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Erickson s Cuba trip - More cigars, less charity

Congressional candidate Mike Erickson took a six-day visit to Cuba in 2004 that he called a "humanitarian trip" to aid disabled Cubans oppressed by Fidel Castro, but the trip was instead a vacation that included bars, Havana cigars and the Tropicana nightclub.
Erickson said he visited a medical center, met with doctors and attended a presentation on the plight of the disabled. But travel documents obtained by The Oregonian, others who accompanied Erickson and representatives of U.S. and Cuban charities tell a different story.
For example, the medical center Erickson said he visited does not exist.
Erickson, a Lake Oswego businessman, said he gave a Cuban charity 20 boxes of medical supplies worth $9,000, including prescription drugs used to treat asthma and basic items such as vitamins and Band-Aids.
But two others on the trip said Erickson exaggerated his donation and his charity involvement.
A donation allowed Erickson's group legal access to Cuba, where travel by Americans is sharply restricted. .
"It's nice to give stuff, but that takes 20 minutes. Then, bingo, you're on vacation," said Robert Walz of Vancouver, Wash.
Walz promoted the trip on his Web site, Cuba Travel Experts, handled the arrangements for Erickson's group and led the trip.
Erickson is a Republican running for the 5th Congressional District, which includes the mid-Willamette Valley. The incumbent, Rep. Darlene Hooley, is retiring from Congress.
Records show Walz charged Erickson and some friends $1,698 each for a weeklong Cuban vacation that coincided with the Habanos Festival, an annual celebration of Cuban cigars. Erickson and others traveled as representatives of the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, which helps the disabled.
The California-based charity provided Erickson a letter that allowed him to visit Cuba and return home without violating U.S. law. In return, he was obligated to donate medical supplies, visit programs for the disabled and file a written report listing things that were in short supply.
Without the proper license, U.S. citizens cannot legally travel from the United States to Cuba. Unrestricted travel to Cuba is forbidden under the long-standing U.S. embargo. Citizens who visit Cuba have to depart from another country, such as Mexico.
The Bush administration cracked down on travel in 2004, a few months after Erickson returned. The new rules put stricter limits on academic programs, humanitarian groups and those with Cuban family members, said Wayne Smith, a John Hopkins University political science professor and former diplomat once stationed in Havana.
"They said these licenses were being abused and people were going down there just as a vacation . . . and Cubans were making lots of money," Smith said.
No one who signed up for the tour could have mistaken it for a humanitarian aid mission, Walz said. The application he gave his clients identified the trip as "Comandante Fidel Castro's Annual Gala Cigar Dinner and Auction."
That was confirmed by another person who was on the trip, a Portland-area man who spoke on the condition his name would remain confidential because he is a friend of Erickson's.
"Everybody knew it was a pleasure trip," the man said.
In an interview, Erickson insisted the trip was a legitimate aid mission.
"Are you kidding? To make the trip and pay for my own air fare and for everything . . . and donate more than $5,000 in medical supplies. If that's not a humanitarian trip, I don't know what is," he said.
Erickson also released a written statement on the trip that said: "I was able to purchase badly needed medical supplies and equipment from the U.S. and bring them to Cuba's disabled and poverty stricken communities.

Source: The Oregonian