By Suzanne Pardington | The Oregonian
A humanitarian aid group from the First Unitarian Church of Portland was detained today at the Havana airport.
Carol Slegers, a group leader, sent an e-mail to church members saying nine people were being held in the airport and five others were sent back to Cancun, where their Cuba flight originated.
Paul Pitkin, a church member who stayed in Portland, said he called a friend in Cuba who was able to talk to Slegers through a glass partition at the airport. Slegers told the friend the group will sleep tonight at the airport and then return to Cancun on Sunday morning.
“They have made lots of trips before, so we’re not exactly sure what’s different this time,” Pitkin said. “It sounded like they all were OK, but they were going to be sleeping on the floor in the airport.”
Pitkin said the group left Portland late Friday night. He didn’t know what work they were planning to do in Cuba.
Carol Rossio, a church member, said she went on the church’s first trip to Cuba with the choir in 2003. Since then, she said a group has gone at least twice a year for projects such as painting buildings, helping people in nursing homes and transporting medicine and clothing.
She said the trips began after Mark Slegers, Carol’s husband and the choir director, met a Cuban choir director who invited the choir to sing in Cuba.
Generally, the United States prohibits citizens from visiting the country. The church’s Web site says the group, called Cuba AyUUda, “holds a religious activities license providing legal travel to Cuba for those affiliated with First Unitarian Church.”
“The purpose of these trips,” the site says, “is to share Unitarian Universalism, foster citizen diplomacy, create and maintain friendships, bring much needed supplies to Cubans, and keep the struggles of the Cuban people on the radar screen for U.S. Americans.”