The Miami Herald
2 used 'church' to violate Cuba travel
Two South Florida men
who used illegal religious licenses to skirt
a Cuba travel ban are set to be sentenced.
Jay Weaver. jweaver@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Thu, Oct. 11, 2007.
Posing as men of the cloth, businessman
Victor Vazquez and his wealthy friend David
Margolis flew back and forth to Cuba by
cleverly exploiting a religious loophole
in the long-standing travel ban to the communist
On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2006, a team
of U.S. Treasury and Customs agents finally
caught up with them upon their return to
Miami International Airport.
When asked about the Fort Lauderdale waterfront
home that he used as a ''church'' to obtain
his religious license, Margolis admitted,
"You have me dead to rights.''
Vazquez, at first defensive, admitted he
assisted Margolis in preparing his application
and that ''he knew the church did not exist,''
Vazquez, 40, of Delray Beach, and Margolis,
76, of Fort Lauderdale, would soon become
the nation's first defendants to be charged
with illegally obtaining religious travel
licenses to get around the 44-year-old travel
ban to Cuba.
Vazquez, who had obtained five such licenses
illegally, profited by selling his permits
to thousands of Cuban Americans seeking
to dodge restrictions that became even tighter
under the Bush administration.
Last month, a court presentencing report
said Vazquez sold the use of his licenses
to 6,500 travelers -- estimating the government's
''loss'' and his ''gain'' at $975,000. His
attorney, Celeste Higgins, called it a ''reckless
estimate.'' She said the government suffered
no loss and Vazquez pocketed between $120,000
and $400,000, citing his plea deal.
Vazquez and Margolis, who recently pleaded
guilty, will be sentenced Friday and Monday,
respectively, in Miami federal court. Vazquez
could face up to three years in prison for
conspiring to defraud the U.S. government.
Margolis, convicted of a lesser charge of
filing a false government application, faces
up to six months but could get probation.
The yearlong investigation -- which also
led to the conviction of Vazquez's ex-wife
and a Hialeah travel agent -- revealed a
profitable scheme that allowed thousands
of Cuban Americans to shuttle to and from
the island. It has spawned other investigations
by a U.S. attorney's task force targeting
violators of the trade embargo against Cuba.
In the case of Vazquez and Margolis, it
was all done in the name of God -- at least
The case against Vazquez began in January
2006 when investigators with the Treasury
Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control
found an extraordinary number of people
had traveled on his permits -- and many
of them didn't live anywhere near his licensed
Such licenses represent one of the few
exemptions that allow travel to Cuba under
the U.S. trade embargo. They gained greater
value in 2004 after President Bush imposed
rules allowing only one trip every three
years to visit an immediate family member.
Federal agents discovered that Vazquez
obtained religious travel licenses from
the Treasury agency ''under false pretenses,''
according to a criminal complaint filed
in February by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Agents learned that Vazquez, who was living
with ex-wife Kekalani Vazquez in Winter
Garden in Central Florida, had first applied
for a religious license in March 2004. The
application sought the license under The
First Church of Christ, using Vazquez's
residence as its address. The religious
information was false.
Treasury officials estimated that more
than 2,000 people traveled to Cuba on Vazquez's
religious license through April 2006, when
it expired. Vazquez took 45 trips to the
island himself, the ICE complaint says.
That's when Margolis entered the picture.
On March 17, 2006, Vazquez turned to his
friend to apply for a religious license
for travel to Cuba on behalf of Assumption
Church of Christ. Margolis signed the application,
listed his $1.7 million waterfront home
on Middle River Drive as the church's address
and noted that it ''has 2,954 members and
four directors,'' according to the complaint.
His attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, said his
client made five Cuba trips with the license
but didn't do any religious work.
Vazquez fabricated four other phony ministries
with bogus addresses in Florida and elsewhere
to apply for religious licenses for travel
to Cuba. He also enlisted his ex-wife in
the scheme. Kekalani Vazquez recently pleaded
guilty and faces up to six months in prison.
More than 4,500 people paid up to $200
to travel on three of Vazquez's religious
licenses between April 2006 and January
2007, the ICE complaint said.
Among local travel agencies that handled
arrangements was Super Cuba Travel of Hialeah.
One of its salespeople, Yury Rodriguez,
pleaded guilty this summer.
His attorney, Hugo Rodriguez, no relation,
said 1,010 people used Super Cuba to travel
under Vazquez's religious license. Vazquez
charged between $120 and $200 for the use
of his permit. All that money went to him,
the lawyer said.
