Religious license allows exiles to travel freely to Cuba

Miami, USA - Despite the Bush administration's crackdown on exiles' trips back to Cuba, there are still ways to travel to the island without restriction.

One seems to be increasingly popular: Go as a Santero.

Religious groups can get licenses with little trouble. And the head of at least one group that says it practices the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria acknowledged that his congregation has exploded in size since the new travel restrictions kicked in.

Jose Montoya, head of the Sacerdocio Lucumi Shango Eyeife in Miami, said between 1996 and July 2004, he took about 60 people to Cuba under his religious travel license. Since the restrictions took effect in July, he has taken about 2,500, he said.

"Before, people didn't have a necessity, and Afro Cubans who practice our religions could travel to Cuba without a license, but now they need a license," Montoya said. "This is a ticking time bomb. They will give a religious license to anyone."

Exiles who support the restrictions - which cut exile trips to Cuba from once a year to once every three years - say the Santeria groups are abusing their religious privilege.

The U.S. Treasury Department allows unimpeded travel to Cuba for legitimate religious reasons. The department has issued more than 200 licenses to religious groups for travel to Cuba, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

Diaz-Balart, a supporter of the new limits, has called for an investigation, which he said is being conducted by the Treasury Department.

"There is abuse and it needs to stop," he said. "It is wrong for someone to say that they are seeking a license for religious travel and then to use that license commercially to promote tourism, and I think it's happening."

Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise and other department officials could not be reached for comment.

Tom Cooper, CEO and chairman of Gulf Stream International Airlines, one of the biggest companies still operating flights to Cuba, said he has also noticed a recent increase in the number of people coming to his airline with religious licenses.

"I have my own questions about it," Cooper said. "I think the Cuban people are very industrious and ingenious, and I think that they really will find a way to visit their relatives in Cuba."

Montoya told said he has an established track record in Miami's Santeria community and is not abusing his travel license.

Montoya acknowledges that he has no church or temple, and his office is plainly decorated with no evidence of Santeria.

His church, the Sacerdocio Lucumi Shango Eyeife, is listed in Florida corporate records as a for-profit company. He brands himself "Maximo Sacerdote General," or Maximum High Priest.

Montoya said the Treasury Department's religious license places no restrictions on the number of people allowed to travel to Cuba under that license or the frequency of visits.

He provided The Miami Herald a copy of his license. He also provided The Herald a copy of an application people must fill out if they want to travel to Cuba under his religious license.

Applicants must swear that they are part of his religion and get the letter notarized. The application named Heidy Gonzalez as an applicant and showed a telephone number.

When The Herald called the number, a man named Braulio Rodriguez said Heidy Gonzalez was a 1-year-old baby and that he was her grandfather.

Rodriguez said he had no idea how her name came to be on an application for travel to Cuba and that as far as he knew, she would not be traveling to Cuba as the application stated.

When quizzed about potential abuses, Montoya pointed to another supposed Santeria group that has a religious travel license, Santa Yemaya Ministries.

Montoya said his own research shows that many of the people traveling to Cuba under religious licenses today travel through Santa Yemaya.

Florida corporate records show that Santa Yemaya Ministries was established in October 2003 by Fabio Galoppi. The principal place of business address, according to corporate records, is a house in a gated community in Doral, Fla. It is listed as a nonprofit company.

The official explanation given by Fabio Galoppi to incorporate Santa Yemaya, according to corporate records, is "to spread the word of God across the world."

Santa Yemaya Ministries' Web site boasts a 15-day travel itinerary in Cuba filled with Santeria tourist stops at places such as Casa Templo and The Yoruba Center.

A woman who described herself as Fabio Galoppi's wife when phoned by The Herald declined to comment. She referred questions to Pierre Galoppi.

Pierre Galoppi, who owns Estrella de Cuba Travel in West Miami-Dade, Fla., and PWG Trading Corp., confirmed that Santa Yemaya has a religious travel license. He declined to describe his relationship to Fabio Galoppi.

"I can assure you that our agency and our ministry are in full compliance with all regulations," Pierre Galoppi said.

When asked how many people travel to Cuba under Santa Yemaya's license or whether Fabio Galoppi is a Santero, Galoppi declined to comment.

"It's a very sensitive industry," he said. "I have no idea how many people we're talking about."

Pedro Gonzalez-Munne, owner of Cuba Promotions, an agency that promotes travel to Cuba, said he has done business with Pierre Galoppi and is familiar with his enterprise.

"Since the new restrictions kicked in in July to now, PWG Trading has 33 to 34 percent of the total market of people that travel to Cuba," Gonzalez-Munne said. "Is this a situation of freedom of religions, or are they using their religion for travel and profit?"

The Santeria travel wars have spilled over into local media.

Montoya said community leaders and radio commentators have singled him out for criticism on Miami's Spanish-language radio stations.

That has prompted Montoya to buy four full-page ads in El Nuevo Herald since November, defending his travel practices.

"We continue to deny the disinformation campaign that some radio stations have established that intend, for politics, to violate our religious rights," said an open letter from Shango Eyeife published in El Nuevo Herald on Jan. 24. "Our institution has nothing to do with other people who possess licenses for our religious practices issued by Treasury."

Ernesto Pichardo, Miami-Dade's best-known Santero, who once took a case about animal sacrifices to the U.S. Supreme Court, said the groups "are not authorized, legitimate religious organizations in Cuba or here."

"We've started doing homework," Pichardo said. "I've gotten people from New York, D.C., all over. They have bought into this little deal of buying into (Montoya's) membership ... to fly to Cuba on a religious visa."

Cooper, the Gulf Stream CEO, said air travel to Cuba plunged after the restrictions kicked in. For example, his company used to fly five planes a week with 600 seats to the island. Now he flies only about 123 seats a week. However, in the past month, he said, business has picked up again, partly because of religious-license travel.

Pichardo said a signal that Shango Eyeife and Santa Yemaya may not be legitimate religious groups is that neither has a church or temple in Miami.

He said that he doubts they have churches in Cuba, because the Cuban government has never authorized Santeria.

Gonzalez-Munne said the trend shows that people will do whatever it takes to get to Cuba, and business people are thinking creatively to make it happen.

"People are not traveling because they are Babalaos, let's speak clearly," Gonzalez-Munne said, using a term meaning priest. "They are traveling because they have no other way to get to Cuba."