Lyndonville man talks about being imprisoned in Cuba
By Helen J. Simon
Free Press Staff Writer
June 11, 2006
Rick Schwag of Lyndonville and his nonprofit organization, Caribbean
Medical Transport, have, over the past decade, helped send to Cuba 18
40-foot containers filled with medical equipment, supplies and
He has visited the communist island more than 20 times and has extensive
contacts in Cuban government, health and religious circles.
He was, therefore, shocked when Cuban authorities jailed him for eight
days during a visit to Havana last fall. They never told him why he was
being detained, never gave him a chance to confront his accusers and
never allowed him to contact anyone outside the prison. And as
unexpectedly as he was imprisoned, Schwag was told to buy his airline
ticket and leave the island.
Although he was not mistreated physically, he said, the lack of
information and due process were akin to abuse. “For me, it’s a
psychological torture, not knowing what’s going on.”
In retrospect, Schwag, 53, thinks he might have run afoul of
high-ranking Cuban officials who might have helped “divert” costly
anesthesiology machines he was transporting to the island from doctors
at Johns Hopkins University. He will never be sure, because everyone he
has contacted in Cuba and the United States claims ignorance.
Schwag pledges to continue his mission, worried that those who will
suffer from his experience may be the Cubans who desperately need the
catheters, wheelchairs and diagnostic equipment his group has helped
provide. He delayed discussing his situation until now in hopes he might
be able to return. Now, however, that seems impossible and he wants to
warn others of the potential risk.
“I don’t know my status, but I take eight days in jail as a warning,” he
said, “and it was a very effective warning.”
Schwag believes the high level of tensions between Cuba and the United
States contributed to his being detained. The Bush Administration, whose
stated goal is to hasten the end of the Castro regime, has tightened
restrictions under the four-decade Cuban embargo.
Meanwhile, the economy of the island of 11.2 million people is
struggling to deal with lower remittances from Cubans abroad, a
catastrophic decline in the sugar industry and the after-effects of a
major hurricane. President Fidel Castro, in his 47th year as Cuba’s
chief, keeps a tight control over political opposition.
Laura Tischler, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the
U.S. State Department, said the department can’t comment on Schwag’s
case due to privacy reasons, “though it may very well be what happened.”
The road to Havana
The path from growing up in a Philadelphia suburb to a Cuban prison may
have been circuitous but not unexpected, Schwag said. He said his
parents spent their lives helping others: His father was a founder and
president of the Mainline Reform Temple Beth Elohim in Havertown, Pa.;
his mother, an active proponent of tzedaka — charitable work.
Schwag studied philosophy and religion in college. In 1980 he moved to
Lyndonville, where he bought 16 acres, built a house and tended bees. He
later began selling real estate. Today he has enough money to live
frugally without working.
Schwag made his first trip to Cuba in 1994 and was instantly smitten, he
said. During his second visit he met his future wife and began to
acquire an insider’s understanding of the island.
He saw the suffering caused by shortages of medical supplies and began
collecting donated goods and shipping them to Cuba. First they went in
80-pound duffel bags, then by 40-foot containers.
Schwag estimates CMT, which holds U.S. commerce and travel licenses
required for humanitarian work under the embargo, has helped collect and
ship some 90 tons of medical goods valued in the millions of dollars to
At the end of August, Schwag flew to Havana to conduct CMT business and
oversee four containers of relief supplies shipped to Santiago de Cuba
in the wake of Hurricane Dennis. About 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 3, he was
at the airport preparing to board a plane to Santiago when a uniformed
immigration official ordered Schwag to accompany him to a car where two
others were waiting. Someone wanted to ask him some questions, Schwag
He was taken to an immigration office. After waiting an hour he was
taken to an official who peered into a small manila envelope and told
him he had been denied entry into the country. He was weighed and
fingerprinted and taken to one of 10 four-man cells in the facility.
Over the next eight days, Schwag would meet 40 to 50 foreigners, about
half of whom were jailed for what appeared to be minor infractions: a
Honduran who was robbed by thugs and then arrested by police for having
no money when he reported the crime; a Spanish tourist who was detained
for being barefoot after giving away his Adidas sneakers and allegedly
being disrespectful to police; and a Jordanian whose passport was torn.
Schwag estimates about a third of the prisoners did not know why they
had been detained, and that fewer than a third were picked up for real
offenses. Most of the foreigners were held four days to a week.
“As far as I could tell, there was no investigation, no accusation, no
charges, no interviews, no process, no procedures,” Schwag said. “This
is a holding tank for people who are going to be put on a plane and sent
back to wherever they came from.”
Although the uncertainty was torturous, Schwag said the physical
conditions in the jail “were not terrible.” The guards were indifferent
but not cruel. The food was adequate nutritionally but “awful.” A
slender man to begin with, Schwag lost almost 15 pounds during his
On his sixth day in jail, Schwag was told he had permission to leave and
was driven to the airport to buy a ticket for the first flight he could
get to Montreal. Two days later, guards drove him to the airport and
personally escorted him onto the plane.
Schwag later learned that when he failed to arrive in Santiago, his
ex-wife’s family called her in Lyndonville. She called a cousin in
Havana who is a policeman and was able to learn his whereabouts. About
the fifth day of his confinement, his former wife was able to call the
U.S. Interests Section in Havana to report that he had been jailed.
Schwag thinks he was imprisoned because he tried to track down three
anesthesiology machines worth $125,000 that he had shipped to Cuba for
use by the William Soler Children’s Hospital at the request of doctors
in the Johns Hopkins’ Cuba Exchange Program.
After shipping the equipment, Schwag said, he received an e-mail from
officials at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Investment saying the
machines had been denied entry into the island because they did not
comply with government regulations.
He does not know where the machines ended up.
Wayne Smith, director of the C
uba Exchange Program and former head of
the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Reagan administration,
said he understood the machines had arrived at the customs office in
Havana, but that officials from the children’s hospital had not been
allowed to retrieve them.
“What happened to the machines, I have no idea,” he said.
Schwag said he remains committed to sending medical aid to Cuba and has
established safeguards so others can continue working there without
Still, he is making arrangements for the possible day when he can no
longer help the island. He recently spent three months in Colombia,
laying the groundwork for sending medical supplies there in the future.