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Tourists Or Terrorists - 5/6/04

By Little Gidding - Published May 06, 2004 - Viewed 925 times

Tourists or Terrorists

May 06, 2004

When cruising Cuba, be prepared for lots of visits from the Guarda Frontera

Cuba has a long history of turmoil and trouble brought by boaters arriving on its shores from abroad. To cite just a few examples:

- on October 27, 1492, Christopher Columbus "discovered" Cuba on his first voyage to the New World; fifty years later, the native population had been reduced from around 100,000 to a mere 5,000;

- on April 11, 1895, Cuban writer and nationalist Jose Marti landed near Baracoa to launch the Second War of Independence, which eventually led to Cuba's independence from Spain in 1898;

- on December 2, 1956, Fidel Castro, Che Guevera, and 81 others landed at Playa Las Coloradas to start the Cuban revolution, and eventually took control of Havana on January 2, 1959;

- on April 17, 1961, 1400 American backed and CIA trained Cuban émigrés landed at Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) and were soundly defeated by the Cuban military; and

- on April 11, 2004, David and Eileen on "Little Gidding" attempted to land on Cayo Caiman Grande and were firmly repelled by a strong contingent of Guarda Frontera (coast guard); they slipped away defeated, having only captured a few photographs.

Cruising Cuban waters is in no small way made more difficult by the ingrained paranoia Cuban officials have of foreigners on boats. "Granma", the 18 metre luxury motor yacht that brought Fidel and Che from exile in Mexico back to Cuba to start the revolution, was previously owned by an American. If they could arrive on a yacht and take over the country, why couldn't we do the same on "Little Gidding"?

Visitors to Cuba who arrive by air and travel by land have free access to just about anywhere in the country. In a rental car, your only impediments are likely to be the poorly signed roads and overly optimistic maps (don't assume all those nice red lines are passable roads). Visiting by boat is an entirely different matter. You must check in with the officials every time you enter a new port and check out whenever you leave for another port. At a minimum, this means dealing with the Guarda Frontera, but often also involves officials from customs, immigration, agriculture, public health, and transport. Despite the fact we were thoroughly inspected when we first entered the country and haven't left Cuban waters since, the agricultural representatives have checked our refrigerator every time we've cleared into a new place. Perhaps they fear we're breeding a particularly virulent strain of botulism. After the umpteenth time someone poked at our frozen hamburger, Eileen exclaimed in exasperation, "You people have to decide whether we're tourists or terrorists!" Fortunately, the official in question chose not to understand Eileen's fractured Spanish, smiled nicely, and said, "Thank you."

If you're not in a big hurry and have a sense of humour, the clearing in and out procedures aren't really that onerous. All the officials we've met have been very polite (they always remove their shoes before boarding the boat) and no one has expected special compensation (unlike some of the officials we've encountered in other Latin American countries). Once we gave a search dog a bowl of water because it was very hot and he was panting pathetically and staring up at us with big woeful eyes, but in all fairness he hadn't actually ASKED for refreshment. The handler declined a drink and seemed mildly embarrassed by his weak-willed charge's sloppy manners.

The bigger problem is a restriction on where you can go ashore, even after filling out a mountain of paperwork. It's okay to visit uninhabited islands, which is where a lot of the best cruising exists. But if you want to go ashore at a place where you can get provisions or experience some local culture, you might be out of luck. The Cuban government would really like you to visit only those ports that have official marinas. They can keep an eye on you there and restrict any visits by Cubans to your boat. Since there are only ten marinas dotted along the island's 3500 miles of coastline, most ports are off-limits. Occasionally, the local Guarda are flexible and will let you land. Puerto de Maniti, described in last week's entry, was one such exception. It really seems to come down to the whims of whoever is in charge. It's easier for an official to say "no" than to give assent and then have to worry about whether or not you might whisk off a Cuban or two when you leave.

