lunes, 16 de octubre de 2017

Canadian who brought donations said: “They treated me like a criminal”

 Carl-Michel Cloutier in Cuba

A Canadian who went to Cuba to distribute donations for hurricane Irma’s victims says he went through “an ordeal” in the hands of Cuban authorities. He was arrested, questioned during four hours, threatened with prison and unable to leave the country, his camera and cell phone were taken from him. Carl-Michel Cloutier, a Canadian citizen married to a Cuban, says that after this stressful experience he will never set foot in that city. “I thought I was going to end up in jail,” he added.

This good Samaritan had informed the Cuban Embassy in Canada of the purpose of his trip, because he wanted his humanitarian cargo to be exempt from customs duties when he arrived in Havana on September 21. At the Cuban Consulate in Montreal, Mara Bilbao Díaz issued a document for custom authorities, stating he was taking with him 19 pieces of luggage weighing 25 kilos each with “a cargo of donated used clothes, toys and canned food for hurricane Irma’s victims in the village of Isabela de Sagua, in the Province of Villa Clara,” but had promised him nothing in that sense. “Mr. Cloutier has been duly informed about Cuban customs regulations. Please use this document as an information note,” the document also stated.

Carl-Michel Cloutier finally arrived with 19 suitcases full of donations but was only able to take out nine into the country; his mother-in-law and a friend, Patrick Ménard, came with him. He paid customs duties worth 100 convertible pesos ($125 Canadian dollars). The other suitcases Mr. Cloutier had to leave at the airport. His wife’s family lives in the Villa Clara province, not far from the Isabela de Sagua village, where the September 9 hurricane destroyed 70% of its buildings. To help the victims, they obtained donations from relatives and friends, and from the Albert-Schweitzer and Voyage LM schools in Saint-Bruno-de Montarville. Carl-Michel Cloutier and Patrick Ménard handed out these donations last week in the devastated town. “Devastation was extreme, houses completely destroyed or severely damaged by the hurricane,” he wrote in an exchange of text messages after his visit. “Families were trying to pick up whatever was left. People were sleeping in a bed with their children in the middle of their house with no roof or walls. The scene was terrible.”

“We handed out the donations and many shared their stories with us. They were grateful, but it was very painful for Patrick and I to hear about those human tragedies.” Afterward, at a highway checkpoint, both Canadians and Mr. Cloutier’s parents-in-law were arrested by the police and taken to a police station, where their telephones and cameras were confiscated. “A man in a military uniform from the Departamento de Inmigración (Immigration Department) and another, in civilian clothes, from Seguridad Nacional (National Security), interrogated me for more than four hours about our visit and the donations we made,” said Carl-Michel Cloutier. “They explained to me that it is illegal to make humanitarian donations without going through the government.” According to him, the atmosphere was very tense and the questioning was carried out in a harsh tone. “They treated me like a criminal,” he says.

He managed to get his interviewers to understand he had a diplomatic document from the Cuban Consulate in Montreal explaining his humanitarian mission, and was escorted to his in-law’s house to pick it up. Mr. Cloutier was released after six hours.

Worried, they left the city to travel to Varadero, where a Canadian Consulate is located. The following day, Carl-Michel Cloutier received a call from his parents-in-law: the police requested that he return to meet with the authorities or he would not be able to leave the country and his parents-in-law could be arrested. “We were under much stress before Canadian Consulate personnel confirmed 24 hours later that we would have no problem with the justice system,” he said with relief.

Other Canadians have express their intention to help victims going there over the next weeks, something Mr. Cloutier advises against. The Embassy of Cuba in Ottawa has not replied our many requests about the regulations that must be complied with. “All visitors to Cuba must comply with regulations,” the Embassy’s First Secretary Mariem Martínez, simply said. “It is not recommended that people travel to Cuba with donations without  firm arrangements through an official associate,” a World Affairs of Canada spokesperson replied by email after our requests for information from the Canadian Embassy in Havana. Cuban customs may confiscate any imported objects not regarded for tourists’ personal use, and may apply high taxes to personal luggage weighing more than 30 kilos or for medicines weighing more than 10 kilos.

The Canadian World Affairs Department suggests the best way to help people affected by the tragedy is to offer cash donations to humanitarian organizations already working in the field.

Source: La Presse.Ca. Spanish translation by Francisco Condis y Troyano, Emeritus Professor of Economy (Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium), former advisor to the Industry Ministry in Poland, CID Executive Committee member, CID Representative before the European Union.


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