After years of profiting off the misery of the Cuban people through chummy business partnerships with the Castro dictatorship, Miami’s “Air-Charter Queen,” Vivian Mannerud, is going through a rough patch of luck. But when your entire business model revolves around doing business with the most brutal, most repressive, most murderous, and longest running dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere, you run the risk that sooner or later, the bad karma will catch up to you.
Air-charter ‘queen’ finds arranging trips to Cuba is risky business
Vivian Mannerud used to be the queen of air charters to Cuba, but in the past year, her company has been firebombed, victimized by a cyber attack and lost its landing rights in Cuba.
For Vivian Mannerud, president of one of the oldest Cuba travel companies in Miami, the past two years could be described as the agony and the ecstasy.
Scene one: Her company, Airline Brokers, organizes the first charter service from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Cuba in more than 50 years. Mannerud hands out maracas and straw hats to passengers on the Sept. 17, 2011, inaugural flight. Her company also offers several weekly flights from Miami to Cuba.
Scene two: She joyfully waves her arms in the front row as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Santiago, Cuba, in March after she makes all the travel arrangements for a Miami Archdiocese pilgrimage for the papal visit.
Scene three: A month later, she stands tearfully outside the hulk of her firebombed Coral Gables office. Around 3:30 a.m. on April 27, someone tossed a chunk of pavement through a window and ignited an accelerant-fed fire.
Then there’s the cyber-attack on her reservations system, the mysterious flat-tire incident, and a fraud perpetrated by someone using a phone number from her burned-out business.
But the most devastating blow came in November when Cuba abruptly suspended landing rights for her charter business, forcing one of the area’s longest and most controversial Cuba charter business to shift strategy. Mannerud no longer operates her frequent charters to Cuba, scaling back to mostly travel-related services to people heading to the island.
Through the years, Mannerud and other charter companies have been lighting rods for criticism from some exiles who think travel to Cuba enriches the Cuban government. Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a Miami radio commentator, says Mannerud’s longtime dealings with Havana has hurt her reputation in the exile community.
“The charter business is almost like a concession with the Cuban government,’’ Pérez said.
Mannerud is nothing if not resilient. Her company is no longer arranging charter flights to Cuba. But she’s still in business.