October 11 , 2007

The Miami Herald

2 used 'church' to violate Cuba travel ban

Two South Florida men who used illegal religious licenses to skirt a Cuba travel ban are set to be sentenced.

Jay Weaver. [email protected] 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 island nation.

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,'' agents said.

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 on paper.

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 "churches.''

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 than religion.

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 over loudspeakers.

''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 day.

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. [email protected] 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 political table.

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 to power.

''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 collapses.

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, be re-adopted.

o That all political prisoners be immediately released.

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 by force.

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. [email protected] 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 of healthcare.''

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 each year.

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. doctors can't.

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 bigger.''

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 Medical.

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 United States.

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 options.

''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 for interviews.


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 says.

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 services.''


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