Cold War Foes Reconnected: Historic Flight From Fort Lauderdale To Santa Clara, Cuba

Aug 31, 2016

On Wednesday morning,  Gate Number 10 at Fort Lauderdale’s Airport was buzzing with reporters and airport and airline-officials. They all wanted to give the first scheduled passenger jet service from the United State to Cuba in  more than 50 years a proper send-off: JetBlue-flight 387 was scheduled to leave for Santa Clara, 175 miles east of Havana, at 9:45 am.

"This is the most important flight of my life," said First Officer Francisco Barreras, a Cuban-American.
Credit M.Aden/WLRN

Shying away from the spotlight while officials gave speeches was one of the pilots. First Officer Francisco Barreras is 54 years old. His parents came from Cuba in 1961.

“It’s the most incredible thing I was ever part of,” said Barreras.  “My father was pretty much on the last flight out of Cuba and I am flying the first flight into Cuba. So that’s full circle for me and my family.”

In fact, Barreras’ family story reads like a passage from a history book of Cuban-American air travel: His great uncle was the general manager for Pan Am in Havana, who later took part in Operation Peter Pan. The operation provided air transportation to the U.S. for Cuban children. Another family member was a pilot for the Castro family.

Barreras has flown many charter flights to Cuba, but he said this flight was the most important one of his life. The captain was another Cuban-American. Mark Luaces was born in Miami and his father was an aircraft mechanic for Eastern Airlines.

There was Cuban-themed cake - for example in the shape of a cigar box.
Credit M.Aden/WLRN

JetBlue was not afraid of clichés: There was a chocolate cake that looked like a cigar box and boarding started to the sounds of Buena Vista Social Club. Of the 150 people on board, most were journalists and airline officials. Sixty were regular travelers, according to the airline.

One of them was 53-year-old Dominic Santana, who wore a baseball cap and a T-Shirt that read USA. He left Cuba when he was 8 years old and had never been back since.

“I have been waiting for this a long time,” said Santana while  holding up his ticket. He was the first one who bought a spot on the plane, he said. “Before I die, I wanted to say I am going back and I am going to discover the place where I was born.”

Domingo Santana -- the name he planned to resume using while he was in Cuba -- was returning for the first time since he left as a child
Credit M.Aden/WLRN

Santana only recently moved from New York to Miami. “I was a bit scared of the hardliner Cuban-Americans in Miami,” he said with a grin. His message to those critical of the normalization between the U.S. and Cuba: “Let it go!” He added:  “It’s about the country; it’s about your roots. It’s not about politics.”

Dominic Santana, who said he would go by the name Domingo again when back in Cuba, will spend a week there before returning to Miami. 

First Officer Barreras echoed the sentiments: "Let change happen," he said. "It's going to be a good thing for the Cuban people, a good thing for Cuban-Americans."

The flight to Santa Clara, about 175 miles east of Havana, took just 45 minutes. There the plane and its passengers were greeted by a reception. 

Cuban aviation officials said that they were prepared to allow up to 110 flights a day by North American airlines. So far, 10 U.S.-based airlines have  been approved for scheduled service to Cuba.