Cuba trip ends on sour note for ‘Methodist 3’

When most people return from trips to tropical locales, they come back with suntans, postcards and T-shirts.

Instead of mementos, three members of Central United Methodist Church, 639 N. 25th St., have a five-year legal battle and fines of $7,500 each to commemorate their trip to Cuba.

Dollora Greene-Evans, Theron Mills and William Ferguson Jr. were part of a six-member contingent from Central United Methodist Church to visit the Cuban capital of Havana in 1999 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their sister church, La Trinidad.

Upon arriving in Toronto on their return trip — no flights originating in the United States fly into Cuba, and vice versa — the group ran afoul of U.S. Customs Service. The first two white members of the party went through customs without incident, but when the first of the group's two black members tried to go through, the situation changed abruptly.

"They were told 'You need a license. Where's your license?'" said Art Heitzer, a Milwaukee attorney who is helping represent the three travelers.

Customs agents questioned the two black members as well as the white member who stood between them in line about their trip to Cuba. They demanded documents, such as plane tickets, to be photocopied, according to Heitzer, who is also a member of the steering committee of the Wisconsin Coalition to Normalize Relations with Cuba.

Now, Greene-Evans, Mills and Ferguson Jr. — dubbed "The Methodist Three" — have been fined $7,500 each for spending $40 to $70 in Cuba, a figure Heitzer said the government "has never provided any reasoning for."

Heitzer declined to say whether or not any of the Methodist Three actually did spend money in Cuba.

The Cuban Assets Control Regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department requires any "persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction," including those who fly from a "third country" such as Canada or Mexico, must be licensed to travel to, from or in Cuba, according to the U.S. Department of State. Once a group is licensed, its members may spend money in Cuba for trip-related expenses.

The Methodist Three did not have a license, according to Heitzer, because a prior group had "reluctantly" applied for a license for a 1996 trip to Cuba. The minister of the church at the time completed the application only partially because he felt it was not the position of the government to judge the quality of their religious experience, Heitzer said. The application was denied months later, and the experience led the Methodist Three's group to have "little if any confidence that this procedure will be efficient or productive," Heitzer said. Thus, they did not apply.

"They thought, as Americans, that they had the right to travel," Heitzer said.

Formally charged this midwinter, the Methodist Three have been told to ready themselves for a March hearing in Washington, D.C., if they want to prove they are innocent, Heitzer said.

The Methodist Three's case challenges the right of Americans to travel and freely practice religion, Heitzer said, and the fact that only the black members of the group were questioned smacks to him of racial profiling.

The United States does not maintain any diplomatic relations with Cuba, nor does Cuba maintain such relations with the United States, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The United States' relationship with Cuba began to sour in 1959 when Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement overthrew the regime of then-dictator Fulgencio Baptista, according to political science professor Michael Fleet.