You can’t go home again

The U.S. ban on travel to Cuba devastates local families



A rare visit to SLO next week by a musician from Cuba brings into the spotlight the U.S. ban on travel to and from our Caribbean neighbor. It’s a prohibition that hits especially close to home for two prominent local Cuban-Americans who aren’t allowed to go back to see their families.

ROOTS IN CUBA:  Cuban musician Pablo MenÈndez (left) and local Cuban-American George “Jorge� MilanÈs are impacted by U.S. travel restrictions. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTRAL COAST CUBAN AMERICAN ALLIANCE
  • ROOTS IN CUBA: Cuban musician Pablo MenÈndez (left) and local Cuban-American George “Jorgeâ€? MilanÈs are impacted by U.S. travel restrictions.
# Delvis Fernandez, the founder and president of the national Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, would like to take his blind 88-year-old mother Sara to Cuba to visit with her diabetic 86-year-old sister, whose leg was recently amputated. But their proposed trip is illegal under the U.S. Administration’s tightening regulations.
George “Jorge� MilanÈs of Los Osos wants to travel to Havana to see his dying 94-year-old aunt, Tia Carmen, who—in a typical Cuban extended family custom—helped raise him. However, U.S. rules forbid him to go.
“What are we as a society if we violate the basic rights of the most fundamental part of civilization, the family?� asks Fernandez, who moved from his Washington, D.C. office to See Canyon to be closer to his sons and grandchildren.
“There is such pain among Cuban-Americans because of family separation. I want American people to be aware that the policy of the Bush Administration has exacerbated a tremendous problem,� he adds.
Although other Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba at all, Cuban-Americans are now allowed one trip every three years to visit family members. But under the new rules, “family� has been redefined only as mother, father, sister or brother. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews don’t qualify—which is the reason Fernandez is not allowed to accompany his aging mother on a visit to her sister.
“We could be detained, we could be arrested, if we go to see our family, if we unite two elderly people, two loving sisters, in the twilight of their lives,� Fernandez says with a deep sigh.
Administration officials say the travel ban is aimed at supporting the U.S. embargo and restricting the flow of funds to Fidel Castro’s government, thereby hastening a regime change. That’s also the reason Cubans are not permitted to travel into the U.S., where they might earn money.
Cuban guitarist and composer Pablo MenÈndez, who comes to Cuesta College April 17, is virtually the only musician currently allowed to travel back and forth. But he’s a special case. Born in Oakland, California, Pablo MenÈndez went to Cuba in 1966, at age 14, to visit his father and study music. He’s been living and playing music there ever since, an active part of the Cuban music scene.
Members of MenÈndez’ Grammy-nominated band Mezcla (Spanish for “mixture�) are not allowed to accompany him, so instead of a concert, he’ll give a multimedia tribute to Cuban music. The event is cosponsored by the Central Coast Cuban American Alliance, a local group founded by MilanÈs after he revisited his birthplace in Cuba in 2000.
MilanÈs first met Pablo MenÈndez 12 years ago, while attending a Northern California concert of Mezcla promoted by Carlos Santana. “Mezcla is the cleanest, freshest water I have ever tasted,� gushes Santana.
Impressed by the band leader’s blend of traditional African rhythms, Cuban songs, jazz, blues, and rock, MilanÈs made a point of seeing Pablo MenendÈz’ concert at Havana’s premier jazz club, La Zorra y El Cuervo (The Fox and the Skunk). He’s stayed in contact, and invited the Cuban musician to the Central Coast for next week’s Cuesta College presentation.
With the Bush Administration’s new definition of “family� for Cuban-Americans, MilanÈs cannot legally travel to Havana again, since he has only aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews there. His California-born children are not allowed a first-hand experience of their Cuban roots. “How gross is that, to hinge foreign policy on the separation of families, especially for a ‘family values’ kind of guy,� MilanÈs fumes.
When Milanes was three, during Cuba’s revolutionary struggle, a government-issued military bullet pierced the wall above his crib, so his uncle put him on a plane in Havana to join his parents in Miami. For MilanÈs, going back to Cuba after living 40 years in the U.S. was “life-altering.�
“Stepping on Cuban soil in 2000, I almost got weak in the knees with the flush of feelings. I felt like I was home,� MilanÈs says. Now, he says, to be legally allowed to visit, he would have to marry a Cuban—and would be allowed to see her only once every three years, even if they had children there.
Fernandez’ story has a similar ring. He arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in 1957 at the age of 17 to attend college in Salt Lake City. With limited English skills, he enrolled in mathematics classes, eventually obtaining his Ph.D. and becoming a college math professor in the Bay Area.
Returning to Cuba to see his younger sister 22 years later was a dramatic experience for him. He had last seen her when she was just four years old. “You have the hunger for connection, for commonality of day-to-day experiences, all those little things of life we’re missing—that’s what creates love,� Fernandez says.
Later, his sister suffered an aneurysm, and her family in the U.S. couldn’t go see her before she passed away. The experience was a catalyst for Fernandez to form the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, which advocates for expanded trade, especially of food and medical supplies, and more liberal visitation policies. He’s lobbied Congressional lawmakers, and last year testified before the U.S. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
But the U.S. rules on travel and trade keep tightening up, in spite of his efforts. Even educational and arts exchanges, like the one that took the SLO’s Academy of Dance to Cuba in 2000, are no longer allowed.
Some Americans are refusing to follow the Administration’s directives on Cuban travel, lured by the forbidden fruit that’s closer to the U.S. than Santa Barbara is to SLO. In spite of the risk of fines up to $65,000, according to the Los Angeles Times, “many� Americans fly to Havana through the back door, from Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas, or Mexico. At least 500 Americans were fined last year for traveling to Cuba, according to the Times.
From Fernandez’ point of view, most Americans are not aware of the U.S. Administration’s travel restrictions. “You’ll find every American you talk to rejects the U.S. policy. We have to expose this cruelty so people will rise up and say, ‘This is not right.’ There comes a time when you have to say, ‘Basta,’ that’s enough.� 
Surrounded in his See Canyon office by Cuban books, photos, and a bust of JosÈ Marti, Fernandez quotes the Cuban national hero: “To see a crime and do nothing is to commit that crime.� ∆

Award-winning journalist Kathy Johnston may be reached at


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