Havana Dreams Deferred
Four Vermonters sue the U.S. government for the right to see their families in Cuba
Jared Carter & Yurisleidis Leyvis Mora
Some might say it takes major cojones to file a lawsuit against the United States government on behalf of yourself and several million Cuban-Americans over an entrenched, half-century-old foreign policy — especially if you’re neither Cuban-American nor a bona fide lawyer.
But for Jared Carter, a second-year student at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, all it took was love.
The chain of events began five years ago in the historic town of Baracoa, on the southeastern tip of Cuba. Carter, 26, was a recent college graduate from Maine researching Cuba’s national parks for a nonprofit group when he spotted a quiet, petite, dark-skinned girl on the beach. Eighteen-year-old Yurisleidis “Yuri” Leyvis Mora was working for a friend’s catering company when Carter, a blue-eyed, baby-faced American, approached her. He spoke Spanish fairly well. The two struck up a conversation and, as Carter puts it, “one thing led to another.”
After Carter returned to the United States, and for a year and a half thereafter, the couple stayed in touch, despite costly phone calls and the draconian travel restrictions imposed on the citizens of both nations. Formidable obstacles did not stop them from deciding they wanted to be together permanently.
So in April 2006, Mora said adios to her large extended family in Contramaestre and moved north to cold, mountainous central Vermont. Mora and Carter were legally married in June 2006, although today, neither wears a wedding ring. As the family’s oldest granddaughter, Mora says she and Carter won’t consider themselves truly joined until the day they celebrate with her elderly grandparents back in Cuba.
And there’s the rub. On June 16, 2004, President Bush issued an executive order directing the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to draft new rules that severely curtail the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit their loved ones back in Cuba. As a result, Cuban-Americans are now limited to seeing their relatives only once every three years. Moreover, travel licenses are no longer being issued under “exigent circumstances,” such as the birth, marriage, illness or death of a family member.
As it stands, Mora’s family members in Cuba will now have to wait until at least April 2009 before they can see her tie the knot. Hence the urgency of the lawsuit, a class action that aims to remove the political and diplomatic barriers to travel between the United States and Cuba. Due to the deteriorating health of Mora’s grandparents, Carter says the couple can’t afford to wait until he’s a lawyer before they sue. As he puts it, “Something can happen any day, and we fear the worst.”
Carter and Mora aren’t the only Vermont plaintiffs named in the suit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Burlington. Armando Vilaseca and Maricel Lucero Keniston have joined the case as well, which is being brought with legal support from a new local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
For Vilaseca and Lucero Keniston, the fight is really all about the government denying them their fundamental right to family relations without due process of law. “This is like Big Brother,” Vilaseca says. “The government is telling me who my family is.”
Literally. Bush’s 2004 executive order originated with a policy recommendation by the president’s own Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a right-wing, Cuban-American hardliner. Ostensibly, the policy’s goal is to bring an end to Fidel Castro’s repressive regime and “establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
However, in the tortured logic of U.S. foreign policy — not to mention ignorance of traditional Latino culture — the regulations redefine a “family” to include only a “spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent or sibling.” Aunts, uncles, cousins, stepparents and other relatives who often live together under the same roof in Cuba are considered personae non grata, unworthy of any visitation rights from their American kin.
“Neither my mother nor my father were able to attend their parents’ funerals,” Vilaseca says. “Part of being a family is being together during good times and bad.”
Maricel Lucero Keniston of Weathersfield never met her father, Oscar Lucero, although she’d learned about him in school growing up in Cuba in the 1960s. Lucero was a “martyr of the revolution” who was killed in 1958 shortly before Castro took power. Today, there are statues of him and public schools named in his honor all over the Caribbean island.
In 1968, at the age of 10, Lucero Keniston left Cuba for Spain with her mother, stepfather and baby brother. Her mother rarely spoke about her father after his death, so great was the woman’s grief. In fact, Lucero Keniston, whose family later resettled in the New York City area, admits she hardly ever thought about Cuba until the early 1990s, when she attended graduate school at Dartmouth College. There, while enrolled in a music class — Lucero Keniston is now a professional singer — a professor encouraged her to explore her cultural roots through Afro-Cuban music. In 1997, when family travel licenses were easier to come by, Lucero Keniston decided it was time to reconnect with her native land and the father she never knew.
“I felt like I was going back to find out who this man was, not the hero of the revolution, but the man,” Lucero Keniston remembers. “That was my quest, to discover my father through his family.”