''There was no loss to any victim or the
government,'' Rodriguez said, estimating
that his client made $20,200 in fees for
booking the Cuba flights with a carrier.
He faces up to six months' imprisonment.
During their illegal trips, Vazquez and
Margolis seemed more interested in romance
Vazquez, who is living under house arrest
with his mother in Delray Beach, got married
last year to a young Cuban woman who is
trying to come to the United States, court
records show. ''He became an additional
member of our family. To such an extent
that on the day he proposed marriage, neither
I or my family hesitated in accepting,''
his bride, Dayana Betancourt Mojena, 21,
wrote in a letter to the federal judge presiding
over the case.
Margolis, a Fort Lauderdale real estate
mogul with serious heart problems, made
arrangements for his Cuban girlfriend to
come to South Florida in September.
Fidel, Cuba pay homage to Che
By Anita Snow, Associated
Press. Posted on Tue, Oct. 09, 2007.
HAVANA -- Fidel Castro paid homage to Ernesto
''Che'' Guevara as an ''exceptional combatant''
as many of the Argentine guerrilla's relatives
and former comrades gathered in central
Cuba to mark the 40th anniversary of his
capture and killing in Bolivia.
Castro, who has not been seen in public
since undergoing intestinal surgery and
ceding power to his brother Raúl
more than 14 months ago, did not attend
Monday's low-key ceremony in Santa Clara
-- one of several tributes to the guerrilla
leader being held around the Americas.
Still, a government presenter read his
message to several thousand people gathered
before the towering bronze statue of Guevara
built in Santa Clara. A previously made
recording of Castro reading a letter Guevara
wrote to him four decades ago was also broadcast
''I halt in my daily combat to bow my head,
with respect and gratitude, to the exceptional
combatant who fell on the 8th of October
40 years ago,'' Castro wrote in the essay,
which was also published Monday in the Communist
Party daily Granma. "I give him thanks
for what he tried to do, and for what he
could not do in his country of birth because
he was like a flower yanked prematurely
from its stem.''
Soldiers captured Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967,
in Bolivia, where he was trying to foment
an uprising, and executed him in the small
mountain community of La Higuera the next
Plan for post-Castro Cuba outlined
A local exile group has
released what is believed to be the first
set of guidelines to encourage democracy
in Cuba -- after Fidel Castro is gone.
By Luisa Yanez. lyanez@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Mon, Oct. 08, 2007.
In a new Cuba, the Communist Party is banned.
The wrongs of Fidel Castro's almost 50-year
regime will be set right with Nuremberg-style
trials. And as the island's future is carved
out, Miami exiles would have a spot at the
Those are among the mandates issued by
Unidad Cubana, a group that largely promotes
the conservative ideals of South Florida's
''historical exile'' -- the long-time Cubans
whose lives were derailed by Castro's rise
''This is a plan for democratic action
for our country,'' popular Radio Mambí
710-AM host Armando Pérez-Roura told
hundreds of exiles who packed into Manuel
Artime Community Center in the heart of
Little Havana on a recent rainy night.
Dubbed ''The Declaration from Miami,''
the guide for a free Cuba is the first to
emerge since an ailing Castro handed power
to his brother Raúl last year. It
cautions that its goal is to prevent ''last-minute''
mistakes when -- not if -- Cuba's government
First and foremost, the declaration denounces
any idea that a monarchy-like succession
from Fidel to Raúl would be tolerated
by exiles as a green light to negotiate
with Raúl's government. ''That will
not be allowed,'' Pérez-Roura said.
Raúl Castro said recently he was
willing to meet with Cubans who have left
the island -- a strategy the Cuban government
has employed before, courting liberals and
some moderates open to dialogue with Havana.
The declaration's other proposed legal
and constitutional reforms include:
o That Cuba's democratic 1940 Constitution,
considered the island's most ambitious,
o That all political prisoners be immediately
o That no Cubans on the island be removed
from their current homes -- a position that
addresses Castro's claims that returning
exiles would want to reclaim their property
o The formation of tribunals to bring to
justice military commanders, interior ministry
officers and others responsible for the
"Cuban national tragedy.''
o Establishment of an electoral process
for municipal, provincial and national elections
leading up to a presidential election.
o Rebirth of political parties that favor
a multiparty democratic system.
o Ban of the Communist Party.
Some Cuba watchers say those steps echo
a United States plan for when Castro dies,
but it's anyone's guess if such a plan would
work in Cuba.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute
for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at
the University of Miami, said Unidad Cubana's
suggestions might be premature.
It's yet unclear if the end of Castro will
mean the end of the communist dictatorship
in Cuba, a la Eastern Europe following the
Berlin Wall collapse, he said.
