August 24, 2000
Woman, children detained in Cuba
By Amber Arellano. Detroit Free Press Staff Writer. August 24, 2000
After two days of not knowing whether she'd get out of Cuba, Detroit schoolteacher Elizabeth Riachi flew home Wednesday, after burying her longtime companion's ashes next to his mother's grave.
Riachi, a Cuban-American, said Cuban authorities detained her and her three American-born children for two days. They took her passport and declared she was a Cuban, not an American. On the first night, the family was detained without access to a bathroom or food, she said.
U.S. officials said Cuban authorities sometimes don't acknowledge Cuban-born Americans' change in citizenship.
Riachi, 37, came to the United States legally with her family in 1970 and said she became a citizen soon afterward although she doesn't remember exactly when.
Elio Torres, whom Riachi described as her common law husband, died in July 1999. Before he died, he had asked Riachi to bury his ashes next to his mother's grave in his hometown of Oriente, Cuba.
A Detroit public schoolteacher, Riachi said she had to wait until this summer to make the trip. She flew to Cuba on Aug. 14 with her sons, Miquael Riachi, 12, and Kyle Torres, 5, and daughter, Yamirka Torres, 7.
Riachi said authorities in Cuba took her passport the day she arrived.
They said, 'You have no right to come here with an American passport. You're Cuban,' " Riachi recounted. "I said, 'I've been an American citizen for 30 years.' "
She said authorities held her and her children in a clean, empty, white-tiled room at the airport from 4 p.m. Monday until 8 a.m. Tuesday. There was no bathroom or food, though a security guard snuck her a breaded steak sandwich to split among her children.
The next day, the authorities gave her a piece of paper stating she was a Cuban citizen and let her go. They told her she'd have to get approval from Cuban immigration authorities to return to the United States.
Riachi and her family rode in a taxi for 12 hours then took a four-hour horse carriage ride to her husband's rural hometown. She said this part of the trip, during which she stayed with her late husband's family, did not present any problems.
But when she returned to the airport in Havana on Sunday to make sure she could board a flight to Toronto on Monday morning, trouble returned.
"The airline people said, 'Where's your American visa? You can't board without it,' " Riachi said.
She said representatives of the airline, Cubana, wouldn't let her board without her visa. A Cuban immigration official told her the same thing.
A Cuban representative with the country's Foreign Affairs Ministry said the department did not have any information about the case on Tuesday. Cubana did not return calls.
On Tuesday, Riachi returned to the airport to try again. Cubana employees told her that based on their records, she had already flown to Toronto the day before -- and she'd have to re-purchase $2,000 worth of plane tickets to fly home via Toronto.
She flew out of Toronto because there are no direct flights out of Detroit to Cuba.
"I said, 'I'm an American citizen! I want to go home!' " she recalled wearily.
Finally, on Wednesday morning, Riachi returned to the airport with her children and demanded to board the plane to Toronto. She promised to get the U.S. State Department's help if they wouldn't.
She was in Toronto by 1:30 p.m.
A State Department spokesperson said Wednesday the U.S. government is investigating.
It was Riachi's first time back to Cuba since she left at age 7.
She said it was also her last.
"Why pick on a widow with three kids?" she said. "It doesn't make sense."
Contact AMBER ARELLANO at 313-222-6593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© copyright 2000 Detroit Free Press
[ BACK TO THE NEWS ]