Initially, Lucero Keniston assumed her trip to Cuba would be a one-shot deal, a chance to “get it out of my system,” she recalls. Then she met the six of her father’s 11 siblings who were still alive. Lucero Keniston spent her entire trip going from one relative’s house to the next, listening to stories about her dad. “On the plane home, I couldn’t stop sobbing,” she recalls. “It was such an experience that all I could think of was, ‘How can I get back there?’”
Lucero Keniston did, in fact, return to Cuba several times between 1997 and 2004, each time carrying medicine, money and other items her newfound relatives were lacking due to the U.S. trade embargo. Lucero Keniston was in Havana just two weeks ago with a church group — officially, she’s not permitted to see her relatives on such trips — when the Cuban government announced its historic change in leadership.
“I was having breakfast and the lady of the house said, ‘Oh, by the way, Castro resigned this morning, and Raul is going to be heading the nation,” Lucero Keniston recalls. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I thought there was going to be more excitement, like a parade or something. But nothing happened.”
Not much happened in the United States, either. Since Cuba’s announcement, the U.S. government has given no indication that it intends to relax its policy of isolating the Communist nation. That means, for the foreseeable future, the family travel ban remains in full force for the more than 1.5 million Cuban-Americans now living in the United States.
Lucero Keniston fears that she’ll never see her two surviving aunts again. “These people are not ‘immediate family?’ What the hell does that mean?” she asks. “In Latino culture, extended family is family. But somehow, the U.S. government doesn’t see any value in that.”
If there is some value in keeping Cuban-Americans separated from their loved ones in Cuba, the Bush administration doesn’t offer up many officials to defend or explain it. Repeated phone calls and emails by Seven Days to OFAC, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, and the State Department’s “Cuba Desk” went unanswered. Just minutes before deadline, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs called, but could only reference a CAFC website, which justifies the travel ban by claiming it “den[ies] resources and legitimacy to the [Castro] regime” and “limits the regime’s manipulation of humanitarian U.S. policies.”
Another State Department official who fielded a Seven Days phone call shot the question over to the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees all travel and commerce between the two countries. (Despite the 46-year-old embargo, the United States is now one of Cuba’s top 10 trading partners.) There, a public affairs official provided background information on the U.S.-Cuban travel policy, but wouldn’t comment on the political rationale that provoked the president’s 2004 executive order.
Others who’ve been to Cuba many times over the years have their own theories about the persistence of the travel ban.
Mark Schneider is a Plattsburgh, N.Y., civil rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild who’s agreed to lend pro bono assistance to Carter; the law student can only represent himself until he’s admitted to the bar. Schneider speculates that stiffening the travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans had more to do with Bush’s re-election campaign than diplomatic discord between the two countries.
“The whole reason behind the travel restriction was always political,” Schneider argues, pointing out that the policy change was announced just five months before the 2004 presidential election. “It was Karl Rove punching in zip codes and figuring out how many votes he could get for the Bush regime in south Florida.” The Cuban-American population there is huge — 990,000-plus in 2004 — and tends to vote Republican because of the GOP’s anti-Castro position.
Meanwhile, as Cuban-Americans contend with tougher travel regulations, anyone else who wants to go to Cuba can make the trip without too much hassle. Tens of thousands of Americans travel to Cuba each year under a “general license” with nonprofit organizations, religious groups, athletic teams, educational programs and the like. That’s in addition to the unknown numbers of Americans who travel to Cuba illegally through third countries, such as Mexico and Canada.
Cash and goods also seem to flow easily between the two countries. Cuban-Americans are still allowed to send up to $1200 per year to their families back in Cuba, and American trade with Cuba is now at its highest level since 2000. According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, the sale of U.S. agricultural goods to Cuba totaled nearly $438 million last year, up from $340 million in 2006.
Cuba’s trading partners have included the State of Vermont, which in 2005 sold the country 74 dairy cows and 4000 metric tons of nonfat dry milk. (An arrangement to sell Vermont apples later fell apart.) Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, who went to Cuba in 2004 and 2005, said the $6 million deal wouldn’t have taken place were it not for the efforts of Armando Vilaseca, who he calls “my Magellan.” The 51-year-old Cuban-American helped convince the Cuban government to allow Dubie to visit with Vladimiro Roca, a prominent Cuban dissident.
Vilaseca, who now lives in Westford, came to the United States in 1964 at age 8 with his sister and parents. The family was part of the first wave of Cuban immigrants who fled Castro’s Communist revolution, and like most Cubans who left their homeland in the early 1960s, Vilaseca’s parents assumed their departure would be short-lived. His father had been a provincial sales manager for General Electric in the town of Cienfuegos, and the family, though not wealthy, lived comfortably.
