Will cruis­ing to Cuba be­come a re­al­ity?

The boat­ing ban re­mains un­af­fected by Pres­i­dent Obama’s new travel pol­icy, but changes are com­ing

Soundings - - Front Page - By Stephen Blakely Pho­tos by Ch­eryl Barr

Now that Pres­i­dent Obama has moved to re-es­tab­lish full diplo­matic re­la­tions with Cuba and eased the em­bargo against vis­it­ing this long-for­bid­den Caribbean is­land, will Amer­i­cans fi­nally be able to cruise there legally in their own boats? Af­ter a half-cen­tury of “no,” the an­swer is still no. For Amer­i­can cruisers, the reg­u­la­tory block­ade of Cuba re­mains un­af­fected by the pres­i­dent’s ac­tions, even though it has been sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced — but not elim­i­nated — for vis­i­tors who ar­rive by air. That means the po­ten­tial penal­ties for tak­ing your boat to Cuba with­out a spe­cial per­mit re­main in ef­fect: pos­si­ble con­fis­ca­tion of the ves­sel, fines of as much as $10,000 and up to 10 years in jail. For good mea­sure, U.S. law also pro­hibits Amer­i­can in­sur­ance car­ri­ers from pro­vid­ing cov­er­age to boats in Cuban wa­ters.

“Noth­ing has changed for recre­ational boaters and Cuba to­day, and we don’t know when it’s go­ing to change,” says Scott Croft, a spokesman for BoatUS. “The over­all mes­sage is: Hold off — not yet.”

En­force­ment of the boat­ing re­stric­tions tends to vary with the po­lit­i­cal party in the White House. Democrats gen­er­ally fa­vor en­gage­ment and com­merce as the way to end the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in Cuba. Repub­li­cans usu­ally push iso­la­tion and em­bargo. The Coast Guard pa­trols the 93 miles of wa­ter be­tween the two es­tranged coun­tries, mainly to catch drug run­ners and Cubans flee­ing the is­land, but boaters can be stopped, as well.

Just ask Mel Ste­wart, a Bri­tish na­tional who lives in Canada and sailed to Cuba in his Canadian- reg­is­tered 27- foot Is­land Packet at a time when Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush had tight­ened the em­bargo. It was a dark and stormy night in the Florida Straits when a Coast Guard cut­ter that had been run­ning with­out lights sud­denly ap­peared on his stern.

“Our first in­di­ca­tion of their pres­ence was a mas­sive flood­light blind­ing me in the cock­pit and a de­mand that I iden­tify the ves­sel, the num­ber and na­tion­al­ity of all on board, ves­sel reg­is­tra­tion, last port of call and in­tended des­ti­na­tion,” Ste­wart re­calls. “I in­formed the of­fi­cer that the ves­sel was Canadian and that I was a Brit, and that ac­cord­ing to my nav­i­ga­tion we were in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters, and I wanted to know why he was ap­pre­hend­ing me. He in­di­cated that if I did not com­ply, we would be boarded.” Given the “quite rough con­di­tions,” he com­plied.

His in­for­ma­tion checked out, and the Coast Guard let him go. Since the U. S. em­bargo does not ap­ply to for­eign na­tion­als and their boats, Ste­wart asked again why he was stopped. “This time the of­fi­cer said he was

con­cerned for our safety,” he says. “The U. S. Coast Guard keeps an ea­gle eye on traf­fic in the Florida Straits.”

En­force­ment re­port­edly has eased un­der Pres­i­dent Obama, but that could change with the next elec­tion. “When we went to Cuba last year we saw a few Amer­i­can yachts, but a few years back we didn’t see any,” says Capt. Ch­eryl Barr, a Canadian who has cruised to Cuba ev­ery win­ter for al­most 20 years aboard her 62-foot Her­reshoff schooner and has writ­ten a cruis­ing guide about the is­land. “I think Obama did open up the loop­hole again.”

The boat­ing ban and why it stands

The U. S. em­bargo against Cuba was im­posed by the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion in 1960 af­ter the Cuban gov­ern­ment na­tion­al­ized all Amer­i­can busi­nesses and most Amer­i­can pri­vately owned prop­erty there. Tech­ni­cally, the boat­ing ban ap­plies only to com­mer­cial ves­sels, such as cargo and cruise ships, but in prac­tice it extends to Amer­i­can recre­ational boats, as well. That means a re­peal will take an act of Congress — un­likely any­time soon, with Congress deeply di­vided, the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign un­der­way and the is­sue politi­cized. With­out re­peal, a pres­i­dent can act only within the reg­u­la­tory mar­gins of the way the law is en­forced.

U. S. rules against Cuba fall un­der sev­eral laws that fed­eral agen­cies reg­u­late. Chief among th­ese are the Trad­ing with the En­emy Act of 1917 and the U. S. Trea­sury Depart­ment’s Of­fice of For­eign As­sets Con­trol, which reg­u­lates the ban on fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions be­tween the two na­tions.

Over the decades, the re­stric­tions have be­come a Byzan­tine tan­gle of chang­ing laws and rules, strained logic and shift­ing en­force­ment.

