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CUBA

Captains's Log

April 5
Cienfuegos

We arrived in port at 10 PM on Easter Sunday and were met promptly by a troop of smiling officials, unperturbed by our late arrival, no overtime charges or bribes expected. Welcome to Cuba.
Say, what? What happened to the guard dogs, where were the AK-47's?

Yesterday morning, 2 days after leaving Montego Bay, Jamaica, we fetched up in Casilda, a small port 30 miles to the east of here. There we were informed in the friendliest way that we could no longer enter the country in Casilda, as immigration had closed their office due to budget constraints. So much for our carefully timed morning arrival. 12 hours later, after a nerve-racking night entry into a bay for which we had no adequate chart (having never intended to come this far west) we tied up at the Marina Jagua in the city of Cienfuegos, in the middle of the south coast of Cuba.

Cuba. Why Cuba, you may find yourself asking? Is that even allowed? Trade is still prohibited under the terms of the US embargo imposed in 1963, the "Trading With the Enemy" act. So it is technically illegal to spend US dollars here, but visiting the island is not only possible, it is strongly encouraged by the Cuban government. European sailors have been coming here for some time, and over the last several years an increasing number of American boats as well. Reports coming back have been glowing, and we wanted to see for ourselves what lay behind Fidel's curtain.

Our first impressions were mixed. I was tired, and not really up for the parade of officials and paperwork: customs, immigration, marine police, port captain, guarda civil, health inspector, and god knows who else. Usually, this is a nightmare of humiliation, as people in uniform seem to like to make us squirm; the smaller the country, the more self-important its officers. However, Cuba's official representatives were singularly polite and friendly, more like a welcoming party. They even took off their shoes to come aboard, which is the height of etiquette. And the health inspection form had my favorite question of the trip: "Do any of your rats appear ill?" Well, I had to admit that little Rattie did have a touch of the sniffles, but all the cockroaches were in fine fettle, and thank you so much for asking.

The marina is a ragged affair by US standards; concrete finger piers poorly finished, with capacity for about 20 boats. There are 8 here now: British, French, Danish, Italian, German, and us. There is fresh water, diesel and electricity at the docks, and even a computer in the office. But some of the electrical wires are simply run along the surface of the ground, and there are bare connections here and there where the wires are simply twisted together. The computer doesn't work; just like home, except that this one apparently never works. A grumpy attendant unlocks the toilets, which have no seats and no paper; no surprise. The showers are quite unique. There is the usual pipe coming out of the wall, the usual single tap (cold), but only 2 walls on each stall, a truly creative economy. The victim is in plain view of the world on 2 sides, so everyone can watch him cringe and curse as the cold water hits his shriveling testicles. Which is why most boats, including us, have some kind of shower arrangement on board. We use a 2 gallon pesticide tank (with water, not DDT) which you pump up to get pressure. And we can get our water just as cold as any marina, if we so choose.

Cienfuegos is a city of about 100,000 people, reached from the marina by a broad boulevard along the bay, called the Malecon. The Malecon was constructed when a lot of people had cars, and has 4 lanes divided by a grassy center strip. Now it is used by the occasional gas-powered vehicle, but also by many horse drawn carts and swarms of bicycles, and the sidewalks are in heavy use. The Cubans we have seen, and their horses, look pretty trim and fit.

