tbo: Tampa Bay Online.
Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017
Cuba

Relaxed relations making Cuba wedding dreams come true

As a contestant in the early years of “The Bachelor,” seasons four and six, Maribel “Mary” Delgado was one of the first to seek love through reality television — once unheard of but now an entertainment genre.

“The Bachelor” winds up season 20 Monday night, having inspired a number of copycat shows trading on perfect love matches.

Delgado won season six, but the match proved less than perfect. Then she found love again and married James Kordomenos of Tampa on New Year’s Eve 2015, stepping once more through what may be a door to a new trend.

The ceremony was held in Cuba and included mostly American citizens, a rare feat made possible only through the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the island nation.

“It was a dream-come-true type of wedding,” said Delgado, who along with ABC Action News’ Sarina Fazan will be discussing their experiences with “The Bachelor” on a Facebook video feed as the reality show airs.

“Cuba was beautiful. I’d absolutely recommend others get married there.”

For decades, because the two countries had no formal relations, Cuba has been largely off limits for Americans who want a destination wedding there. But with relations undergoing normalization, Cuba could indeed become a popular choice.

“It is still a mysterious island to so many people here,” said Tracie Domino, an event planner based in Tampa who has arranged destination weddings in the Bahamas. “The excitement and intrigue alone could make it a fun place to marry.”

Americans have been marrying in the island nation for years, but the ceremonies usually involve a visiting U.S. citizen and a Cuban who fall in love and decide to wed there so they can return to America together.

Those born in Cuba who came to the U.S. as adults, and then fell in love with someone who followed the same path, have been known to return to Cuba for their nuptials so immediate family could attend.

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Delgado was born in Cuba, though she left before she turned 1.

But what makes the wedding of Delgado and Kordomenos so unusual and potentially groundbreaking is that most of the 30 people in the wedding party were from the U.S. and had no link to Cuba.

Just six years ago, before Obama first relaxed travel restrictions with Cuba in 2011, such wedding guests would have struggled to get licensed by the U.S. government to make that trip.

“It’s wonderful that Americans are willing to and can go to Cuba to celebrate a marriage,” said John Parke Wright IV, who has been visiting Cuba for humanitarian and business purposes for nearly two decades. “Things are changing. The door is opening for more American weddings to take place, maybe even between two Americans.”

One Cuba wedding grabbed headlines in September when singer Usher wed Grace Miguel there. Both were born in the United States.

Still, it requires resourcefulness for any U.S. citizen to pull off or attend a wedding in Cuba.

It is illegal under U.S. law for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourist reasons alone. U.S. citizens can only visit the island nation if the trip fits one of 12 categories, such as education, research and athletic competition.

Delgado, Kordomenos and their 30 guests went to Havana for five days and four nights on a licensed educational trip through Tampa-based travel company ASC International. Each day, the group visited Havana’s historic and cultural sites.

As is normal on such arranged trips, the activities required to fulfill the educational mandate were wrapped up by late afternoon each day, giving the group evenings to themselves.

Americans often use this free time to enjoy Cuban nightlife, such as Havana’s famed cabaret shows.

But groups have also been known — on their own — to reserve rooms at restaurants or bars for private parties.

This is the track Delgado and Kordomenos followed.

Through a Tampa friend with connections at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, the couple reserved the establishment’s waterfront garden in advance of their trip and had the area decorated to their request.

Then, on Dec. 31, when the day’s educational tour was complete, they were married by a friend who made the trip with them.

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Usher has not publicly revealed details about his wedding, but has said he and his bride also were licensed to travel to Cuba for an educational tour and were married during their free time.

“It’s a gray area,” said Dana Reed, owner of ASC International.“We need to stay within what we do — taking people to Cuba for one of the 12 legal reasons. Mary has the unique situation that she was born in Cuba and had contacts there and can speak the language so could do something like this on her own.”

It may soon be easier for American couples to marry in Cuba.

