In Our Hearts, We Are Brothers. Welcome To Cuba

By Douglas Bernon
February 9, 2001
Archipiélago De Los Colorados Y De Santa Isabel, Cuba

It's been four weeks now since Bernadette and I sighted the sea buoy off the Cuban coast, stared timidly at the forbidden skyline of Havana barely lit by the first hint of dawn, hoisted the Cuban courtesy flag and international quarantine flag, and made landfall. Since that day, traveling on land and by sea, we've experienced a month that's been at once eye-opening, mind-boggling, magnificent, shocking, and inspirational. This beautiful island we've been privileged to see, and the people who've so warmed our souls, will long replay in our dreams, just as the strong arm that controls their expression and mobility will continue to sadden us deeply.

In light of the mutually punishing policies of the American and Cuban governments toward one another, we were aware that we needed to take special care in undertaking this journey to Cuba. During our time here, however, it's become clear to us in conversations with people at various social and economic levels, in rural and urban areas alike, that there's a far greater battle between governments than there is between people. It also became clear to us that writing our cruising logs for Cruising World, and sending them in for immediate posting on the web, was a somewhat risky thing to do in the capital of Havana, which is chock-a-block with police of one stripe or another on almost every corner. When visiting Tito's Yugoslavia and Franco's Spain in the 1960s, and Myanmar just last year, I never saw this many government guys toting guns.

Fidel (nobody here calls him Castro) has recruited mostly men for these law-enforcement jobs, hitched guns to their belts, affixed radio transmitters to their collars, and paid them in line with doctors, teachers, and national-league baseball players, reportedly about $25 a month. We were told by locals that cameras are mounted on many buildings in Old Havana (Habana Vieja) to monitor the streets 24 hours a day, and that officials watching the streets talk to the police through the transmitters on their collars. Citizens are required to carry identity cards that police can demand to see any time, particularly if they deem someone to be acting "suspiciously," which can mean something as innocent as a Cuban talking to a tourist. One night while we were out dancing with a Cuban family we'd befriended, two of our friends were temporarily detained by the police so their cards could be checked with a central computer.

When in Cuba, violating one of the government's many rules is something one tries hard to avoid; locals and visitors alike strive for low profiles. Despite devotion to their charismatic leader, there are many critics, too, who refer to Fidel without naming him. When they get to the part in a sentence where they might say Fidel, instead they stroke an imaginary beard. Then, a quick finger pointing at one eye means watch out, say little. The state rules everything here, including information distribution, and it owns all radio, TV, and newspapers. Communications are strictly monitored; for instance, we had to declare our VHF radios, and phones, and have them sealed while in the Havana area; satellite phones have scrambled signals here and aren't usable. Indeed, it can be a challenge to phone out to the United States; connections to that country in particular will only work through specially designated pay phones — few and far between — or hotel phones, all of which, we were warned, are monitored. However, we're told that connections to other countries can be made from any phone and are no problem. E-mail, our guidebook explains, can be sent from a few designated cyber cafes (one of which is actually in the Capitolio building) after which it reportedly goes to a central location where it can be read, sent on, or rejected and erased — and all this can take days or weeks. Trade is another hot potato; no one is allowed to derive any commercial benefit from Cuba without Cuba's oversight.

