After weeks of controversy – and a surprising change by Cuban President Raúl Castro – the first U.S. cruise ship in more than 50 years set sail for Cuba on Sunday.
But this was a historic maiden voyage that almost never left port. That’s because the Miami-based Carnival cruise line became the target of protests last month by Cuban-Americans, who were angry about a Cuban rule that barred anyone born in Cuba from entering the island by sea.
Carnival had appeared to bow to that rule. But the demonstrations - including a Cuban-American lawsuit accusing it of discrimination - prompted it to announced it would delay its May 1 inaugural Cuba cruise until the communist government in Havana changed the policy. Havana did – sooner than anyone expected, on April 22.
So on Sunday, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald could stand in front of the company’s Fathom brand ship – The Adonia – before it embarked for Cuba.
"Clearly the histories here are very emotional for a number of people," Donald said. "And all along, we were preparing and working toward what we have here today - that everyone can sail with us."
The Adonia carried more than 600 passengers, including a dozen born in Cuba. One of those Cuban-Americans – Carnival’s general counsel, Arnie Perez – was to be the first to disembark the ship in Havana.
But most of the cruisers were non-Cubans like Margaret Cox, a teacher from Windermere, Florida.
"My father was a flight surgeon during World War II," Cox said, "and he went to Cuba right after the war, to relax. He told me that I should go if I ever got the chance. So I grabbed the first boat."
The cruise, which makes stops at ports of call in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, is designated as a cultural exchange.