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An enduring contradiction

Havana’s Hemingway International Yacht Club turns 20, and, yes, there will be fishing tournaments

Something happened back in 1992 that surely had the late revolutionary Che Guevara spinning in his unmarked grave. Cuban leader Fidel Castro gave permission for a new yacht club in the suburbs of Havana.
The Soviet Union had just withdrawn its troops and had quit sending the Castro government more than $2 billion in annual subsidies. The land of “rum, rhumba and revolution” had entered a time of crisis known as the “Special Period.”

Ernest Hemingway in his element aboard Pilar, his 38-foot Wheeler Playmate.

When Castro came to power, he was quick to shut down yacht clubs and other patrician haunts in the Cuban capital. The venerable Havana Yacht Club, founded in 1886, became an R&R facility for construction workers and remains so today.

The departure of the Soviets and their subsidies left a Cuban naval officer named Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich casting about for a new career. Today, with its tourist economy, golf course/villa developments and free market reforms, a yacht club in Cuba doesn’t seem so farfetched. But 20 years ago Escrich’s idea was a heretical notion; foreign sailors were only half joking when they called it the “world’s first Communist yacht club.”
Whatever Escrich said to convince Castro’s men had to have been convincing. The Special Period warranted special measures; a yacht club would bring revenue from “nautical tourism.” Castro himself was a sportsman who could appreciate the value of annual gamefish tournaments and yachting regattas. Castro’s favorite writer was Ernest Hemingway. The author had lived and worked in Cuba for two decades before the revolution; he was active in Havana’s sportfishing scene. Why not name the club after Hemingway?

Much to celebrate
Twenty years later, Cuba is changing, and Escrich is preparing for the Hemingway International Yacht Club’s 20th birthday. Here’s what the club has to celebrate: alliances with 57 yacht clubs around the world and 2,000 paying members from 60 nations, many of whom are citizens of the United States. Escrich says the club operates without help from the Cuban government, using money from member dues ($150 a year) and donations.
Escrich tells Soundings that he had hoped the U.S. travel ban — the regulations that keep most Americans from legally visiting the island — would have been lifted in time for the 20th anniversary celebrations. He says the show will go on, regardless of U.S. policy. With U.S. presidential electioneering in full swing, the travel ban is bound to endure for at least another year. Even so, more U.S. citizens will be eligible to attend than just a couple of years ago.
Among the fishing tournaments, races and social events are three conferences, beginning April 26 and 27 with “80 Years of USA-Cuba Nautical Relations: Present and Perspectives.” Another academic event, which happens to coincide with the 62nd Hemingway International Billfish Tournament, is titled “Climate Changes and the Migration of Billfish Species.” A third conference, on Cuban hydrography, has not been scheduled.
Under the Obama administration’s relaxation of Cuba travel restrictions, new classes of Americans are able to visit Havana. Early on, the administration changed the regulations to allow Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba freely. Many are Florida boaters and have an abiding interest in fishing and cruising at their familial homeland 90 miles from the Florida Keys.
Full-time journalists have always been allowed to travel to Cuba for work purposes under what is called a “General License” from the Treasury Department. The only requirement is that they swear an affidavit beforehand and document activities and expenses in case of questions upon their return to the United States.
Under Obama, General License exceptions to the travel ban were recently expanded to include “full-time professionals whose travel transactions are directly related to research in their professional areas, provided that their research 1) is of a non-commercial, academic nature; 2) comprises a full work schedule in Cuba; and 3) has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination.”
Professionals in the marine industry and anyone engaged in sportfishing for their livelihood might qualify to attend one or both of these conferences. Others also might qualify by obtaining a Specific License from the U.S. Treasury Department, which involves an exchange of paperwork with the department beforehand. A Specific License may be granted to “persons traveling to Cuba to do professional research or to attend a professional meeting that do not meet the requirements of the relevant General License.”
Anyone interested in attending the events should visit the club website ( and use the contact tab to ask for an invitation. Then visit the U.S. Treasury site ( and find the 51-page PDF document that explains the exemptions to the travel ban and how to qualify.

Commodore Jose Escrich hatched the idea for a yacht club named after the author.
A life-size bronze of the author occupies his usual corner at Floridita, one of his favorite watering holes.

More U.S. airports approved
There have long been daily flights to Havana from Miami, as well as scheduled flights from New York and Los Angeles. The U.S. government has recently approved nine new U.S. airports, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Atlanta.
The yacht club is at Marina Hemingway, Cuba’s largest marine facility, which has more than two miles of side-tie dockage and a hotel complex. The marina’s canals were dug before Castro came to power as part of a villa complex being developed by American mobster Meyer Lansky, using $10 million from an investor group that included Frank Sinatra. The revolution put an end to Lansky’s plan and drove the Mafia from Cuba.
The Hemingway International Yacht Club’s clubhouse was converted from a private home at the end of one of the canals.
Travel to Cuba in one’s own boat continues to be against the rules, whether the person has Treasury permission to go there or not. U.S. policy continues to require that anyone who wants to travel to Cuba in a vessel of less than 100 meters LOA apply for a Commerce Department export permit, which the Pentagon and the State and Energy departments then review. It is a lengthy process, and although there may have been unpublicized exceptions, the usual practice has been to issue written denials “in the interest of foreign policy.”
Despite U.S. Coast Guard patrols and the threat of fines, as many as 200 American boats visit Cuban ports every year without permission. When asked, these outlaws say U.S. regulations regarding Cuba are unconstitutional and violate their basic freedom to travel to any nation not at war with the United States. Those traveling to Havana, legally or covertly, will find the Hemingway legacy goes even deeper than the homage that the club and marina that bear his name pay. Visitors can drink at Floridita, with its life-size bronze of the author “getting stiff” in his usual corner; visit the Hemingway Museum at the site of the author’s old house and see his boat Pilar astride its tennis court; and tour the harbor at Cojimar, where he moored her.
An old fortress guards the mouth of the harbor. Cuban soldiers still man the battlements and scan the horizon for Yankee invaders. On the other side of the Florida Straits, a million Americans wait for the signal to storm the beaches of Cuba … as tourists.

A fortress guards the harbor at Cojimar, where Hemingway berthed Pilar.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.