“Even my family supported the revolution at first,” Vilaseca recalls, although that changed after the family’s possessions, including house and car, were confiscated by Castro’s government.
Vilaseca grew up in West New York, N.J., one of the “Miamis of the North,” in a household where voicing any sympathy for Castro’s Cuba was strictly forbidden. In 1999, Vilaseca decided to visit Cuba anyway, a decision that rankled and embarrassed his “hard-as-nails, right-wing” father. “My first trip down there,” he recalls, “my father called my wife and said, ‘Don’t let him go! They’re going to brainwash him or something!’”
But Vilaseca, who now works as a school superintendent for the Franklin West Supervisory Union in Fairfax, says that if he’s learned anything from history books, it’s that “you deal with conflicts by sitting down and talking things out.
“The bottom line is, the system there doesn’t work because it’s inherently a failed system,” he adds. “You can’t blame Cuban-Americans for the problems of Cuba . . . And, we can’t allow a small group of Cuban-Americans in Miami to dictate our foreign policy.”
Dubie, a Republican, agrees. In February 1996, when the Cuban Air Force shot down two U.S. civilian aircraft, Dubie was a member of the Vermont Air National Guard. He recalls sitting up all night in an F-16 awaiting orders to take off from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. That night, Dubie says, he vowed if he ever got the chance to go to Cuba, he would.
“With all due respect to the people of South Florida who are driving U.S. foreign policy, they’re stuck in a 50-year time warp based on hate,” he says. “We talk a lot about peace, and peace starts with families, communities and neighbors. Cuba is our neighbor.”
Vilaseca says he didn’t join the class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government simply because he hopes to see his elderly aunt, who is terminally ill and not expected to live much longer. He also joined for the millions of other Cuban-Americans who are denied the right to visit relatives but fear speaking out against a country that once welcomed them with open arms.
The constitutional right to familial relations is well established in federal case law, says Darius Charney, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. He says this class-action suit is “completely uncharted territory,” because nobody has ever challenged the familial restrictions placed on Cuban-Americans.
Charney isn’t involved in the Vermont lawsuit, but has handled other cases involving the legal difficulties of traveling between Cuba and the United States. He says the federal government will likely seek to prove it has a “compelling interest” in restricting the fundamental constitutional right of Americans to be with their families. To do so, Charney says, government lawyers will have to prove that the policy is “narrowly tailored” to accomplish the government’s stated policy goal — namely, effecting regime change in Cuba. While that “compelling interest’ may be difficult to prove, the New York lawyer predicts that the plaintiffs will also face an uphill battle.
That said, as the case gathers notoriety in the coming weeks, Carter and his plaintiffs will likely pick up some influential allies, include Carlos Lazo.
Lazo, a Cuban-born American, first tried to flee Cuba in 1988, but his raft was intercepted by the Cuban Coast Guard. He spent a year in prison before he and five other “balseros” or “rafters,” succeeded in making the 90-mile journey through the Florida Straits in 1991. (According to one estimate, at least 30 percent of Cubans who attempt the trip never make it.)
Lazo became an American citizen and later relocated to Seattle, where he enlisted in the Washington State National Guard. In 2004, he was deployed for his first tour of duty in Iraq, where, as a combat medic, he spent six months treating Iraqi war prisoners before being assigned to a Marine regiment heading into the Battle of Falluja. Upon his return, Lazo was awarded the Bronze Star for rescuing wounded Marines during the firefight.
In June 2005, during a two-week leave, Lazo tried to board a plane in Miami bound for Havana to visit one of his two teenage sons, who was hospitalized in Cuba with a serious infection. He was stopped by U.S. immigration officials, who told him that because he’d last visited Cuba in 2003, he was prohibited from returning until 2006.
A reporter in the airport overheard the conversation and wrote a story about it in a Miami newspaper, which was later picked up by the international press. As a result, in October 2005, Lazo’s sons were granted tourist visas to see their father in Seattle.
Although Lazo’s sons have since resettled in the United States, he continues to be an outspoken critic of the travel ban, and has met with at least 150 members of Congress to make his case.
“I don’t think that restricting families from going over there is going to help in any way the cause of democratization of Cuban society,” Lazo says. “The family shouldn’t be a tool for the improvement of the political situation over there.”
Though Lazo had not heard of the Vermont lawsuit, last week he offered the plaintiffs his support. “I will help in any way I can,” he says, “to serve as a witness or any other way, to finish this cruelty against the Cuban people.”