For in­stance, un­der Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, many Amer­i­can yacht own­ers and an­glers reached Cuba through a loop­hole in the Trad­ing with the En­emy Act by claim­ing to be “fully hosted” by the Cubans and, there­fore, spend­ing no money. Their de­fense: let­ters hap­pily is­sued by Ha­vana’s Hem­ing­way Ma­rina that waived all dock­ing, per­mit and visa fees. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush closed that loop­hole, backed by Florida’s Cuban-Amer­i­can ex­ile com­mu­nity. Af­ter the OFAC pros­e­cuted some Amer­i­can boaters for vi­o­lat­ing the “fully hosted” rule, Amer­i­can boats that had dom­i­nated Cuban fish­ing tour­na­ments largely stayed home.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s new di­rec­tive re- es­tab­lishes for­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions with Cuba, eases re­stric­tions on the 12 au­tho­rized cat­e­gories for vis­its — for ex­am­ple, re­li­gious and ed­u­ca­tional rea­sons — and al­lows Amer­i­cans to spend a limited amount of money there. Trips must be in groups only, as in­di­vid­ual vis­its for “recre­ation” and “tourism” are not au­tho­rized. Most non-Cuban Amer­i­cans get to the is­land via the “Peo­ple-to-Peo­ple” cat­e­gory, which, if you can af­ford it, can in­clude such non- recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties as fish­ing, div­ing and tour­ing Old Ha­vana night­clubs.

On the Cuban side

For boaters who can get there, nav­i­gat­ing Cuba’s opaque bu­reau­cracy is no piece

of cake, ei­ther. For in­stance, ar­riv­ing boats are re­quired to make ra­dio con­tact with Cuban port au­thor­i­ties once they reach the 12- mile ter­ri­to­rial limit. Land­fall must be made at one of the coun­try’s eight des­ig­nated points of en­try, Hem­ing­way Ma­rina be­ing the big­gest. As many as a dozen of­fi­cials (health, im­mi­gra­tion, mil­i­tary) may board for in­spec­tion. It takes a lot of pa­per­work and pa­tience.

Once cleared, vis­it­ing boaters must get a coast­wise cruis­ing per­mit from the mil­i­tary, which can take a few days. Har­bor­mas­ters want a 24-hour no­tice of de­par­ture and your itin­er­ary spelled out in de­tail. Vis­i­tors must re­port to the mil­i­tary and go through clear­ance again at ev­ery port. They can go ashore only at des­ig­nated ports with a ma­rina or tourist fa­cil­ity.

Th­ese reg­u­la­tions stem from Cuba’s prob­lem with cit­i­zens try­ing to es­cape il­le­gally to the United States and hu­man traf­fick­ers who profit from them. Since Cuban na­tion­als are un­likely to flee through a ma­rina, vis­it­ing boats are fun­neled there. That’s also why dinghies must be se­cured on davits or on deck at night.

Boat­ing in­fra­struc­ture in Cuba is prim­i­tive, re­pair and sup­port fa­cil­i­ties are limited and de­crepit, and boat chan­d­leries don’t ex­ist. Cruisers must be self-suf­fi­cient, able to han­dle their own re­pairs and be fully pro­vi­sioned. And don’t ex­pect In­ter­net ser­vice, as the gov­ern­ment con­trols what lit­tle ac­cess there is.

The fu­ture

Although Congress is un­likely to re­peal the em­bargo any­time soon, legal cracks are spread­ing. No­tably, af­ter lob­by­ing by farm­ers and agribusi­ness, Congress en­acted a law in 2000 ex­empt­ing U.S.-pro­duced food and medicine from the em­bargo; by 2007, Amer­ica had be­come Cuba’s largest for­eign food sup­plier and its fifth- largest trad­ing part­ner.

This piece­meal breaching of the em­bargo wall seems likely to con­tinue. In Jan­uary, a bi­par­ti­san group of sen­a­tors in­tro­duced a bill to ex­empt in­di­vid­ual tourism and recre­ational trips from the em­bargo, in­clud­ing by Amer­i­cans in their own boats. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce im­me­di­ately en­dorsed it, but the small-but-in­flu­en­tial Cuban-Amer­i­can cau­cus in Con- gress vowed to kill it. Nev­er­the­less, the U.S. travel/tourism and boat­ing in­dus­tries now have leg­is­la­tion to sup­port (S. 299), with agribusi­ness as a prece­dent.

Un­der Obama, the trickle of Amer­i­cans vis­it­ing Cuba has surged (by air, if not by boat) and is poised to be­come a flood. Euro­pean com­pa­nies have been in­vest­ing in Cuba for decades, Amer­i­can ones are itch­ing to get in, and post-Cas­tro lead­er­ship is on the hori­zon. The na­tion once de­scribed as “en­cased in the am­ber of the 1950s” by com­mu­nism, cen­tral plan­ning and iso­la­tion seems on the verge of join­ing the mod­ern world. Congress and Cuba’s mil­i­tary-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment ul­ti­mately will de­cide whether and how that ac­tu­ally hap­pens. Cuba has pris­tine reefs, leg­endary fish­ing, a unique and vi­tal cul­ture, nat­u­ral beauty and gor­geous (if di­lap­i­dated) colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture. The ad­vice of al­most ev­ery­one who’s been there is to see it now — a haunt­ing relic of what once was and still could be the most vi­brant econ­omy in the Caribbean.

Some day, you’ll be able to come by boat.

The Ma­rina Darsena, in Va­radero, Matan­zas, is atyp­i­cally mod­ern for Cuba.

Cienfuegos Ma­rina is one of Cuba’s more pros­per­ous mari­nas; (right) col­or­ful ar­chi­tec­tural gems en­dure in Old Ha­vana.

The U.S. em­bargo has left Cuba frozen in time,

as ev­i­denced by the vin­tage of the cars and con­di­tion of the roads.

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