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Friday, Apr 18, 2014
National Politics

Tampa couple’s plan to visit Cuba dashed

Tribune staff
Published:
TAMPA -

Hoping to visit family they hadn’t seen in years, Modesta and Robert Balsa spent more than $3,000 with a local travel agency that specializes in flights to Cuba.

They paid for plane tickets, Cuban passports and visas through the Tampa travel agency, Flor Caribe, and eagerly awaited their June 30 departure date.

Then, last month, they learned in a phone call that Flor Caribe never bought the tickets. They’re out the money and the family reunion is off.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Modesta Balsa, 51. “It’s very painful to see our own people would do something like this.”

Theirs is one of two dozen sad stories about dreams of a visit to Cuba dashed because of Flor Caribe, a local travel agency that assists Cubans living in the United States and others who can legally visit Cuba.

It turns out the federal government, for reasons as full of complexity and intrigue as relations between the two nations themselves, suspended the travel agency’s license in March.

In Tampa, agencies that book flights to Cuba have drawn business from local Cuban-Americans for decades. With the opening of direct flights from Tampa in 2011, they’re busier than ever.

An estimated 70,000 people have flown from Tampa International Airport to Cuba. The airport offers four flights a week.

This would have been the first return home for Modesta Balsa and her husband, Robert. They were to take their two American-born children.

Robert Balsa left Cuba on a raft in 1994 and never intended to go back. But a brother died there three years ago, and in December Balsa had a cancerous tumor removed from his spine. Those experiences motivated him to reconnect with family, especially his mother, who still lives in Havana.

They made flight and Cuban passport arrangements with Flor Caribe, 2526 W. Tampa Bay Blvd., which had been in business in Tampa since 1999.

Then in May, Modesta Balsa received a call from another local Cuban travel agency asking if she was still interested in the June 30 reservations. They were still available but were never paid for.

Her anger reverberated throughout her house, she said.

She called Flor Caribe’s office and got an apologetic recording saying the federal government had revoked its license and the office was closed.

She would like to book another flight to Cuba, but she and her husband didn’t get the two Cuban passports they ordered through Flor Caribe. The agency was supposed to order them through the island nation’s Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. — a process that can take several months.

Modesta Balsa has had no luck dealing with the Cuban Interest Section directly.

“We weren’t planning to travel through the island, just go straight to his mom’s,” she said.

Vicente Amor, majority owner of Flor Caribe, said his license to act as a travel agent for flights to Cuba was revoked by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In a March letter to Flor Caribe, the office said that Flor Caribe had failed to comply with its rules in a number of ways:

Transferring majority ownership from José Rangel to Amor without making the proper request to the U.S. government. Amor said he presented a document in 2010; the federal office said it has no record of a request or approval.

Allowing Albert Fox of Tampa, founder of Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, to serve as a “direct manager” for Flor Caribe and travel to Cuba to sign a contract without the proper authority.

Failing to screen travelers. Flor Caribe accepted money from Fox for groups traveling to Cuba using a license that wasn’t issued to Fox.

Fox told the Tribune, “That’s just nonsense.”

“They’ve been looking for over three years, harassing Vicente Amor,” said Fox, who like Amor seeks to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba and normalize relations between the countries.

“Why? They don’t like his political views.”

The rule violations cited don’t warrant putting Amor out of business, Fox said.

“Did he sell drugs? Did he kill somebody? He just had political views that someone in this town didn’t like. And that’s just not right,” Fox said.

Flor Caribe could continue to assist current customers even after receiving the letter about its violations but it couldn’t take on new clients.

This Tuesday, according to the letter, the license will be revoked.

“If the United States government hadn’t shut him down unjustly, none of this would have been happening,” Fox said.

Amor said he closed the office May 29 because he couldn’t meet expenses.

Amor, 45, of Tampa, said 75 clients still have a trip to Cuba reserved through Flor Caribe. He estimates 24 won’t make it because he never bought the plane tickets they gave him money for.

“We weren’t able to pay the airline,” Amor said.

The federal shutdown hurt his cash flow, he said.

Amor also invested in the inaugural Cuban Cultural Fest held in May in Ybor City and lost $12,000 to $15,000 from his savings on the event.

That money could have helped support the business, he said.

Amor said he never used customers’ money for personal gain.

“I didn’t use it to buy a watch, a car or a house.”

Amor said he’s the victim of a personal attack by Cuban conservatives in the Tampa area who disagree with his stand in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba.

Once others got wind of his political views, it hurt his business, he said.

He said he was visited by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and by an FBI agent who accused him of spying for Cuba, Amor said.

Four of his clients told him they, too, received a visit from the FBI and were told Flor Caribe was under investigation, Amor said.

Amor has written a letter to his customers explaining what happened and said he plans to repay them. He’s insured for up to $25,000 in losses, he said. Cuban passports that were ordered will be delivered, he said. “We suffered the pain of these clients.”

Modesta Balsa has filed a grievance against Flor Caribe with the federal government and has contacted the Tampa Police Department, where a sergeant, she said, told her the matter is under review by the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.

Tampa police confirmed they are aware of the case and are looking into it.

Recently, Balsa gazed over the luggage and essentials bought over a period of months for relatives on the impoverished island. She still hopes to take them to family members living on the impoverished island.

“I got so upset. Now it’s all sitting there.”


jpatino@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7659

Twitter: @jpatinoTBO

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