A new company is charging $495 to help people who are desperate to find long-long Cuban legal documents.www.cubacityhall.com.
By Frances Robles.miamiherald.com. Mario Alvarez spent several years and many dollars looking for yellowing documents in Cuban archives so he could write his family history.
Like other Cuban genealogy enthusiasts and people who need birth certificates or death records to marry, drive or apply for citizenship, he encountered a tangled maze of red tape. Experts say the setbacks start in Washington, at Cuba’s consulate.
“I know people who have gone that route and, a year later, they’re still looking for that document,” said Alvarez, who lives in Miami Beach and was born in Camaguey. “Paying more works.”
Alvarez discovered a new service called Cuba City Hall, a Massachusetts-based website hoping to tap into the growing market of Cubans desperate for official records. Owner Rob Sequin figures some people are so anxious to get birth certificates and other legal documents that they will fork over $495 for certified copies.
His hefty price tag demonstrates the difficulties many Cubans have getting official documents out of the island, and the lengths they’ll go to get them. As a multiple user who needs the papers for personal use — not a certified document for a driver’s license or citizenship application — Alvarez pays the discounted $250 rate.
“He finds things that would take me five years to find,” Alvarez said. “I’m doing it to have something to leave my kids. I don’t think they care now, but I’m hoping they’ll care some day.”
Sequin, the publisher of the Havana Journal news site, admits that there are cheaper ways to get the papers, including Cuba’s Washington, D.C. consulate known as the Cuban Interests Section.
“We know people are supposed to go to the Cuban Interests Section.” The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations website says that Cubans just have to reach out to their local consulate and apply for official legal documents. The system was digitized in 2005 and is much faster, the site says.
The consulate could not be reached for comment: the telephone was either busy or no one picked up.
Alvarez said Sequin has found records dating back to the 1800s.
“It’s a very labor intensive process,” Sequin said. “A lot of times people don’t even know where they were born. They say , ‘Havana,’ which requires going to 15 different civil registries. Sometimes they really have to dig.”
The documents, he said, are certified in Havana at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations.
But experts say most people don’t need to pay such a hefty price, especially if it’s just for research purposes.
“I charge people $30, especially if all they need is a church document and that’s it,” said professional genealogist Mayra F. Sanchez-Johnson, who lives in Salt Lake City. “I don’t make a penny off it.”
She said the need for notarized birth certificates with the official government seal surged when the Spanish government decided to offer citizenship to its descendants. But the process is time consuming and requires many steps and fees, so Sanchez-Johnson decided against taking on those clients.
“It’s getting harder to get records, because the registries are deteriorating,” she said. “There are books from the 1800s that you can’t even open.”
Genealogy clubs have fixers in different cities to run the errands who charge up to $100, said Ed Elizondo, webmaster of cubagenweb.org. But they mostly handle the church documents, which are easier to acquire and do not have to be certified at the Ministry of Foreign Relations.
“Cuba City Hall is aiming its market at people who need the certified document for passports or driver’s licenses, because it’s a big problem to get those certificates in Cuba,” said Elizondo, a retired aerospace engineer in Lauderdale by the Sea. “If you are digging into something from the 1800s, you need someone who knows what they are doing, or they’ll say ‘I can’t find it.’ The facilities in Cuba are just not available, the records are kept poorly and often are deteriorating.
“It’s hard to get anything even if you are there.”
Sequin stresses that he got a legal opinion from a South Florida lawyer expert in the Cuba trade embargo, who advised him that his business did not run afoul of the law. The trade embargo, which prohibits doing business in Cuba, has an exemption for “informational materials.”
Office of Foreign Assets Control spokeswoman Marti Adams declined to comment.
Sequin is confident this service is both legal and in demand.
“For years, people would call us asking us how to get Cuban birth certificates, and we did not have any way to help people,” Sequin said. “A lot of people absolutely need it and have nowhere to turn.”
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