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Poised to cruise a post-Fidel Cuba

Could a change in leadership on the island nation lead to a change in U.S. policy for traveling there?

Could a change in leadership on the island nation lead to a change in U.S. policy for traveling there?

Fidel Castro’s failing health has stirred speculation about what kind of regime might follow him and whether the change would lead to a new U.S. policy opening the island to American cruisers and travelers.

“I think Cuba is going to open up in a year or two, but then I’ve been waiting for that for 10 years,” says boating economist Doug Norvell of Nauvoo, Ill. He has visited the island eight times under license from the U.S. Treasury Department as an academic or journalist. He says a lot of other Americans have been waiting for the political climate between the United States and Cuba to thaw so they can cruise there legally.

Based on numbers of U.S. boats that visit the Bahamas, Norvell estimates that in the first year after the United States allows its citizens unrestricted travel to Cuba, American boaters will spend a combined 15,000 days there. Some foresee the island one day becoming the epicenter of Caribbean cruising, with as many as 200,000 visiting boats each year.

Cruiser Peter Swanson, who has visited Cuba twice in the last four years and keeps up with matters Cuban for his Web site,, says that figure is feasible because of Cuba’s proximity to Florida, just 90 miles from Key West.

“It is an absolutely fantastic cruising ground,” Swanson says. The island boasts 3,500 miles of coastline, 1,600 keys and islets, many bays and inlets and 289 named beaches. He says there are safe harbors every 40 miles or so and bays half as big as Tampa’s, with no encroaching development shoreside. “They are gorgeous,” he says.

Yet for now Cuba isn’t the paradise most cruisers think it is. “There’s really not much as far as infrastructure,” Swanson says. The island still suffers from a lack of marinas, fuel docks and repair yards. The government has built about a dozen marinas, most on the island’s west end, but fuel often is pumped from a truck backed up to the quay instead of from a fixed pump at the dock. And repair yards and marine supply stores are few and far between. Hard-core cruisers might not mind the inconveniences and surprises, but many Americans are spoiled or fearful and not ready for the challenges, Swanson says.

“For this to be a destination [for large numbers of U.S. cruisers], there’s going to have to be a lot more in the way of facilities and marinas for people to have a satisfactory experience,” he says.

He notes, too, that while Cuban officialdom usually is polite, the bureaucracy is off-putting, especially rules requiring boaters to clear their itineraries through Customs as they go in and out of each port. “This is pretty onerous,” he says. “This is a bureaucratic disincentive that discourages people from coming back once they’ve done it.”

Most of Cuba’s marinas are operated by Gaviota, a quasi-public company run by a board of directors but strongly influenced by the Cuban military, which under Raul Castro — Fidel’s brother — has the responsibility for overseeing most of Cuba’s economy. Swanson says the military really doesn’t understand the cruising mindset that seeks out remote anchorages and opportunities to mingle with locals.

Authorities as a rule are uncomfortable with the idea of Americans cruising the island unfettered, anchoring where they will. They would rather steer boats to marinas built near big hotels, where they can check their papers and hope the Americans will spend lots of their dollars on food, lodging and entertainment — a formula that works for sportsmen who come in their boats to fish tournaments based at the marinas but not for die-hard cruisers, Swanson says.

“They really don’t understand what cruisers do,” he says.

A case in point: Baracoa on Cuba’s easternmost tip, a charming town and the oldest in the Americas, is the closest point of entry into Cuba from Hispaniola. Swanson says boat-savvy people in Cuba would like to build a marina there and turn this into a cruising destination. It could be a gem. He says the generals want to build the marina 80 miles up the coast in Vita, where there’s a tourist hotel.

Nonetheless, knowledgeable cruisers see great potential for Cuba. Swanson envisions yachtsmen sailing a “great loop” from the Abacos through the Bahamas to Georgetown on Great Exuma, across to the Jumentos Cays, then to Vita and along Cuba’s north coast to Key West.