The cars are great, about evenly split between old Ladas (soviet-built) and 1950's American cars, the big kind with fins and lots of chrome. With no imports of either cars or parts coming in from the US since 1963, people have made do by fabricating their own parts as things break or rust out. The only new cars, mostly Japanese imports, are in the tourist sector (taxis, rental cars, tour buses), where hard international currency comes in.The city itself must at one time have been prosperous. There are large houses with columns and big inner courtyards, now mostly crumbling and badly in need of paint. There is an impressive main square, Plaza Jose Marti (a hero of the 1890's revolution against Spain). Here are all the official buildings: town hall, various ministries and offices, theatre, cathedral. All are grandly colonial and well maintained, including the church. Posters of Pope John Paul are openly displayed. There is one pedestrian-only avenue which has all US dollar stores. Here the street and the stores are jam-packed and the shelves are full. Elsewhere are peso stores, mostly with half-empty shelves and odd collections of stuff noone wants. Here and there are lines of people getting basic foods from the state subsidized food stores; very cheap, but limited in variety and quantity. We haven't quite sorted out the monetary system on the streets yet, but there seems to be a huge dollar-based economy. At the chart store, we were told that the particular coastal charts we were looking for were not available, because "everybody wants those". Entrepreneurial principles have not reached that office, but everywhere else one sees robust private sector activity. Perhaps the most interesting of the day was the cigarette lighter rebuilders; enterprising young men with a box of dead lighter parts, a few tools, and a tank of butane would give new life to disposable lighters for a few pesos. Ice cream is big here, for good reason. From about 10 am until the seabreeze comes in mid-afternoon the place is a furnace.

The people we have met have been very friendly, animated and outgoing, and are generally very excited to meet Americans. If there is resentment about the embargo, it does not appear to extend to us as individuals. One does not see outward signs of oppression or discouragement. This is a large, bustling city, but we saw only occasional police, no military presence, and fewer guns than I see in a night in the ED in Farmington. And apart from the occasional inspirational poster about socialism and democracy, there is NO advertising!! Yes, you read that right-democracy. Go figure.

 

10 April
Cayo Blanco de Zaza, Golfo de Ana Maria

We have just dropped the hook in a small protected bight off
a lovely sandy Cay, with an unobstructed view toward the setting sun. Travel brochure alert!!! There is no one in sight, we have the place entirely to ourselves. Sailing out from Casilda, we saw a number of small fishing boats under patched, multicolor sails; a return to old technology not for the romance, but because fossil fuels are scarce and expensive.

From the harbor in Casilda, we visited the city of Trinidad, the second oldest in Cuba. It was settled in 1514, and served as the staging port for the conquest of Mexico. Later it became a major sugar exporting region, and now is a bit of a sleepy backwater. It is an architectural treasure, and has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, which means that a lot of restoration work is going on. Most of the restored buildings house musuems, the most interesting of which was in the old Franciscan monastery. This was the Museo de la Lucha Contra Bandidos, which turns out to be the war following the revolution which overthrew Batista in 1959. The "Bandidos", which included expatriate Cubans, the CIA, Trujillo's army, and various other counter-revolutionary groups made numerous attempts to invade Cuba over the 5-year period from 1959 to 1964, with more loss of life than during the actual revolution. The Bay of Pigs is the attempt which we know about, but there were several others, with heavy fighting around Trinidad. Our tax dollars at work around the hemisphere.

 

April 17
Cayo Algodon Grande, Golfo de Ana Maria

We are finishing what could be called the Shangri-La portion of our time in Cuba. Golfo de Ana Maria is a huge, shallow bay protected on the seaward side by a long chain of barrier reef islands called the Archipelago de Jardines de la Reina (gardens of the Queen). Inside, there are also numerous small, low cays, with a mix of mangroves and sandy beaches. Some have protected lagoons perfect for the likes of us, and we visited 4 of these.

Amazingly, there is no habitation anywhere in this entire paradise, which covers an area about 200 miles by 50 miles. There are several shrimp boats, and a few small fishing boats, but that's it. A resort developer would go nuts here, and probably will once things open up. Actually, the whole coast is like this; densely populated cities, separated by long stretches of unpopulated coastline, punctuated only by the occasional isolated small fishing village.

We started off with Cayo Cinco Balas, picking our way across a bar with 6' of water (we draw 5'8") into a mangrove-fringed lagoon. Around the corner, within easy reach of the dinghy, were miles of barrier reef and coral strewn lagoons. Fantastic snorkeling and diving, with reefs literally untouched. Here Joel went into hunter mode, returning with 3 huge spiny lobsters, bigger than any I've ever seen.