''There are several models Cuba may follow,''
Suchlicki said. "If Cuba is like a
typical Eastern European country, it calls
for a total collapse of the ruling party
in place. But if the Cuba model is more
like Vietnam or China, where the end of
communism will be gradual, then that may
take some time.''
Suchlicki said Castro already has passed
power to his brother and the Cuban military
is firmly in place. That's more akin to
the transition model from father to son
in communist North Korea, he said.
Closing the door to the Communist Party
doesn't always work, he said.
"Some Eastern European countries banned
the Communist Party, but . . . [the party]
just reinvents itself as some other type
of social democrats.''
Other exiles praised Unidad Cubana's mandate,
as they prepare their own position papers.
Huber Matos, once a guerrilla leader for
Castro who was later jailed for 20 years,
said the decade-old umbrella group Accord
for Democracy has also recently been meeting
with leaders from Hungary and Poland. The
group has incorporated its findings into
its long-standing ''plan for a new Cuba''
paper, he said.
Matos, head of Cuba Independent and Democratic,
said the umbrella group is working closely
with organized dissidents inside the island
and military officials.
''Those two groups will be the key to bringing
about real change in Cuba,'' Matos said.
"They know that Marxism and Lenism
have failed and that Cuba is a disaster
and something needs to be done.''
Canadian firms offer Cuban healthcare
to U.S. Canadian patients
Two Canadian companies
are offering to send U.S. and Canadian patients
to get healthcare in Cuba for reduced prices.
By John Dorschner. jdorschner@MiamiHerald.com.
Posted on Sun, Oct. 07, 2007
In the burgeoning business of traveling
overseas for medical treatment, two Canadian
companies hope to make an imprint by offering
healthcare to Canadian and U.S. residents
in socialist Cuba.
''We looked throughout Latin America or
the Caribbean for a cheap source of medical
services,'' says Daren Jorgenson, owner
of Choice Medical Services in Winnipeg.
"Cuba is well known for high standards
Some experts dispute the reference to high
standards, but no one disputes the prices.
Hip replacement, which can cost up to $38,000
in the United States, can be done in Cuba
for $7,600, Jorgenson says. A tummy tuck
can be had for $2,800, compared with $5,200
in the United States.
Soaring costs in the United States and
a growing number of uninsured have emboldened
patients to look overseas for healthcare.
The Florida-based Medical Tourism Association
estimates that several hundred thousand
Americans now travel for health services
Many countries -- from India to Mexico
-- have become popular destinations for
patients, and many entrepreneurs in the
United States and elsewhere have set up
companies to facilitate the process.
Cuba is a special case, because the U.S.
embargo makes it illegal for Americans to
spend money there for treatment.
Three South Florida experts on Cuban healthcare
say foreigners with dollars receive much
better care than Cubans, but still there
could be problems getting treatment in Cuba.
And a Miami ophthalmologist disputes the
claims of another Canadian company, which
says Cuba's doctors are able to prevent
a type of blindness that Canadian and U.S.
Still, Milica Z. Bookman, co-author of
Medical Tourism in Developing Countries,
says Cuba has ''the infrastructure and a
well-trained workforce. They're poised to
take off'' as a major healthcare destination
for Americans if or when the embargo ends.
''Cuba already is a destination for Spaniards
and Italians and many others,'' says Bookman,
who with U.S. government permission plans
to travel to Cuba next month to study its
healthcare system. ". . . They're pushing
this -- it's big and it's going to be much
Leaders of both Canadian firms acknowledge
the irony of Canadians, who have a government
healthcare system in which everyone is guaranteed
treatment, going to Cuba for surgery.
''It's a political scandal here,'' says
Alexandre ''Sandy'' Rhéaume, of Health
Services International in Frampton, Quebec.
"People are waiting 12 to 18 months
for certain kinds of surgery.''
Rhéaume and Jorgenson say Michael
Moore's movie Sicko did a fine job of describing
Cuba's healthcare but was flat wrong about
no waits for care in Canada. ''Moore is
out to lunch'' in ''the stuff he says about
Canada,'' Jorgenson says.
For Americans without health insurance,
Cuba's lower prices are the lure. A Georgia
carpenter says he was delighted to get Cuban
care. "I've been hurting, and I was
looking outside the United States for something
I could afford.''
The carpenter, who refused to reveal his
name because he was violating U.S. law by
breaking the embargo, talked with The Miami
Herald in a phone interview set up by Choice
The man, in his early 60s, suffered from
a torn rotator cuff that made working impossible.
