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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.