OTTAWA — Elie Raffoul found out the hard way why driving in Cuba isn’t such a good idea.
The Ottawa man was in an accident last March 23, involving a motorcyclist who suffered relatively minor injuries, and was forced by Cuban authorities to remain in the country for almost two weeks. He was planning to return to Ottawa on March 24.
Raffoul, who was on his fifth vacation in Cuba when the accident occurred, says he was left so shaken by the ordeal that he is never setting foot there again. Though he was cleared in the end, he says he doesn’t trust the Cuban system any more to want to return. There are other countries to visit, he says.
“I was scared. I was so scared.”
Fayza Youssef, an Ottawa woman who was vacationing at the same resort in Santa Maria, says Raffoul was very shaken by his predicament.
“Imagine being in a foreign country that won’t let you leave,” she says. “He was going through a very hard time.”
The Public Citizen could not contact anyone at the Cuban Embassy in Ottawa for comment. The Canadian government, meanwhile, advises against driving in Cuba as “traffic accidents are a frequent cause for arrest and detention of Canadians 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. In some cases, the driver will be imprisoned during this delay.”
The Foreign Affairs website also recommends against driving in Cuba due to hazardous road conditions. As well, it warns that car-rental contracts can be shady when it comes to insurance.
Ottawa police say foreign visitors charged under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act are normally allowed to leave Canada. Those facing criminal charges such as impaired driving appear before a provincial court judge who decides if the accused can be released and await a pending court case from abroad.
Raffoul says he can’t believe how many horror stories he has since heard about other Canadians being detained in Cuba as a result of car accidents. “I must be the only one in Canada who didn’t know (about the warnings).”
Yet, Raffoul, 41, counts his blessings he wasn’t detained as long as Cody LeCompte was in 2010. Then 19, LeCompte, of Norfolk, Ont., remained at a Santa Lucia resort for three months following a car crash that resulted in injuries to himself, two family members and a friend. Charges were never laid, but it cost LeCompte’s parents about $30,000 in lawyer’s fees, hotel rooms and flights.
Charges were never laid against Raffoul, either, but he was ordered to remain in Cuba while police investigated the accident and doctors determined how serious the injuries were to the motorcycle rider — in case he required compensation. Raffoul remained at the Santa Maria resort. Two Winnipeg friends, Alexis Reynolds and Monique MacPhearson, extended their trip to provide moral support. Reynolds says it wasn’t any big deal. Both women like Cuba so much and neither had to get back to work right away, so they had a good excuse to stay. They crashed in Raffoul’s room.
The self-employed general contractor says the delay in getting home cost him $3,500. Besides the additional resort bill, he says, he spent quite a bit of money on several return trips by taxi between the resort in Santa Maria and the police station in Santa Clara, where the accident occurred. It is a two-hour drive.
Raffoul can’t understand why police demanded he remain in Cuba. He says they were pretty gruff with him at times. He says the motorcyclist, Leonid Aquila Leon, was released from hospital a few hours after he was treated, though for a while police maintained he had been hospitalized. Raffoul says he accompanied police to the hospital and later “saw him walk out with a bandage on his head.”
When Raffoul went to Leon’s home on March 25, he says, the man was appreciative of the visit. He had cuts and bruises on his face and an arm, says Raffoul. Leon said he would be back to normal in a couple of weeks. “I’m not taking you to court. I don’t want anything,’” Raffoul recalls Leon telling him. Raffoul says he still gave Leon $450 Cdn.
Raffoul says he was driving a rental car to Santa Clara when the accident occurred. He says he had just passed a donkey pulling a carriage and was about to overtake the motorcycle when he spotted a car coming in the opposite direction. He says he got partially back into his lane as Leon moved to the right to give him room. He says he was travelling about 50 kilometres an hour when Leon’s motorcycle clipped the side view mirror on the car’s passenger door and went down.
Sunwing Vacations representatives approached him in the resort lobby the next day, telling him they were aware of the “severity of my situation” and that they were doing everything they could to get him home. Raffoul says he phoned the Canadian Embassy in Havana. There was nothing it could do, given Cuba’s laws.
He finally returned to Canada on April 5. Police actually cleared him on April 2 but didn’t notify Cuban airport authorities for a few days. The next Sunwing flight to Ottawa was on April 7. So Raffoul got on a Toronto flight, then paid $300 to fly to Ottawa.
“I said, ‘I don’t care where (the flight ends up). You can take me to Beijing. Just get me out of Cuba.’”