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Mr. President, let us help

An open letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry; Re: Cuba.

Dear Mr. President and Mr. Secretary,

It’s safe to say that most folks in the American cruising community and the marine industry, regardless of political affiliations and beliefs, welcome the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba.

We cruisers (and sportfishermen, too) want to take our boats there and the marine industry wants to make money helping us get there, particularly the South Florida marine industry. Where boaters are concerned, Florida’s waterways are the road to Havana.

Thank you for expanding the exceptions to the U.S. travel ban in recent years. Now Cuban-Americans and Americans who can afford structured “people-to-people” tours can go to Cuba, along with individuals engaged in research or charitable work or participating in sporting events. I understand that presidential authority is somewhat limited in freeing all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba because this would require an act of Congress. And we all know that our Congress would rather act out than act.

The purpose of my letter is to suggest a way that you can benefit ordinary Cubans in Cuba while restoring a basic freedom to some of your own people.

Boaters in general and cruisers in particular embody America’s peculiar sense of personal liberty. We don’t like it when someone tells us we cannot go somewhere. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that despite the travel ban, approximately 150 American boats cruise Cuban waters a year illegally. I like to say that these are people who have adopted a personal foreign policy.

Cruisers, with their strong sense of individualism and inherent decency, I would argue, are the very best people to send to Cuba to represent American values. Mr. President, ask Secretary Kerry whether this is not the case. As a yachtsman, the secretary has regular contact with ordinary American cruisers and will surely confirm this characterization.


Cruisers buy groceries

He also will confirm that cruisers can reach an entire segment of the Cuban population outside the Cuban tourism industry, which includes the people-to-people business as well as all-inclusive beach resorts. Cruisers will interact with ordinary Cubans, such as fishermen, shopkeepers, mechanics and other tradesmen. That is to say, they will do business with them, bringing a little bit of prosperity to ordinary people outside the tourism sphere.

I am not asking that you do the impossible. I recognize that opening Cuba altogether requires Congress. I am only asking that you let those who are eligible to go to Cuba legally be allowed to do so on their own boats. I know you have the power to do this because prior to President George W. Bush’s crackdown in 2004, U.S. boats carried their owners to Cuba on a regular basis, provided that the purpose of the trip was legal.

For example, as a journalist on business, I can go to Cuba without asking anyone’s permission as long as I go by aircraft. Others in the categories mentioned above must also fly. However, to take my boat to Cuba — even though I am a boating journalist — is virtually impossible.

As you know, taking recreational vessels to Cuba requires not just that the occupants have either a specific or general license from the Treasury Department (mine falls under the heading of general), but that the boat also have a permit.

Not ‘contrary’ now

Ever since 2004, boaters with a legal reason to visit Cuba have had to apply to the Commerce Department for an export permit (sometimes called a temporary sojourn license), as if they owned a freighter. As far as I can tell, no permits have ever been granted to a recreational vessel because you, Mr. Secretary, and your predecessors have a veto on the granting of such permits and have used it each and every time.

Granting the permit, you say, would be “contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests.” I know because that’s what the State Department wrote as part of my denial in 2005.

What I am asking is that, as part of our new engagement, we either do away with the requirement for an export permit altogether or the State Department ceases to routinely veto these applications.

That would return us to the status quo ante. U.S. boaters would again travel to Cuba as participants in sportfishing tournaments and sailing regattas. Boats filled with medical supplies and other scarce necessities in our holds and decks would flow across the Florida Straits to be distributed to ordinary Cubans. That’s what had been happening before 2004.

In summary, American boaters are the very best people to carry out your new policy of engagement. Please return to us our freedom to be of service in this worthy cause.