Christmas in Cuba was awash with hard-to-get presents like flat-screen TVs and expensive candies as a wave of US-based Cubans visited for family reunions only made possible by a recent scrapping of US travel restrictions.
Cuban-Americans arrive from Miami burdened with Christmas presents for their relatives at Havana's international airport December 24, 2009. (AFP Photo)
Adrian, one 17-year-old who flew in from the US state of Florida, where he was born to Cuban immigrants, was overjoyed as he threw his bags into a relative's classic orange 1956 Chevrolet at Havana's airport. He was seeing his grandfather for the first time.
"My parents emigrated 20 years ago and I'm so happy to be able to come and get to know my relatives," he said, grinning.
Next to him, the grandfather, a 60-year-old truck driver named Evaristo Delgado, was likewise exuberant, though he slammed "the politics that separate the Cubans here from those over there."
"Over there" mostly means Florida, the closest point in the United States to the island state that Washington has targeted with an economic embargo dating back five decades, in reaction to the revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Former US president George W. Bush toughened the embargo by allowing US-Cubans to make only one trip every three years.
In April of this year, though, US President Barack Obama relaxed the restrictions slightly, by giving Cuban-Americans the right to freely travel to Cuba. Non-Cuban-Americans, however, remain barred from doing so.
The change has meant that over this Christmas season, up to 10 flights a day were arriving from Miami in Havana, each of them filled with US Cubans weighed down with gifts.
Jose Rodriguez, a 50-year-old mechanic standing at the airport with a bouquet of flowers in his hand, was waiting for one of those flights which was carrying his 28-year-old niece. The last time he saw her was three years ago.
"Cuban families have to be able to come together. The restrictions don't make any sense, nor does the embargo," he said. "The people shouldn't carry the blame of their governments."
His niece, Nora Rodriguez, arrived and greeted her relatives with a flurry of hugs and kisses and happy tears. She moved to Miami 17 years ago.
Her glee, though, was tempered a little by the exorbitant price she had to pay to for the one-hour flight covering a mere 140 kilometers (90 miles).
"I haven't seen them for three years. They are my life. I love Cuba, and I miss it, but you end up broke coming here. I paid 600 dollars for the plane ticket and 300 dollars there for excess baggage and another 126 for the excess here," she complained.
Another US-based Cuban, Yaimelis, 37, said she arrived with her husband and their two children from North Carolina to share a typical Cuban Christmas with her family in Havana. For them, that means roast pork, rice and beans and manioc -- and generous doses of Cuba's famous rum.
"I came two months ago and now I'm back. Now we can travel when we want and we save up for it. It's ridiculous to be split up because of politics. So many people drown at sea trying to join family members who have left," she said.
She explained that she left Cuba with her parents in 1980, when 125,000 others departed for the United States during a brief permission given by Castro's government.
"If they both sit down and talk a little bit, they could reach an agreement," she predicted.
"The families are happy this year to be able to receive relatives from the United States who have wanted to visit them but were unable to do so. We give thanks to God for this," Cardinal Jaime Ortega said.
He said: "It's certain that there will always be other family members -- maybe the youngest ones -- who left this country and who will be missed in the Christmas celebrations."