Awash in a Sea of Red Tape
July 22, 2004
It was just past dawn and we had barely set the anchor in lush Puerto Escondido on the north coast of the Dominican Republic when three men launched a wooden rowboat from the nearby beach. We eyed them apprehensively because we knew we weren't in an official port of entry. All three wore jeans, tattered tee shirts and faded baseball caps. One had a large revolver shoved in the waist band of his pants. Clambering aboard, he introduced himself as "el capitan de puerto". He didn't provide any identification; the gun said it all.
We gave el capitan our passports and clearance papers from Luperon, our last port. He demanded to know why we were stopping in Escondido. We explained meekly in our broken Spanish that we were in transit to Samana, just around the corner, but were seeking temporary refuge from the high winds and seas. We promised to leave at nightfall when we hoped the prevailing trade winds would be moderated by a countering land breeze. He scratched the stubble on his chin and asked if we happened to have a "regalo" (gift). We produced a bottle of Brugal rum. He smiled, shook our hands, and with his two companions and the bottle, jumped back into the rowboat. "Bienvenidos!" he exclaimed over his shoulder as one of his friends pulled on the oars.
This incident occurred a few years ago on our first visit to the DR. In terms of check-in procedures, the encounter was cheaper and more expedient than most of the check-ins we've experienced in ten years of full time cruising. The rum had cost us two dollars. Before leaving Luperon, we had stocked up with several bottles for occasions such as this one (as well as for our own medicinal purposes, of course).
Not all cruisers feel comfortable conducting "official" business in this seemingly unofficial way. In a recent letter to the Seven Seas Cruising Association "Bulletin", an American couple visiting the DR described a similar experience. They didn't speak Spanish, didn't know the peso exchange rate, were confused by the whole process, and ended up paying various officials a total of $60 US (instead of the equivalent of $1.50 US in pesos). They vowed they'd never return to the DR. Their next international landfall was the Bahamas. There they would have dealt with Customs and Immigration officers who wore uniforms, didn't ask for bribes, provided lots of forms with official stamps on them, and issued receipts. And they would have paid $300 US for the privilege of entering the country. Since their letter was silent on the matter, we assume they felt they were treated fairly by the Bahamian officials. We'd rather part with a bottle of cheap rum and forgo the receipts and stamped forms any day.
The point of the story is that paperwork and payments are facts of life if you go cruising beyond your national borders. The wind might be free, but not much else is. In our Caribbean travels, only in the French islands were we not charged entry fees (however, for the cost of a snack at a cafe in Martinique we could have bought a week's worth of groceries in the DR). Cuba takes top spot for the most officials, forms, and restrictions (although the total cost of the paperwork -- $95 US -- is not too far out of line compared to other countries). Some North American cruisers decry the fees, red tape, and arbitrary measures they encounter abroad and wish other nations would adopt their country's procedures. They only wish this because they have never visited their own country as a foreigner.
Purely on procedural grounds, the US is one of the more frustrating countries we've visited on our boat. Like Cuba and the DR -- but unlike virtually all of the other Caribbean countries we've cruised -- a foreign pleasure craft must get permission each time it moves to a new port within the States. This requirement is made easier if upon initial arrival in the US you obtain a cruising license -- good for a year and free of charge after you've paid your nineteen dollar entrance fee. With a cruising license, you can check in by phone when you change ports and you don't have to pay additional clearance fees (which would otherwise cost $38 a throw, rum not being an acceptable form of currency).
In our May 1, 2003 entry ("So, Are We Welcome?"), we described the difficulties we encountered when we attempted to renew our cruising license before it had expired. We phoned three different Customs officers and received three different answers. We finally obtained the definitive response from head office in Washington, DC. We were told that to be issued a new cruising license, we must arrive from a foreign port and any previous license must have expired at least fifteen days prior to our arrival. In other words, it didn't matter that we had been out of the country for four months just before we applied for a new license because our old license hadn't expired during this period. To avoid this dilemma in the future, we were advised to surrender our license when we leave American waters so we could start afresh when we return.
Officer Enos at Newport Customs & Border Protection gave Eileen some helpful advice
Now it turns out that surrendering a license isn't as simple as it sounds. Once the license information is entered into the US Customs and Border Protection computer, only the issuing office can delete it. The folks in Miami apparently can't cancel a license that was issued in Newport. So even if you mail in the hard copy of your license when you go offshore, it may still pop up on the computer screen when you try to check back in months later. We asked one Customs officer at one of the busiest entry ports on the east coast what he did when he received a mailed-in cruising license. "Oh, I generally just throw them in the trash and forget about them. It's too much trouble to try to track down the issuing office to cancel them."
Faced with these kinds of procedural inconveniences and inconsistencies, it's tempting just to ignore the whole process and hope not to be caught. We would advise against this approach to officialdom. Surveillance activities have greatly increased in the US since the October 2000 and September 2001 terrorist attacks against American targets. It's now not uncommon for foreign pleasure craft in US waters to be stopped and asked to produce valid cruising licenses and other boat documentation.
Curiously enough, we have found that some cruisers who would never think of violating the exacting demands of homeland security in their own country, profess a cavalier attitude towards the rules and regulations they encounter in foreign waters. In more than one rustic port, where the local authorities don't have the budget for patrol boats and sophisticated monitoring, we've heard the refrain, "It was going to take me the whole day to go around to all the different officials, so I decided to skip everything and not check in at all; they'll never know."
To us, this betrays a disturbing contempt for local laws and customs. It also reveals a naive underestimation of the potentially serious consequences of snubbing those laws. We recall a incident last year in the Bahamas involving an American cruiser who neglected to renew his immigration visa on time. Perhaps he got frustrated at not finding the immigration officer available in his George Town office (the officer does double duty at the international airport), and stopped trying, or maybe he just forgot. In either case, the outcome of his inaction or memory lapse was a directive to leave the country within two hours, which cost him the price of a return flight to Fort Lauderdale and the worry of leaving his boat unattended at anchor for a couple of days while he applied to re-enter the country.
We accept that when we travel to foreign countries we're expected to respect the local rules and restrictions, no matter how unreasonable or inconvenient they may seem. There's a really simple alternative if a country's bureaucratic requirements seem excessively convoluted or expensive: don't go there. But once you've entered foreign waters, you've implicitly agreed to abide by the laws that apply there. We subscribe to the time-honoured "Baa Baa Black Sheep" approach to red tape. When dealing with people who have the authority to seize your boat and throw you in jail, we smile and say: "Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!"