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Passion for Cuba flights hides ugly reality on the ground

JetBlue flight 387 passengers hold up representations of

JetBlue flight 387 passengers hold up representations of Cuba's national flag, just before touching down at the airport in Santa Clara, Cuba, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. JetBlue 387, the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in more than a half century, landed in the central city of Santa Clara on Wednesday morning, re-establishing regular air service severed at the height of the Cold War. (AP Photo/Michael Weissenstein) Photo Credit: AP

Oh, how we love firsts - and the 18-month-old U.S.-Cuba rapprochement policy delivers them like Hillary Clinton emails.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Most countries would pay handsomely for the kind of tourism publicity that Cuba is constantly getting for free. I hate to give them more, but who can pass on a somewhat fake first flight and a somewhat fake Che Guevara cake controversy?

The exaggerated celebration of JetBlue Flight #387 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara, Cuba, last week - tagged as the first commercial flight to Cuba since 1960 - was full of hot air.

Dim-witted speeches were delivered. Fort Lauderdale airport CEO Mark Gale evoked the image of the first American landing on the moon in 1969 to explain his feelings about this “first flight,” then insisted that he wasn’t comparing the moon to Cuba or the intrepid travelers about to board to those kick-ass astronauts.

The moon wasn’t far enough for Stacey Ritter, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. For her, Cuba until this moment “could have been in Mars.”

“Today is one of those days when the smile on your face can break your face - because we are finally going to Cuba,” said Ritter, instantly rousing a great desire to help her wipe the smile off.

It’s not like JetBlue’s flying off to Hawaii on holiday, but to a nation that Cubans are fleeing because there’s little hope that the 57-year-old dictatorship is ever going to change. In fact, the Castro clan is installing its children, grandchildren and their spouses as heirs to the throne they’re sharing with the military, which owns and runs tourism.

JetBlue flying to Cuba is not that ground-breaking. The only real significant development is the type of flight - commercial rather than charter - and its true value is pure capitalism. Cutting out the middle man and more competition leads to fare wars, cheaper tickets and no more charter-company monopoly, hurray!

But facts never seem to stop anyone from going overboard on Cuba.

JetBlue and Fort Lauderdale tourism officials also had on hand a silly blue ribbon from the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. - the representative of a government that took power by force and has never held independent elections or a plebiscite on its rule. It might have been a good opportunity to ask José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez why several journalists, including one from the Miami Herald, were denied visas, but everyone was in such a boogie-down mood!

There were chocolate cupcakes topped with the Cuban flag, pastelitos, and designer cakes celebrating all the Cuban kitsch you can mold with icing and frosting - from cigars to palm trees and Cuban flags (so Miami).

But here’s a little context: Flights between the United States to Cuba may have been limited by the Cuban government’s repressive restrictions and the retaliatory U.S. embargo, but what has existed are interruptions in service - and one-way flights out of there. Not only did most of the early 1960s exiles leave by plane (Pan Am and Eastern), but from 1965 to 1971 there were daily Freedom Flights. And since Cuba announced in 1978 that exiles could return for visits, there have been regularly scheduled chartered flights from Miami to Havana available to anyone who wanted to visit, including Americans who met Treasury Department criteria, expanded by the Obama administration in 2015.

But here’s the cake on this “first:” The hard-line Babalú Blog called out JetBlue for celebrating the Fort Lauderdale launch with a Che Guevara-topped cake. The damning photo ran with video clips of Guevara-led summary executions and quoted Guevara epithets against the United States. Lobby groups and social media users picked up the Che cake story and circulated it.

But the Guevara cake picture is 3 years old.

According to JetBlue, the cake was delivered to the airline when it started charter service from Tampa to Cuba.

When it comes to Cuban affairs, there’s never a shortage of ignorance or passion. But this drip, drip, too, amounts to a heap of hot air.

Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.