Currently, those visiting Cuba for educational trips must be part of an organized tour group that takes them to sites such as museums, art galleries and music studios to learn about the nation’s culture. The tour group operator must vouch to the U.S. government that the experience fell under the educational category.

In advance of his trip to Cuba March 21-22, President Barack Obama is expected to further relax Cuba travel restrictions, said John Kavulich, president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, by allowing American citizens to take educational tours on their own or in smaller self-managed groups rather than as part of large group organized by a tour operator.

“It would basically be the honor system,” said Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in legal issues brought on by the Cuban embargo. “It is a wink and a nod to Americans that Cuba is now open.”

Muse said he would not be surprised if this leads to a “Cuban wedding fad” among U.S. citizens.

“There will be lovebirds who find Cuba hopelessly romantic in every way,” Muse said. “I can picture it now — grooms dressing like Lucky Luciano and brides like Ava Gardner as they squirrel around in villages in vintage convertibles.”

Destination weddings are chosen by couples primarily to spice up the ceremony, event planner Domino said.

“When you are in that marrying age of your mid-20s to mid-30s, you seem to be going to a wedding every other weekend,” Domino said. “So it is nice to do something different and memorable. Cuba fits both.”

Locations also are chosen for their connection to the couple, perhaps memories of a romantic getaway in the Bahamas that solidified their love, Domino said, or of a resort where the bride vacationed as a child.

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For Delgado, who now works at her own real estate brokerage, the wedding in Cuba was especially personal.

She was 11 months old in 1968 when her parents Juan and Juana Delgado carried her onto her father’s fishing boat along with her brother and three sisters — four if you include the sister still in the womb.

“They did not like the direction Cuba was taking,” Delgado said.

She has no memories of the family’s 36-hour journey at sea, but her sisters often talk of when the Coast Guard rescued them off the shores of Florida and took them to their headquarters in Miami, where the hungry family was provided a bounty of food.

“They said they thought they were taken to heaven,” Delgado said with a laugh.

Soon after, the family moved to Chicago and later, Tampa.

Delgado would go on to become captain of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders and appear on two seasons of “The Bachelor,” receiving the final red rose from Byron Velvick in season six, 2004. The couple split in 2009.

A year later, Delgado met Kordomenos, the two began dating, and in September 2013, he popped the question during a getaway to the Virgin Islands

From the start, they discussed a destination wedding. They considered Greece because Kordomenos is of Greek heritage but chose Cuba because Delgado always wanted to see the land of her birth.

Her parents had been back three times since leaving but the timing never was right for Delgado.

The ceremony was simple. In lieu of a reception, they reserved tables at the Hotel Nacional’s New Year’s Eve party.

“We were there to learn about Cuba so we wanted to celebrate with the Cuban people,” Delgado said. “It was magical.”

Still, elaborate ceremonies and receptions are available in Cuba for those who want them, said Graham Sowa, an American citizen and an intern at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana.

Sowa should know. Having lived in Havana since 2010, he has fallen in love with a Cuban citizen and is planning his own summer wedding on the island.

“Cuba offers everything you could want that you’d see at a normal American wedding,” he said. “They have catering and drink and entertainment options, lights, lasers, smoke machines and even horse and carriages. Hotels have entire branches dedicated to event planning.

“Plus,” he added with a chuckle, “beer is really cheap in Cuba, and they throw a great party here.”

Cuba’s best resorts are still off limits to Americans because of U.S. law.

If and when U.S. citizens are allowed to stay there, Sowa said, the town of Varadero will likely be a popular spot for destination weddings.

Varadero has a number of hotels that offer the same type of wedding packages found at U.S. resorts. Destination wedding planners from Europe and Canada have long been organizing ceremonies there for clients.

“The beaches in Cuba are so gorgeous,” Delgado said. “Weddings there must be something special.”

Not that she has any complaints about her ceremony. It was perfect, she said.

“It was my rebirth. My life began in Cuba. And now my new life with my husband began there too.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

@PGuzzoTBO

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