Norvell says powerboats will be able to zip across the Straits of Florida from Key West to Havana, follow the north coast to Cabo San Antonio on Cuba’s west end, then motor to Cancun, Mexico, just 130 miles away. They’ll cruise from Florida to Mexico without ever being far from land or the watchful eyes of the U.S. or Cuban coast guards.

“Cuba is the linchpin of boating traffic and development in the Caribbean,” Norvell says. “Boating development in Cancun awaits an open Cuba. Right now, Texas yachts traveling to Cancun go all the way to Key West, then shoot over to Cancun in a 12-hour run.”

Norvell also is high on Cuba’s south coast, “where about 10,000 square miles of ocean flats await anglers, along with hundreds of keys with super-romantic names like the Twelve League Labyrinth,” he says. “The south coast waters teem with grouper and lobsters. It’s like being in the Florida Keys 50 years ago.” And he thinks some of the small, abandoned sugar ports on the south coast west of Guantanamo would be ideal for a chain of megayacht marinas.

Others are just as enthusiastic about the island’s charms. “Cuba is probably the last unspoiled cruising area in the Caribbean, with the possible exception of the San Blas islands in Panama, [which are increasingly visited by cruisers],” writes David Allister in an e-mail. Allister cruised Cuba with his wife, Eileen, in 2000 and again in 2003 and 2004. Lack of services, meager provisioning opportunities, and onerous check-in procedures were turn-offs, but “the fishing, shelling, snorkeling and diving are superb,” he says. “Cuba boasts a vibrant, diverse culture. The people are the warmest, most welcoming folks we’ve met anywhere.”

As Canadians unfettered by the embargo, the Allisters can keep going back. Yet for Americans, politics remains the wild card in this game. Americans have been restricted in their travel to Cuba under the U.S. economic embargo since 1961. The embargo prohibits Americans from spending money in Cuba unless they are an academic, journalist or other special category of visitor.

For years U.S. cruisers circumvented the embargo by claiming they were hosted by the Cuban government and that they spent no money there. Starting in summer 2005 the Treasury Department, which enforces the U.S. ban on spending in Cuba, eliminated the category of “fully hosted” travel to Cuba. Also, the Coast Guard no longer will issue a security zone permit to boaters who wish to cruise to Cuba unless they have a license to travel there from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and an export license from the Commerce Department. (The boat and everything in it are considered exportable items.)

The likelihood of boaters getting those permits is miniscule, says Swanson, who was denied a permit to cruise there as a journalist in 2005, but did get a permit to tour the north coast overland.

As an added disincentive to flaunt the embargo, a Feb. 26, 2005, presidential order authorizes the Coast Guard to board and seize any vessel in U.S. waters if authorities suspect that the vessel has visited Cuba or plans to visit Cuba without the necessary licensing. The administration has said its get-tough policy on Cuba travel won’t change until there is some move toward political and economic freedom on the island, a position reinforced in August with a new Bush policy that promises aid to Cuba, but only if it adopts democratic reforms.

That is unlikely to happen soon, says Terry McCoy, director of the University of Florida’s Latin American Business Environment Program and co-author of a 1994 study, “The Potential Impact on Florida-based Marina and Boating Industries of a Post-Embargo Cuba.” McCoy says it is pretty clear that, after Fidel Castro’s surgery and the transfer of power to Raul Castro during his brother’s convalescence, Cuba’s communist regime has a plan for a peaceful succession to another Communist leader and that peaceful succession is possible, even likely — more likely than a popular uprising to overthrow the regime.

“As long as it’s a Communist regime, it won’t be noticeably more democratic,” McCoy says. However, Raul Castro, who has been chiefly responsible for running Cuba’s economy, is believed to favor a more open-market economy, McCoy says. If he became Cuba’s leader, there could be a liberalization of the economy along the lines of what has happened in China, whose economy has far outperformed Cuba’s.

“Nobody knows for sure because this is a closed regime,” he says.

Norvell isn’t counting on dramatic political change in Cuba either, but a U.S. presidential election is coming up and with it the possibility of a shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. “Nothing happens [on the Cuba travel front] unless the American government says it can happen,” Norvell says. “The Cubans always have wanted more visitors by boat.”