Our favorite of all the cays has been this one, Algodon Grande (translates, "big cotton", don't ask me why). Shortly after we arrived here, a group of fisherman stopped by to give us a Pargo (red snapper) for dinner. Not selling, just wanting to be neighborly. We pressed some beer and cigarettes on them, thus touching off the strangest battle in the history of US-Cuba relations; to see which crew could outdo the other in generosity. This involved several rounds of tying up together, chatting about boats and fishing and life in Cuba and the States.

In the process, all sorts of seafood and produce found its way aboard Tammy Norie, while a variety of spare ropes, Madeira, and cigarettes found their way aboard Estrella Del Sur. On the second day, Joel and the 2 younger fishermen, Lazaro and Roberto, went lobster-hunting in our dinghy, bringing back 3 more big guys. I learned quite a bit about life in Cuba from Domingo, the captain, who had taught school for 25 years, finally giving up in disgust because he was only earning $10/month. He had been doing private sector farming on the side for some time, and when the government opened up fishing to private enterprise, he jumped at the chance. He sold his car to get building materials, arranged a black market purchase of fiberglass and resin through a local tourism official, cut down some trees to make boards for frames and deckhouse, converted an old diesel tractor engine to drive the prop, and figured out how to build a 24' boat. No plans, no previous experience, just did it, although it took him 2 years. When he needed a fitting, he welded it or cast it out of scrap metal. Good old yankee ingenuity, right here in Cuba, although they've had to do without some pretty basic equipment, like a compass, because it's simply not available to them. His friend Gualberto retired from being Chief of Motor Vehicle Licensing to help him build the boat, and now serves as partner and co-captain. They fish day and night until the ice boxes are full of fish, usually 4-5 days, then head home and sell to whoever will purchase in dollars, going rate about a dollar a pound. The state-owned fishing boats, by contrast, are all ferrocement clunkers that noone seems to paint or take care of, and their crews rent them in exchange for the privilege of selling fish for pennies a pound to the state seafood distributors. Doesn't take a genius to see which sector will succeed in the end. Domingo now makes as much in one trip as he used to make in a year of teaching, although it is a pretty spartan life.

Just before we left, they were stuck with a dead battery, anchored off an exposed beach with a howling northerly wind; the dreaded lee shore. We were able to ferry one of our batteries across to get them going, the parting shot in our little duel of mutual kindness. We motored off toward our very different worlds, both crews a little amazed. This Christmas, whatever it takes, whatever laws have to be broken, Domingo will get a compass for Estrella del Sur, the Star of the South.

MR

Captain's Log

April 25
Santiago de Cuba

Since leaving the Garden of Eden, we have worked our way eastward against wind and current about 200 miles, arriving in the city of Santiago on the 19th. This stretch of the southeast coast, starting at Cabo Cruz, is mountainous and impressive, a very different cruising ground from the Cays we have just left. Here there are long stretches of rocky coast and cliffs, with only the occasional harbor of refuge, like the Oregon coast. We had hoped to duck in at the various small fishing ports along the way, starting with Cabo Cruz, but all are closed to foreigners since the downing of the two US planes in 1996. We can anchor, but not go ashore, as we were politely told while being escorted back to the dock in Cabo Cruz by the Guarda Civil. The connection is a bit tenuous, but no doubt related to the memory of gunboats from the north marauding along this coast in the early 60's. Fear is re-awakened whenever tensions with the US escalate for any reason.

We had planned to avoid Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba, because we had read that the water was filthy, the air polluted, and the marina fees extortionate. Fortunately for us, all that has changed for the better. We have been in far dirtier places, and it has turned out to be a very interesting place. We were happy to reconnect with our friends Guy and Annika aboard Street Legal. We had first met them in Porto Santo, Madeira, and vaguely expected we might cross paths in Cuba. They arrived 2 days before us and had already done a lot of reconnaissance by bicycle.

