so that they come into compliance?” he said. “This is not about one particular cruise. This is really about Carnival. They’re an important partner, and there are a lot of jobs here in Miami-Dade County. But they’re still violating the ordinance.”
Carnival is one of the county’s five largest private employers, according to the Beacon Council, the county’s economic development agency, with about 3,000 local jobs.
Gimenez said he spoke with Micky Arison, Carnival’s chairman and owner of the Miami Heat, earlier in the day about the cruises. Gimenez said Arison hopes Cuba will agree to waive the rules, allowing the company to avoid a stand-off with Miami-Dade.
Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez also spoke out in support of Gimenez’s inquiry.
Insiders note the Castro regime is sensitive to being seen as bending to political pressure from Miami, complicating the matter as the controversy gets more attention from elected leaders and the media.
Among them is U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, who is of Cuban descent. In a statement, he spoke out against Carnival Corp.’s decision.
“I never could have fathomed an American company could be so blinded by the prospect of profit in Cuba that it would enter into a business deal with the Castros that tramples on the civil rights of our own American citizens,” said Menendez, who represents New Jersey. “Make no mistake – by discriminating against Cuban-Americans, Carnival is allowing the Castro regime to extend its oppressive reach to our shores.”
Central to the matter is the issue of upholding U.S. civil rights law by a U.S.-based entity that uses a U.S. facility, such as a port, no matter where it sails in the world.
The federal lawsuit filed against Carnival Corp. says the cruise company’s acceptance of the Cuban policy violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in places of accommodation. According to the law, a place of accommodation can be defined as an “establishment which provides lodging to transient guests,” including cruise ships.
Robert W. Rodriguez, another attorney for the plaintiff, cites a similar instance in 2015, when an Israeli citizen filed a discrimination complaint against Kuwait Airways after the airline refused to sell the traveler a ticket from New York’s John K. Kennedy International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport. The airline cited Kuwaiti law that prohibits business with Israeli citizens.
The U.S. Department of Transportation threatened legal action against Kuwait Airways, asking the discriminatory practice. In response, the airline eliminated service between the two airports.
“This has already been decided and Carnival knows about this,” Rodriguez said. “We are just hoping that [Carnival Corp.] has the wherewithal to know that No. 1, it is legally incorrect and also more importantly, morally incorrect.”
Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell said the lawsuit is “without merit or substance.”
“We believe there is a much better opportunity to effect a change in the policy by having an active dialogue with the Cubans versus some of the policies in the past many years,” Frizzell said.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa has also requested that the Gimenez’s administration confer with the U.S. Department of Transportation over the legality of Port Miami allowing Carnival Corp. to use its facilities while adhering to the Cuban policy.
In a statement, Sosa also cited the Kuwait Airways incident, noting that “although the cruise line maintains that it must honor the communist island’s discriminatory practices, a recent decision by the U.S. DOT seems to contradict the policy.”
The Cuban-born commissioner added Wednesday: “If you don’t have the ability as a U.S. citizen to go wherever you want, then I have a problem with that – because the United States is a democracy.”
Protests and the ensuing political uproar followed an April 7 column by Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago about her inability to book a berth on a Fathom Cuba cruise because she was born in Cuba.
Tuesday, protesters demonstrated in front of Carnival Corp.’s Doral headquarters, decrying the cruise company’s policy.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Movement, which organized the protest, said Carnival should take a stand against Cuba’s policy — or not sail to Cuba.
“It’s something very un-American for a country to tell citizens that because you are of this nationality, they can’t sell you a ticket,” Sanchez said Tuesday.
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