A Cuban Update

Can we spell HOT??? Not as in temperature, as in THE place to be. Everyone is talking about Cuba. While we were hanging out in Key West there were anywhere from 20 – 50 boats debating on going to Cuba. Cuba is one of the last virgin cruising grounds left for sailors. It’s only 90 miles from Florida, it’s cheap and the people are wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to go there? There’s just the minor detail of it being illegal for Americans to go there. Well, not illegal to go, just illegal to spend money. And that’s why all the cruisers are sitting in bars in Key West debating on going. Having spent the winter of 2001 cruising there (see the Cuban Logs), we shared as much information we could and gathered lots more.

Here’s the latest scoop.

There’s a rumour going around that you don’t need to take cash to Cuba – you can just use your credit card. WRONG! If anyone (especially American) tells you that they were in Cuba and paid for everything with their handy piece of plastic, they are loco. American law forbids US businesses from dealing with Cuba. Credit cards are issued by banks. So, therefore credit cards issued by American banks are completely useless in Cuba. So are travellers cheques issued by American companies like American Express. Other nationalities (e.g. Canadian) can use credit cards IF they can find a Cuban business that uses them and that business has a credit card machine that is functional. Save yourself grief – take cash. If you’re staying in a big expensive hotel (they cost at least US$150 a night) and have a non-US credit card you might be OK. Then again, if you have that sort of cash, why are you reading this?

It has come to Sailorgirl’s attention the la Guardia Frontera in Marina Hemingway in Havana are looking for “gifts”. Do not give them anything. Several boats have reported losing baskets of goods they carried to distribute to the people. Here’s how it goes:
La Guardia: Do you have any gifts for the Cuban people?
Cruisers: Oh yes! Look, here’s many boxes of things we would like to give to Cubans.
La Guardia: We’ll take them and give them out. (They proceed to take anything they can get their hands on.)
Here’s what you should do. First rule is, out of sight out of mind. Stuff everything in a locker.
La Guardia: Do you have any gifts for the Cuban people?
Cruisers: No.
La Guardia: Would you like to donate anything to the Cuban people?
Cruisers: No.
La Guardia: We would like a present.
Cruisers: I’m sorry, we have nothing to give.
Under no circumstances should you give money. This is bribery. Mention words like “prohibido” or “illegal”. If you give money, the guardia is going to hit the next boat for more money. And that next boat might be me. No one has reported this occuring in any place except Marina Hemingway. Try not to let this distort your view of Cuba. Havana is the big city, it’s the New York City of Cuba. Everywhere else we went the Guardia Frontera were polite and very pleasant.

Post September 11. Thanks to Osama bin Laden and his evil buddies, checking in at Havana will now take twice as long. Like airport security, marina security has tightened in Havana. Understandable.

Checking in. Remember the Cuban rules?

1. If you don’t like the way something is done, wait an hour, it’ll change.
2. Everything is forbidden, everything is possible.
3. Any information you read (including this) is outdated.

Nothing changes here, yet everything changes all the time and depending on who you talk to. Currently cruisers checking in receive a 6 month cruising permit (for the boat), and a 3 month tourist card. This used to be 30 days. Who knows what you’ll get?

Bad news for Americans here…

And now the really bad news…. It seems the American administration is cracking down on American cruisers going to Cuba. No it is not illegal for American citizens or residents (those with green cards) to visit Cuba. Yes it is illegal for them to spend money in Cuba. This is nothing new. The regulation the administration is enforcing is the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act. President Bush has said he will enforce the regulations “to the fullest extent”.

What does this mean? Should you be one of the unlucky cruisers, you will receive a letter from the US Department of Treasure’s Office of Foreign Assets Control – OFAC – www.treas.gov/ofac. The letter states that you are known to have visited Cuba. Therefore you are assumed to have spent money. Unless you can prove otherwise you are subject to a fine. These fines start at $7500. To date, no one on the SSB nets can find anyone who has actually paid a fine. It takes about a year after your return (and legal check in) for this letter to reach you should you be charged. In 2002 OFAC sent out 178 letters. In 2001 OFAC sent out 698 letters.

There are exceptions to these regulations. Journalists, diplomats, politicians, academics, athletes, art collectorss, humanitarian groups and students can apply for a permit to travel in Cuba. Cuban Americans are allowed an annual visit to see relatives. If you don’t fit into one of these categories, you can try using one of the loopholes. The standard loophole has been the “fully hosted” category. This involves having someone (such as a Canadian) “sponsor” you. Up until now, most cruisers joined the Club Nautico in Marina Hemingway and received a letter stating that the Club covered all your marina fees. Apparently this is no longer enough, as they do not state that they cover your visa fees. Should another boat sponsor you, you must provide receipts and submit the original signed statements that your sponsors paid for all your entrance fees, visas and marina fees.

Does this mean you should forego Cuba? That’s your decision. There are some ways to cover yourself. 1. Save all your provisioning bills. Since you did all your provisioning outside of Cuba you can prove you were self-sufficient when in Cuba. 2. Claim that you anchored out the time you where in Cuba. Being there doesn’t mean you stayed in marinas. Record your anchorage waypoints. For help with this, see Nigel Calders’ “Cuba” 3. Do not go directly from Cuba to the USA if possible. When you check in you are asked where you are coming from. Bahamas sounds way better than Cuba. 4. Many boats report that they are simply not checking in when they reach the USA. This is up to you. When you arrive in a country you are required to fly a yellow quarantine flag (Q flag) from your starboard spreader. When you have arrived in the USA, you are required to then telephone or radio the Coast Guard who will direct you through the procedures. Seems that some cruisers are simply ignoring this. As I said, this is your choice.

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