When we arrived, we found a mixture of legitimate fears of the government, much paranoia, and a rumor mill working overtime. We met a Canadian lawyer married to a Cuban college professor who were living on their boat near us. When we casually mentioned to him about our logs, the fellow's jaw fell open. "Don't even think about it," he said emphatically. "See that boat over there?" He pointed to a pretty Hallberg Rassy from the States. "That guy's been in jail for three weeks for doing some kind of business here without permission. Somebody reported him to the Guarda, and they came down here and arrested him. You don't have an American Embassy in Cuba. Writing about this country while you're still in Havana could be considered crossing the commercial line." We thought about it, and talked about it, and thought about it some more. Writing our columns from one of the most closely monitored marinas in the country — security guards watch your every move in Marina Hemingway, and cameras are pointed on the boats 24 hours a day — suddenly seemed risky. Were we being paranoid? Maybe. But maybe not. Boats are the ideal vehicles for potential escapes, and they are closely guarded. (Even young men with fishing rafts are watched carefully. The Gulf Stream is a dangerous but powerful road north.) The next day, for example, one of our boat neighbors on the dock was boarded by the security guards, and asked to produce his Pocketmail unit, an innocent portable e-mail device that works through the phone system. It was promptly confiscated. He'd been using it at the designated tourist payphone, and was observed by a security guard. They checked his records and discovered that he hadn't declared it when he arrived. He was told he wouldn't be getting the device back. Other cruisers here declared their Pocketmail device, used it freely and successfully, and were given no trouble whatsoever. Go figure. We decided we'd better play it safe until we left Havana, and run a few columns we'd written just before our arrival in Cuba.

Last week we untied our lines from Marina Hemingway, cleared out of the capital, and headed west to Bahía Honda, one of the famed "pocket bays" on Cuba's exquisite north coast. Several of these bays are off limits to sailors, but Bahía Honda is approved. Framed on its south shore with the dramatic Los Colorados mountain range of Pinar del Río, and on its west shore with an eerie big-ship cementerio (cut-up hulks of tankers lying this way and that), it's not that far, really, from the political hive of Havana. Already we began to feel freer of the capital's shadows. The casualness and friendliness of the lone Guarda Frontera at Bahía Honda — who adored opera, as Bernadette discovered when she put on a CD while he was aboard clearing us in — is in marked contrast to the more formal Guarda Frontera and Customs officials in Havana. Our fears about our self-imposed log embargo began to ease somewhat.

Today, we're anchored inside the reef of the Archipíelago De Los Colorados Y De Santa Isabel, far from Bahía Honda. We're fully protected from the Fronte Nortes, the fierce north winds of winter, and enjoying the skin diving, fishing, lobster-spearing, conch gathering and almost complete absence of cruising boats; in a week we've seen only four. The frigate birds are circling, there are great turtles swimming by and we're anchored in 10 feet of crystal-clear turquoise water. We're living one of our fantasies here, eating most of our dinners out of the sea. Looking back over the past month, we both agree that we wouldn't trade our experiences in Havana and small towns in the countryside for the world, but now, out here among the cays and reefs, it's a different world in almost every way. Finally, as we begin to think about heading west to Mexico, we're happy to begin sharing with you our Cuba diaries. ...

We arrived just west of Havana on January 7, entering on Cuba's north shore at Marina Hemingway — not a difficult task. Even before we reached the sea buoy marking the entrance channel, we were in contact with harbor officials. Excellent guide books for cruising Cuba by Nigel Calder ("Cuba: A Cruising Guide") and Simon Charles ("The Cruising Guide to Cuba") recommend that just after crossing into Cuban waters (12 miles offshore) it's best to call Hemingway via VHF on either 16 or 72 to announce your intentions and request permission to enter the harbor. But, in fact, one's arrival is hardly a surprise to officials on shore. We listened to other boats being hailed by Cuban authorities even before they'd called in, suggesting the authorities have good radar, good binoculars and the skills to use them vigilantly. One cruiser later told us he'd arrived here at 4 a.m., making safe entrance impossible for a number of hours. His electrical system was impaired, his lights were dark, and before he knew what was happening, a gun boat materialized out of the blackness, shined spotlights on him, and circled. They never responded to our friend's VHF calls, just circled until they were satisfied, then disappeared back into the night. Several times while sailing offshore during recent weeks we've had gun boats go by, sometimes waving to say hello, sometimes with sirens screaming, most times just ignoring us completely. So far, only once while at anchor, far down the north shore, has a Guarda Frontera launch come by to chat. Mercifully, it proved to be no big deal.

