So Close, Yet So Far
April 15, 2004
Cuba seems to be a logical destination for North American cruisers. Havana is only 90 miles south of Key West, Florida. From the Bahamas, the Cuban coastline is even closer; Puerto de Vita at the northeastern end of Cuba is an overnight sail from Ragged Island, where we were last week. There's a well developed tourist industry in Cuba; you can rent cars, attend cultural events, go out for dinner. The prices are low by both Bahamian and North American standards. Using David's standard, a cold beer in a tourist bar is a buck; in a local bar it's ten pesos, or 40 cents. They've got great beaches and superb reefs. The people are incredibly friendly and generous. And yet almost no cruising boats visit Cuba.
The are two main reasons that Cuba is not flooded with foreign cruisers. Since the Cuban Assets Control Regulations were issued by the US government in 1963 as part of the Trading With The Enemy Act, Cuba has been a difficult destination for Americans, made even more difficult in recent years by the current administration. Simply put, Americans are prohibited from spending any money in Cuba, something that's difficult to avoid if only because it costs something to check into the country. As of February 26th, the Bush administration has tightened the screws further. By presidential proclamation, national, state, and local authorities are now empowered to board, inspect, and take possession and control of any vessel (American or foreign) in US waters based merely on their belief that the boat may be INTENDING to visit Cuba.
The US government's restrictions are a good reason why you don't encounter a lot of American cruisers in Cuba, but what about other nationalities, like us Canadians? While Canadian and European cruisers DO make their way to Cuban waters, they're still few and far between, not nearly as plentiful as their compatriots in neighbouring Bahamas, Mexico, and Dominican Republic. Again, regulations are the problem -- Cuban regulations. More on that later.
There was hardly a breath of wind when we left Ragged Island last week. We motored ten miles across the shallow Columbus Bank, the flat water reflecting a near full moon. We had chosen a course that would skirt by at least a mile the notorious Brothers Rocks on the edge of the banks. As we approached the rocks, we thought we might be able to see breaking seas in the moonlight, but it was glassy smooth all around us. David put down the binoculars just as the digital readings on the depth sounder plunged from 20 feet to off soundings; we had safely reached the Old Bahama Channel.
Due to recent events in Haiti, we were a little nervous about encountering boats filled with desperate Haitians, but the only traffic we sighted was one unidentifiable east bound vessel and two large west bound container ships in the middle portion of the channel. The sky gradually took on a rosy hue when we were ten miles from the Cuban coast.
The first indication that we had left the Bahamas behind -- aside from the mountains silhouetted on the horizon -- was the light marking the entrance to Bahia de Vita. It worked, a rare occurrence in the Bahamas. At the narrow mouth to the bay we easily identified the channel buoys and followed their serpentine course into the port. An English voice on the VHF radio identified himself as the Puerto de Vita marina and gave us instructions for the turnoff from the main channel. Just to make sure we didn't get lost (a difficult thing to do given all the aids to navigation), a marina worker came out in a personal water craft and guided us in.
The last time we checked into Cuba was four years ago in Santiago de Cuba on the south coast. That ordeal had involved 14 separate officials and two dogs, one sniffing for drugs and the other trained to detect explosives. We were prepared to spend the better part of the day getting cleared into Puerto de Vita and were pleasantly surprised that we had to deal with only six officials and one dog. It was all over in an hour. The doctor from the Health Department came aboard first, giving Eileen a bunch of bright red flowers that the marina's PR lady had handed him on the dock. He determined we weren't stricken by the plague and told us we could lower our yellow quarantine flag. Following close behind, the harbour master issued us our international clearance papers and charged us ten dollars. For five bucks the official from the agriculture department squeezed our one remaining potato and gave us his okay. The veterinarian approved the meat in our freezer and took another five dollars. For $15 each we received visas, good for three months, from the immigration officer. The customs officer gave us an inspection notice and relieved us of another $20. He returned with Mich, a frisky cocker spaniel, who bounded all over our berth, counters, and settees. His handler apologized profusely for his poor manners, but we figured he was just doing his job. Mich didn't charge for his services. All of the officials were unarmed and extremely polite; they removed their shoes before coming aboard and, upon leaving, each wished us a pleasant visit.
When we leave Puerto de Vita, we'll need to see the harbour master again for a cruising permit. That will cost another $15. At the end of our Cuban tour, we'll pay ten dollars for our international checkout. That will bring the total cost of our paperwork up to $95, still considerably cheaper than the Bahamas, where the cost of a cruising permit has recently jumped to $150 for boats less than 35 feet long and to a whopping $300 for all other pleasure craft.
Unlike the Bahamas, however, cruisers can't go ashore in most ports in Cuba. When we cruised the south coast, we could wander wherever we liked among the uninhabited cays, but came under close scrutiny whenever we approached a settlement. Ironically, land based visitors can go just about anywhere they like in the country, whether its by bus, train, plane, rental car or even bicycle and horse buggy. The difference, of course, is that it's unlikely that a tourist arriving in Cuba by air will leave with a Cuban hidden in his or her baggage.
In five days in Puerto de Vita, we've met five other boats from Canada and one each from France, the Netherlands, Norway, Britain, and the States -- not a large number considering this is the only port of entry for the entire eastern half of the north coast. Ironically, the Cuban government would like more foreign cruisers to visit, bringing with them much needed hard currency, but it severely restricts where we can go and spend that money.
When we were in the Bahamas, the common refrain among cruisers who were disgruntled by the high cost of living, the usurious cruising fees, and the poorly marked channels was, "Just wait until Cuba opens up ..." We have mixed feelings. When Cuba "opens up", will we be able to anchor by ourselves and will the beer still cost 40 cents a bottle when we go ashore?