Lawsuit Filed Against Carnival For Agreeing To Discriminatory Cuba Cruise Policy

MIAMI -- A class action lawsuit has been filed against Carnival Corporation and its Fathom cruise line, alleging that the cruise company is violating civil rights by denying Cuban-born Americans the ability to sail on its upcoming voyage to Cuba.

Carnival Corp. is abiding by a Cuban law that prohibits Cuban nationals from returning to the island by sea. Cuban-born Americans can, however, travel to the island on an airplane. Fathom is set to sail to Cuba beginning May 1.

According to the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Miami on Tuesday, plaintiffs Amparo Sanchez and Francisco Marty were denied a ticket on Fathom's sailing to Cuba when they revealed they were born in Cuba.

A Fathom representative told Sanchez and Marty, who is a frequent Carnival cruiser, that Carnival Corp. has been "working on the issue for months" and did not want to lose the loyalty of its customers, according to the lawsuit. However, the cruise line told them it had to abide by the Cuban policy and could not complete their bookings on the Cuba sailings.

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On Wednesday, Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Giminez also spoke out against Carnival Corp.'s decision, saying the policy violates the county's human-rights rules. Gimenez has asked county lawyers to determine whether Carnival Corp. is in violation of local law that bans discrimination based on national origin.

"As a Cuban-born, naturalized American citizen myself, it is clear to me that this policy violates the Code," Gimenez wrote in a memo.

Carnival Corp. was the first American cruise line to gain approval to sail to Cuba in more than 50 years. Fathom will take passengers on a week-long cruise that stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

The lawsuit alleges that Carnival Corp. and Fathom have "adopted a policy to support Cuba's boycott of Cuban-born individuals from traveling to and from Cuba by ship."

"If you are going to use U.S. facilities you have to abide the laws by the United States," said Robert W. Rodriguez, the attorney for the plaintiffs.

On Fathom's website, the cruise line says it is "Carnival's policy to obey the regulations and laws of the countries to sail to around the world."

Carnival Corp. Arnold Donald said in an interview Tuesday that the cruise company has been working to petition the Cuban government to change the policy.

"Cuban-born individuals are allowed to fly to Cuba and we just want a similar process," Donald said. "We expressed that respectfully and appropriately [to Cuban authorities]."

But, according to the lawsuit, Carnival Corp.'s acceptance of the Cuban policy violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in places of accommodation. According to the law, a place of accommodation can be defined as an "establishment which provides lodging to transient guests," including cruise ships.

Rodriguez cites a similar instance in 2015 when an Israeli citizen filed a discrimination complaint against Kuwait Airways when the airline refused to sell the traveler a ticket from New York's John K. Kennedy International Airport to London's Heathrow Airport, citing Kuwait law that prohibits business with Israeli citizens.

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div">> > Protesters decry discriminatory Cuban cruise policy

Protesters decry discriminatory Cuban cruise policy

The U.S. Department of Transportation threatened legal action against Kuwait Airways, asking for a cease and desist of the discriminatory practice. In response, the airline eliminated service between the two airports.

"This has already been decided and Carnival knows about this," Rodriguez said. "We are just hoping that [Carnival Corp.] has the wherewithal to know that No. 1, it is legally incorrect and also more importantly, morally incorrect."

Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell said the lawsuit is "without merit or substance."

"We believe there is a much better opportunity to effect a change in the policy by having an active dialogue with the Cubans versus some of the policies in the past many years," Frizzell said.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa has also requested that the county Attorney's Office confer with the U.S. Department of Transportation over the legality of PortMiami allowing Carnival Corp. to use its facilities while adhering to the Cuban policy.

In a statement, Sosa also cites the Kuwait Airways incident, noting that "although the cruise line maintains that it must honor the communist island's discriminatory practices, a recent decision by the U.S. DOT seems to contradict the policy."

Tuesday, about 50 protesters gathered in front of Carnival Corp. Doral headquarters to decry the cruise company's policy.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Movement, which organized the protest, said Carnival should take a stand against Cuba's policy -- or not sail to Cuba.

"It's something very unAmerican for a country to tell citizens that because you are of this nationality, they can't sell you a ticket," Sanchez said.

Similar to airlines, Carnival Corp. is required to vet all passports and visas before selling a ticket.

Miami Herald staff wriers David Ovalle, Douglas Hanks and Fabiola Santiago contributed to this story.

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