Booking Cuba travel used to be deadly

There was a time when advertising Viajes a Cuba on a storefront was an invitation to a pipe bombing.

In the politically charged Miami of the late 1970s and '80s, the FBI investigated more than a dozen blasts at Cuba travel agencies – considered nests of Communist agents by staunch anti-Castro exiles.

Selling tickets to Havana could even get you killed. That's what happened to Carlos Muniz Varela, a 26-year-old exile living in Puerto Rico who opened the first Cuba-approved travel agency. Thirty years ago this week, he was gunned down in San Juan.

But times have changed, and the travel agencies today worry little about political retribution.

"They want to call me a communist – thank you very much," said a strident Francisco Aruca, the owner of Marazul Charters. Aruca, also a Miami radio host, is one of the more outspoken of the seven agency owners who book charters to Cuba. They all have permission from Cuba and the U.S. Treasury Department.

The long-standing and sometimes violent clashes between exiles who oppose anyone doing business with the island have disappeared – welcome news to the agencies, where business has been booming since last month, when President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to travel or send money to relatives on the island.

Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, points no further than the windows of his Westchester storefront as indication that the climate for trips to Cuba has changed.

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