We are doing more sightseeing here than we have done elsewhere because it is such an historic place. Santiago was the first capital of Cuba, settled in 1514, long before Havana, and has been an important city throughout its long history. The house of the first Cuban governor, Diego Velasquez, is still standing, the oldest colonial dwelling in the New World. It has been exquisitely restored, and serves as a museum of colonial architecture and furniture. Entering this elegant house in mid-day, one immediately understands why the Spanish colonized so sucessfully here; only people from a hot, dry place would know how to build a liveable dwelling and, by extension, to function more generally in this kind of climate. It is open, airy, and calculated to be a cool and shady as possible. We didn't want to leave.

We also visited El Morro, an impressive stone fortress guarding the harbor entrance, dating from the 16th century as well. While it is primarily a Spanish structure, there are traces of English and French tenure as well, particularly 2 cast bronze French cannons lying on the ground near the entrance. These are elaborately embellished works of art which look new in spite of being over 200 years old. They also have some graffiti scratched in them by American sailors during what we call the Spanish-American War. Cubans refer to it as the "Cuban-Spanish-American war", which makes a bit more sense, since it did mostly happen here.

The other historic site we took in was El Cobre, an impressive 16th century cathedral built on the holiest site in Cuba. I didn't quite catch the explanation of the original miracle which it marks, but it has been the seat of both the Cardinal and the patron saint of Cuba for centuries. It is well outside of the city, up in the mountains, facing the former Anaconda Copper mine, which forms an odd juxtaposition. The government has helped maintain it, and it was here that the Pope ordained the new Cardinal of Cuba on his visit in 1995. While we were there, a steady stream of pilgrims came through by the busload, all with flowers which they laid at the shrine containing the mitre of Pope John Paul. This, together with our discussions with the fishermen, the busy restoring of churches elsewhere, and the number of crucifixes and posters we see openly displayed, all tends to confirm our impression that the Roman Catholic Church is flourishing in Cuba.

In our wanderings, we also took in a concert at the Casa de Trova, which sponsors and preserves traditional Cuban music. It was a sort of coffee-house atmosphere, and we heard three different groups perform, all great stuff. I got a couple of CD's, but would love to come back and track down more of this kind of music, which I have never heard in the US, except for a recording made by Ry Cooder with some of these old guys in Havana.

Santiago sits at the head of a long, deep bay, with a variety of smaller inlets and islands, some inhabited and accessible only by ferry. The ferry is basically a motorized barge with a canopy, and costs half a cent. One of the stops is a delightful little island named Cayo Granma. It has only stone walkways, no cars, and the houses along the shore all are up on pilings, with little garage-like boathouses underneath for the family rowboat. There is a small restaurant looking out to the west where we sat listening to Cuban music and watching the sun go down, as small homebuilt wooden fishing boats glided back and forth across the harbor. I kept expecting the movie credits to start rolling.

Finally, I have some sense of how money works here, which is interesting as a metaphor for how the old system is unraveling more generally. I actually just wrote and deleted a 3 page explanation, which was hopelessly arcane. Here it is in a nutshell; everyone here, including the government, has long since acknowledged that a centrally controlled economy is not going to work, and that integration with the US economy is inevitable. The peso is moribund, and 99% of economic activity now takes place in US dollars. For the moment, during this transition between the 2 systems, the clever tourist can still buy pesos at 21 to the dollar, and use them to buy incredibly cheap food at the
state-subsidized markets. But it's not sporting, and it won't last.

Production and banking are being privatized at a dizzying pace, and it is just a matter of time before the whole shebang is conducted in US dollars. It was a one-sided war, and the triumph of free enterprise is a fait accompli. All those invasion attempts, not to mention the embargo, are moot. People want tires for their cars-hell, they want cars. And no people can long endure without toilet paper, even if they do have the best literacy rate and the lowest infant mortality rate in the hemisphere. But they have become accustomed to self-determination, and have never tolerated bullying by colonial powers. And if social justice and efficient production can coexist successfully anywhere, Cuba may just be the place. Now Jimmy Carter (he speaks better Spanish than George Mitchell) needs to sit down in a room with Fidel or whoever is going to succeed him, and the folks in Miami who want restitution for their factories and plantations, and figure out some honorable way to move ahead without yet another bloodbath. We have friends here now. We don't want them to get hurt.

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