On the way over from the Keys, I'd written out a number of sentences in Spanish so that when I hailed the authorities, the inevitable collision of my excitement with my linguistic deficiencies would not render me even less comprehensible than usual. The official who responded came back to us with impeccable English, asking for the name of our vessel, our length, our draft, the number of people on board, whether we'd visited before, our anticipated length of stay and our approximate time of arrival. After I provided that, he said he'd already sighted us; he gave specific directions to the harbor sea buoy, which is only 1/4 mile offshore, told us to steer either to the port or starboard of it, but then to follow a course of precisely 140 degrees through the narrow reef channel, keeping the red stake to starboard, and tying up on our port side at the customs dock. Then, with great gusto, he exclaimed, "Ithaka, welcome to Cuba." We aimed for the sea buoy, and Bernadette and I pinched ourselves with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. There was no turning back now.

Why had we inserted ourselves into this politically charged and controversial place? Tom Miller, in his terrific book "Trading With The Enemy" speaks, I suspect, for many American tourists here when he writes: "I went to Cuba because I was curious, because no one agrees on its strengths; because I'd read so much about it; because it's forbidden; because it's heartbreakingly lovely; because so many have championed it while so many others have abandoned it; because Cubans make great music and aromatic cigars; because they've thumbed their nose at their former patron for more than three decades; because we still have a navy base there, because of its rich literary tradition; because I got a kick out of Desi Arnez; because I was distrustful of Cuba's bashers and its cheerleaders ... because of its mystique."

For many of the reasons Miller mentions, I too, have long dreamed of visiting Cuba. I wanted to do so before the end of Castro's regime, as it's likely there will be dramatic changes when he no longer controls the country. I wanted to see for myself a place about which I've heard so many conflicting and angry words. I've spent time in other tightly controlled countries, and wanted to get a sense of the people and the times in this one.

However, the idea of going to Cuba also presented a number of obstacles for us, beyond Miller's lighthearted observations above. When Bernadette was editor at CW, Cuba was a constant hot potato. How does a magazine dedicated to freedom of travel handle going to a country that the U.S. government says is verboten one year and quasi-unofficially-wink-wink more acceptable the next? How do you make sense out of American foreign policy that says so many people can go there for so many thinly-veiled purposes (educational, political, research, among scores of others) and legally spend what would amount to a fortune here, while tourists-sailors especially, who easily can get U.S. Coast Guard permission to be in Cuban waters, as we did — cannot get permission to spend money while on land. We found all this conflicting reasoning to be disingenuous.

Then, too, there are ethical considerations. Should one lend any sort of legitimacy by traveling in countries where political and human rights practices are personally unacceptable? Where does one draw the line? We decided, finally, that we'd go, as long as we could remain dedicated to violating no American laws. We provisioned heavily so no purchases would be necessary in Cuba. As for our stay in Marina Hemingway, we were invited guests and paid nothing.

Our official entrance to Cuba was a microcosm of the time we've spent here so far. In small towns and large, throughout the country, we've encountered no direct anti-American sentiments. Quite the opposite is true, actually. The Cuban citizens and the maritime officials (both in Havana and in bays along the coast — where one must check in and out with the Guarda Frontera, even if only stopping for a few hours or overnight) seem thrilled to discover that we're American. "We are more than neighbors," one official said. "In our hearts, we are brothers." It appears that on the person-to-person level, there's a profound connection between the people of the two nations, that the anti-Americanism emanates from the highest level, but isn't embraced by the populace. Several Cubans, in the privacy of their homes, but not in public parks or restaurants, offered the opinion that The Bearded One, as Tom Miller calls him, "loves the American embargo. It gives him a big powerful enemy, and then the Cuban people think they need his protection."

"Fidel is probably happy Bush got elected," another said. "Nothing will change for four years and he can continue his main theme. It's the glue that holds Cuba together."