Without insurance, shoulder surgery could
have cost him $14,000 to $20,000 in the
After researching on the Internet, he found
that Choice Medical could arrange for the
same surgery for $4,000 at Clínica
Cira Central García in Havana. The
price didn't include airfare but did cover
nine days in the country, a personal tour
guide and some sightseeing while recovering.
Later, the man talked with The Miami Herald
from Havana. ''It came out real good,''
he said of the surgery. The hospital was
"better than I expected. All the people
are so friendly.''
Asked if he was given special treatment
because it was rare for them to see a U.S.
citizen, he said, "No, there are a
lot of Americans down here.''
Experts say the Georgia man clearly received
the best care Cuba had to offer -- and far
better than most Cubans get. ''There are
three tiers,'' says Jaime Suchlicki, head
of Cuban studies at the University of Miami.
''There's foreigners paying in dollars.
The second is for the [Communist] party
and the military, and then there's the common
people,'' who often have to wait for treatment
and have a hard time getting needed prescriptions.
But ''Cuba has a good foreign medical operation,''
which it has been promoting for years, Suchlicki
says. "Probably the doctors are as
good as any doctors. The facilities are
fairly good by Canadian or European standards.
I wouldn't have a heart operation in Cuba.
But a face-lift? Sure.''
Jesús Monzon, an obstetrician-gynecologist
who left Cuba in 1995, says that while diagnostic
tests were difficult for Cubans to get in
Pinar del Río, where he practiced,
they were readily available for foreigners
treated in Havana. Regular doctors had no
access to the latest clinical developments,
but those dealing with foreigners did.
René Rodriguez, a Cuban-born physician
now living in Miami, thinks Cuba would be
a ''lousy place'' to have surgery. "If
anything happens to them there, what are
they going to do? The doctors there are
not responsible. We have a legal system
that makes doctors responsible.''
In fact, legal recourse and follow-up care
after surgery are issues for foreigners
receiving care in many countries.
Both Canadian companies just started this
year. Jorgenson, owner of Choice Medical,
is a major pharmacist-entrepreneur in Winnipeg
with investments in clinics, a hotel, a
salon and a spa.
Jorgenson said he was exploring healthcare
business opportunities in India when he
realized how large medical tourism had grown
there. He started to look at Western Hemisphere
''There are all sorts of rogue operations
in Mexico along the U.S. border,'' Jorgenson
says. ". . . Cuba was clearly the safest
place to deal with. . . . We've had Canadians
go down and observe surgeries and stuff.
They might say the equipment is not the
latest and greatest, but the procedures
and techniques are sound.''
''We are not taking high-risk patients,''
Jorgenson says. But surgeries for hip, knee,
shoulder -- all elective procedures that
Canadians have to wait for -- can be done
in Cuba. Jorgenson called Cuba's healthcare
system ''almost like Fidel's oil,'' because
it attracts so many who have hard currency.
The people who run the other Canadian company,
HSI, are considerably less known than Jorgenson.
Its founder, Lucie Vermette, has described
herself as a Quebec businesswoman who says
she became interested in Cuba after waiting
for six months to see a specialist.
Rhéaume, the company's vice president,
says HSI is a nonprofit dedicated to getting
people good, cheap care. Unlike Choice Medical,
which attempts to get the entire medical
bill paid upfront, HSI charges a $250 filing
fee to set up the paperwork for a patient
to go to Cuba. The patient pays the medical
bill in Cuba, and HSI gets 10 percent of
that as its fee, Rhéaume says.
The company promises a lot. An HSI press
release says two of its clients were told
by Canadian doctors that they would go blind
because Canada had no treatment for their
degenerative disease, retinitis pigmentosa.
But after the two patients went to Cuba,
the company boasted that ''these two clients
of HSI will not go blind!!!'' The press
release gave the full names of the two patients,
but Rhéaume said they were not available
SKEPTICAL OF CLAIMS
Doctors in Cuba have been treating retinitis
pigmentosa for years, but U.S. experts are
skeptical about HSI's claims of Cuba's prowess.
Nina Berrocal of the Bascom Palmer Eye
Institute in Miami says she recently examined
a patient in Puerto Rico who had gone to
Cuba for treatment of the disease. He said
his vision might have stabilized for a while,
but then he went blind. ''Basically, the
cells die, and nobody can stop that,'' Berrocal
Bill Doran, chief executive of Choice Medical
Services, says the company thought that
most of its customers would be Canadians.
"But almost 50 percent of the inquiries
were from the United States. . . . We wouldn't
be doing this if people didn't need the