Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mother wants Ottawa's help with son's Cuban 'nightmare'

Friday, July 23, 2010 5:10 PM
Mother wants Ottawa's help with son's Cuban 'nightmare'
Gloria Galloway

Cody LeCompte and his mom headed to Cuba for a vacation in late April –
a week in the sun that was his reward for getting accepted into a
aviation technology program at college. Nearly three months later, he is
still there, unable to leave the country because he was the driver of a
car that was involved in a car accident.

Mr. LeCompte, who is staying at a Cuban resort, was recently told a jury
will decide if his case needs to go to a full criminal trial. Now the
teenager is afraid he will be spending time in a Cuban prison.

Not that he has been charged in the incident – he was driving down a
main road in the Caribbean country that is the second-most popular
tourist destinations for Canadians when his rental car was hit by a
truck that emerged from a side road.

But he was injured along with the other three people travelling with
him: his mother, his cousin and his cousin's Cuban fiancée. All survived
but the fiancée had to have part of her liver removed.

And that is a problem. Because, in Cuba, accidents resulting in death or
injury are treated as crimes and the onus is on the driver to prove
innocence. Regardless of the nature of the accident, it can take five
months to a year for a case to go to trial. In most cases, the driver
will not be allowed to leave Cuba until the trial has taken place.

"It's been a nightmare," his mother Danette said in a telephone
interview Friday from Cuba, where she has returned to spend time with
her son.

The date of the jury hearing is supposed to be announced shortly, she
said. "We have heard that they are going to put a rush on it but we have
been told a lot of things."

Meanwhile, she is braced for the possibility that it could be many more
months before her son can leave.

Representatives of Canada's consular affairs team in Cuba were supposed
to pay them a visit, she said, but that has never happened. "They call
about every three days but just for updates on when we are going to the
lawyer's [office]. But as for assistance and getting us home, there's

Now the bills are piling up. "And I am not a person who has this kind of
money. We had to save for this trip," she said. "So we are into probably
$20,000 or $25,000 with everything, with hiring the Cuban lawyer, with
the phone bills, with paying for the resort. It's overwhelming."

The Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa said the Canadian embassy in
Cuba and the consulate in Guardalavaca, in Holguin province, are
providing consular assistance and support to Mr. LeCompte.

"The Canadian Government cannot interfere in the judicial process of a
foreign country," department spokeswoman Dana Cryderman said. "But
Canadian consular officials are following the case very closely with
Cuban authorities."

She noted that Deepak Obhrai – the parliamentary secretary to the
Minister of Foreign Affairs – has met with senior Cuban officials while
at the African Union Summit in Uganda and raised Mr. LeCompte's case

Liberal MP Dan McTeague, however, thinks more pressure could be brought
to bear.

He said he understands the accident was serious and the Cuban
authorities must be allowed to proceed through their normal process for
reviewing these kinds of cases. "But that doesn't mean our consular
officials should be on the sidelines waiting," he told The Globe.

"They should be urging, pressing, helping, continuing to inquire as to
the status of the case to ensure that the case moves along as soon as

The fact that none of them have paid Mr. LeCompte a visit suggests "that
the level of interest at this point is somewhat peripheral and it isn't
directly engaged on our end."

More than that, Mr. McTeague said, any Canadian travelling to Cuba
should be made aware of the risks of driving and renting a car.

"I think it's critical that the Canadian government, in concert with
travel agencies in Canada, provide Canadians full disclosure of the
circumstances that might lead to these kinds of unfortunate outcomes,"
the Liberal MP said.

There is a warning about the problem on the Foreign Affairs website.
But, like many Canadians, the LeCompte's did not check the site before
leaving on their trip.

"We weren't warned at all," Ms. LeCompte said. "The travel agents should
be warning people. It should be out there not to drive in Cuba."

Since her son's plight has been made public, the tale has lit up the
telephones on radio talk shows and Canadians have been firing off
e-mails to the Cuban Ambassador Teresita de Jesús Vicente Sotolongo and
the Cuban Tourism Minister.

But there was no response from the Cuban embassy in Ottawa to queries
from The Globe because officials have gone home for the summer.

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