Caiman Grande: a sign giving mixed messages, a boat with a big fish, and an anxious guard (at the top of the stairs)

A while ago we sailed to Cayo Caiman Grande with the intention of checking out the small island's red and white candy-striped lighthouse. Our friends Cindy and Doug had visited the island two years ago on their catamaran "Neshama". On the chart they had lent us, Doug had scrawled in pencil "friendly lighthouse keepers". Our cruising guide promised that you can "ascend the lighthouse to get a wonderful view over the surrounding cays". We arrived in the early afternoon and dropped the hook in front of a set of concrete stairs rising up from the rocky shore. The only possible wrinkle seemed to be the big Guarda observation post, complete with radar tower and artillery guns, located between us and the lighthouse.

The large sign at the top of the stairs gave a mixed message: "Bienvenidos Al Port Caiman -- Socialism O Muerte" (Welcome to Port Caiman -- Socialism Or Death). Eileen tried calling the Guarda on the VHF radio (David advised her, "Given the choice, tell them we'll take socialism"), but didn't get a response. David started lowering the inflatable dinghy and as soon as it touched the water, the radio crackled alive. In the ensuing discussion, the polite official told Eileen we were more than welcome to stay anchored where we were, but we could not go ashore. She asked if we could anchor at another cay (uninhabited) a couple of miles to the east and go ashore there. "No problema," he said.

While this intercourse was taking place, a local fishing boat pulled into the bay, stopped in front of us, and started to haul in a giant fish. As we weighed anchor, David told Eileen to sidle up closer to the other boat so he could take a photo of the fish coming over the transom. "I'm not convinced that's a good idea," she said. Sure enough, as David started snapping away at the fishing boat -- which, unfortunately, was directly in line with the Guarda station -- a bunch of uniformed men raced down the stairs.

"Hard to starboard," David cried from the bow, "we're outta here!" He waved nervously at the guards on shore.

No one shot us and we ended up spending a pleasant day at the neighbouring cay. We went for a stroll on the deserted beach and David speared two lobsters for dinner. Still, it would have been nice to have seen the view from the lighthouse.

A few days later, we caught up with our friends Bob and Viviane on the ketch "Varuna 1". They were anchored at Cayo Bahia de Cadiz, a spot we had intended to skip. "You have to see this place," Bob told us on the radio. "There's an incredible lighthouse we want to check out."

"Don't count on it," David responded. But Bob went on about the lobster-laden reefs and the bird-filled mangrove channels and we decided we'd humour him and stop by anyway.

Our optimistic cruising friends Viv and Bob lead the way through the mangroves to the fabled lighthouse

We anchored a short distance from "Varuna 1" and followed Bob and Viv in their dinghy through the twisting mangrove canal toward the black and white lighthouse. The canal terminated at a concrete dock. Smack dab in front of us was another Guarda station. An officer was at the dock before we finished tying up the dinghies. David whispered, "There's no point getting out of the dink, this is as far as we're going." The guard smiled, welcomed us to the island, and asked if we wanted to see the lighthouse. We were too stunned to reply. Bob said enthusiastically, "Si, por favor!"

It turned out our host was the captain of the Guarda unit on the island. He gave us a personal tour of the lighthouse, accompanying us up all 199 steps to the tower's observation deck. He explained it's the second highest lighthouse in Cuba and had been constructed in 1862. The unique thing about the structure is that it's built of massive steel panels, hand bolted together. The view from the top was incredible. El capitan encouraged us to take lots of photos.

Bob, Viv, El Capitan, and Eileen at the top of the lighthouse

The view of the canal through the mangroves and the anchorage beyond ("Little Gidding" is at the far right)

When we left, el capitan wished us good luck and invited us to return some day. Back at the anchorage, Bob said smugly, "Didn't I tell you it was worth coming here to see the lighthouse?"

David shook his head. "A few days ago we were terrorists, today we're tourists. I can't figure it out, but I'd rather be a tourist any day."

David & Eileen

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