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Posted February 19, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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Humanitarian trip overcomes many hurdles

By Larry Benvenuti | Keynoter Contributor

Editor’s note: Middle Keys photographer Larry Benvenuti has traveled to Cuba 15 times since 1993, on humanitarian trips and to record on film the island’s beauty. Here, he recounts the difficulties of getting permission on his most recent trip, in October.

A humanitarian effort to bring medicine, school supplies and other aid to Cuba in the fall came to fruition, despite the indecision of the U.S. Treasury Department. The trip took place not as planned, but in an improvised fashion.

Most Americans are denied travel to Cuba because of U.S. policies and regulations. Under the Helms-Burton Bill, spending money in Cuba amounts to trading with the enemy.

Exempt from the ban are humanitarian missions, which still must be approved by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In addition to obtaining approval from that agency, taking goods to Cuba requires a U.S. Commerce Department export license. Without the approval of both, U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba risk substantial fines and prosecution, even if there was no proof that money was spent.

I had been to Cuba 14 times since 1993. The trips were licensed and involved taking and distributing humanitarian supplies to various locations in Cuba. In addition, I served as a photojournalist under the auspices of Keynoter, whose staff can receive permission to go to the island nation under an exemption for journalists.

I was well aware of the U.S. policy and knew that I would have to be specific as to where our group would go, what it planned to do while there, and when this would be done. Despite the obstacles, 10 people expressed interest in the mission.

Two had boats that would be able to carry the needed goods to Cuba. Myself and others had collected medicine, clothing, and school goods for months, donated from all over the country.

I mailed applications for both a humanitarian and a photojournalist license in June 2003, four months before the anticipated departure date of Oct. 7. One month later, in July, I received a letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control acknowledging receipt of my request.

By late August, there was no word on the applications. After a few phone calls and messages left on the agency’s answering machine, I received a reply that the request was “still in review and discussion.” More phone calls to legislators and other officials went unanswered.

I contacted the groups I had worked with in the past to see if their licenses were still in effect, and found that groups that had held licenses for years had been denied renewals.

With only a month to go, the outlook for a successful mission was fading fast. The group of 10 was down to four. Both boats backed out, one because of mechanical problems. The group was without a license, without transportation and without the numbers to effectively transport the more than $5,000 in aid.

In mid-September, a friend from New York City suggested I contact an organization called the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund. The organization still held a license that would allow groups to travel to Cuba for humanitarian purposes. Our mission would still have to be scrutinized by the group to validate our motives.

I faxed the same information that I provided to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and with an endorsement from my New York City friend, was given permission by the Education Fund to travel under its license.

The amount of goods that could be transported would be severely limited.

There were only four people who would be making the trip my wife Marianne, Marathon commercial fisherman Bennett Orr and Harold Dett.

Cuban regulations limited duty-free humanitarian aid to 22 pounds of medicine and $50 worth of other goods per person. We would have to either relinquish anything over as donations, or pay 100 percent duty.

Flying from Miami, the airline would charge $1 per pound for anything over the weight limit of 44 pounds per person. Cubana Airlines flying out of Nassau, Bahamas, was a bit more lenient with its weight restrictions.

Though it would take longer in terms of time and cost a bit more for the tickets, I chose Cubana.

Me, Bennett and Marianne left Marathon at 3:30 a.m. Oct. 7 to begin our journey. We met Harold, who lives in Jupiter, in the Bahamas. By late afternoon, us four had landed at Jose Marti Airport outside of Havana. The trip took 12 hours to cover about 100 miles as the crow flies.

After passing Cuban customs inspections, we took taxis to our Cuban version of a bed and breakfast. The next day, we fulfilled the first part of our mission a visit to the Association for the Physically Disabled, where we distributed a large bag full of medicine.

Our mission also took us to Manuel Lazo, about four hours outside of Havana, where we distributed school supplies to a small five-room school, Tranquilino Sandalio de Noda.

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