"Seeing Bush elected is the happiest he's been since you detained Elian," commented a third. "That was the greatest public-relations for (chin stroking)."

On the other hand, every official who came aboard Ithaka was welcoming, polite, and often funny. A few at Marina Hemingway were also looking out for themselves quite adequately, thank you. For a Communist country, a few officials demonstrated a keen understanding of capitalism; one whispered that a regalo — a gift — would be appreciated. "Our secret, yes?" he whispered. Another told us that it would be possible for him to accept a tip. "It is between you and me, yes? A secret." To each we said, "No, señor. No possible. Prohibido." We offered Cokes and chocolates, which previous Cuba-cruisers had advised us was useful in shortening the bureaucratic process. Some ate the chocolates with enthusiasm; others politely said no thanks. You never knew.

The inspector from the agriculture department was fixated on one thing: Did we have any American eggs or chickens on board. We didn't, but the boat that came in just before we did had eggs, and the crew were told to boil them immediately. A very large man in a well-worn white lab coat came aboard, told us he was a "medico," asked us if we were well, glanced at the head and sprayed it with what looked like a can of Glade air freshener. He then asked, in hushed tones, for a "personal donation," which he didn't receive. Still he smiled, signed the papers and left with the last of the Hershey kisses.

In addition, we had to fill out a form indicating all our electronic gear and the serial numbers. Finally, our electronics were sealed in one of our own Ziplock baggies, taped with our electrical tape, sealed with a stamp, and put in one of our drawers. (We figured it was some strange version of an honor system.) Immigration officials took our passports and returned them 90 minutes later with our official visas, separate papers that weren't stamped into the passports. "No visible, yes?" they smiled. This is the Cuban government's way of allowing American citizens to be here (and hopefully spend money) without any evidence on their passports that could later alert American officials of their visit.

With our visas in hand, our passports not stamped, our chocolates all gone, our Coca-Cola supply depleted, the final official (eight of them had been on the boat over the course of two hours) assigned us a spot in the marina and said, "Welcome to Cuba, señor y señora."

The configuration at Marina Hemingway is such that there are four wide boat channels that run roughly parallel (east-west) with the coast line. Boats tie up to the cement piers on both sides of each channel. Previous visitors had suggested we get ourselves positioned on a north wall, so that when one of the powerful winter cold fronts blow through with north winds, we would be pushed away from the rough cement dock instead of toward it. We made just such a request, it was quickly granted, and proved to be good counsel.

The marina, located only 10 miles from downtown, was a perfect place from which to explore both Havana and the neighboring towns and countryside. We set out immediately (on the Marina Hemingway courtesy bus) to see the sights and absorb the ambiance — the American cars from the fifties (many of which are now re-powered by Soviet diesels), magnificent buildings — most in various stages of decay, others being renovated with some funds from UNESCO, the world-renowned music pulsating from every open-air bar and restaurant all day and all night, the central markets, the museums, the various neighborhoods, and some of the warmest, most industrious people I've ever met.

Over the course of the next month of our Cruising World logs, we'll share with you more of our impressions of Cuba: our experiences sailing between the spectacular isolated anchorages along the northwest coast; stories about the nationwide passion for baseball (we saw a great game at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana — Bernadette's first professional baseball game); we'll take you out fishing and skin-diving with the young fishermen we befriended who make their meager living from the magnificent reefs surrounding the islands; and we'll introduce you to some of the various men and women who re-taught us again and again that cruising is ultimately, essentially, about people.

While we were in Havana, we were reminded that in the fullness of time, in Cuba, in America — everywhere — politicians are no different than tides: swept in and out by forces greater than they. Governments of all stripes and dispositions rise and crumble to be reformed in different hues, but breaking bread in someone's home, talking with them, sitting with their children, sharing that second bottle of sipping-good rum, dancing and laughing, making friends — these events transcend nations and time. It is our good fortune that we will come away from Cuba having made friends, the ultimate subversive act. No power on earth can regulate that.