Geopolitics Splits S. Hills 'Romeo,' Cuban Yuliet

Article excerpt

Their romance has embraced the scope of the world as much as it has defied its artificial boundaries.

Joe Papp, a Bethel Park native with a boyish grin, and Yuliet Rodriguez Jimenez, a Cuban athlete with flowing, bleach-blonde locks, met in 2001 while training for a cycling tour of East Havana.

Their encounter was almost an accident: Papp was waiting for a teammate to fix a flat tire when Jimenez simply glided by. He didn't hesitate to chase after her.

"It was love at first sight," said Papp, 31, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who starting cycling competitively at age 14. "I had never met a woman who I connected with like Yuliet."

Within hours, they were entranced. But, restricted by geography and the political chasm between their homelands, the couple saw each other only during professional cycling competitions -- a globe- hopping love affair nurtured four or five times a year.

On Oct. 8, 2004, they were married in Havana. Two years later, instead of orchestrating an anniversary dinner, Papp worries how long immigration laws or potential retaliation from the Cuban government will keep him and his wife apart. The prospects appear grim.

Today, Jimenez, 29, is set to be deported to Cuba from Venezuela, the latest setback in the couple's thwarted summertime effort to cross paths in Europe. What happens next remains unclear.

Papp has enlisted the aid of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills, to help expedite the processing of his wife's immigrant visa, though the U.S. Interests Section Office in Havana -- the equivalent there of a U.S. embassy -- might hold little sway over whether Cuban authorities allow Jimenez to leave.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services won't talk about individual immigration cases and other officials declined to comment on timelines for issuing visas. Cuban and Venezuelan authorities could not be reached last night through their Washington offices. Neither could the U.S. Interests Section Office in Havana.

"This is a very unfortunate turn of events," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "Given the high-profile nature of her work and the fact that she's from Cuba, she could well have qualified for political asylum in the United States."

The immigrant visa petition Papp filed for his wife was approved by Citizenship and Immigration Services in March 2005, pending an interview, but wasn't forwarded to Cuba for more than a year, Papp said.

By the time the paperwork had arrived in Havana, Jimenez had decided to flee the island. Though the 12-time cycling champ could have set up her visa interview, she was leaving Cuba's national cycling team and feared the Castro-controlled government would punish her with a travel ban.

She fled to Russia, in hopes of making it to Italy, where Papp lay injured in a hospital because of a bicycle crash. If the couple had met up in Europe, Papp said, Jimenez could have had a good shot at political asylum.

But her next flight, bound for Mexico, stopped in Spain, where she was arrested and given two options: return to Cuba or fly to Venezuela, Papp said. …