A new class of people is about to gain the right to travel to Cuba on their own boats, and this will present the U.S. marine industry with new opportunities while challenging those individual American boaters who are allowed to go now.
According to José M. Diaz Escrich, commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, Cuban authorities have made the decision to reverse policy and allow Cuban Americans who were born in Cuba to visit by recreational vessel. There are 1.25 million Cuban Americans living in Florida, just a hundred miles from the Cuban coast, and more than half of them were born in Cuba.
This follows a decision earlier this year in which the Cuban government backed off on its ban on Cuban-American arrivals by cruise ship.
Escrich says that although the decision has been made, Cuban policy-makers are working out the details and procedures for admitting Cuban-American boaters.
“So far Cuban residents abroad cannot land in the Cuban marinas. Cuban marinas are getting prepared to receive Cuban residents abroad. When these conditions are ready, they will be publicly announced,” Escrich wrote in an Aug. 17 email.
Note the wording. Escrich uses the phrase “Cuban residents abroad.” Cuba’s regime does not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born, and it requires them to purchase a Cuban passport to visit family members who still live in the island nation.
EDUCATION, NOT ‘TOURISM’
The U.S. government forbids us from engaging in tourism per se when we visit Cuba. U.S. boaters must therefore qualify for one of 12 “general license” exemptions and then play by the rules. Thus far the two licenses most commonly employed are educational “people-to-people” visits and participation in international competitions, such as regattas and fishing tournaments.
From the standpoint of U.S. regulations, Cuban Americans born in Cuba can go by boat because family visits are one of those 12 general licenses, and this license is wonderfully free of restrictions. The problem has been at the Cuban end, which is rare. Historically the hurdles have been U.S. restrictions on American citizens (a fair number of whom have been visiting Cuba by boat without regard to American regulations, both before the Obama administration’s re-engagement policy and since).
Cuba has been loath to let Cuban Americans come by boat because of reasons that are both historical and immediate. In the 1960s Cubans in exile used boats to conduct commando-style attacks and sabotage against their former homeland, and today smuggling gangs are bringing migrants across the Florida Straits in fast boats, paid by family and friends in Florida’s Cuban-American community. (Read my recent blog, “Hunger Games Immigration Policy Is Immoral.”)
Cuba is a police state, deeply security-conscious and rightly embarrassed by the ease with which its disaffected citizens are being whisked away. So I think it fair to speculate that Cuban Americans arriving by boat may find they are subject to some additional restrictions that the rest of us do not face.
As mentioned at the top of the blog, Cuba’s policy change represents an opportunity for the marine industry. At the stroke of a Havana bureaucrat’s pen, 600,000 Floridians will soon be eligible to go to Cuba on recreational craft. As anyone who has plied the waters of Biscayne Bay will testify, plenty of Cuban Americans already have boats capable of making a 100-mile crossing. Heck, on days when the Gulf Stream is calm, a 25-foot center console could leave the Keys at lunch and be side-tied at Marina Hemingway in time for happy hour.
REASON TO BUY
Now those Cuban Americans who do not own boats may see a reason to buy one. Often when I fly to Havana, visiting Cuban Americans on the plane with me are decked out in expensive clothing, watches and gold jewelry — proof of their prosperity in America. What better way to showboat than with an actual boat?
Buying a boat is just a start: Existing owners and new owners alike will need special insurance for Cuban waters, only recently made available by U.S. underwriters, thanks to a regulation change in Washington. In the Keys, demand for parts, fuel and marina berths will grow. SeaTow and TowBoat US will see an increase in business because more traffic across the Florida Straits brings more breakdowns and fuel miscalculations.
Marina Hemingway in Havana has four canals that amount to four miles of potential side-tie dockage, but it has berths with power and water for only about 150 vessels. Last time I was there, workers were busy making improvements, including the installation of new power/water posts. Nowadays the marina is often filled to capacity or close to it, and the pressure will only increase when the new policy goes into effect.
Crowding has already prompted some U.S. boaters to choose Marina Gaviota instead, about 80 nautical miles west of Havana at the tip of the Varadero Peninsula. This brand-new marina, built and operated by a civilian subsidiary of the Cuban military, is now the biggest in the Caribbean, or the U.S. East Coast for that matter. But its more than 1,100 transient slips have been largely underutilized. That may begin to change.
The marina is top-notch, in a luxury resort environment, and the staff is friendly. Varadero is home to more than 70 all-inclusive hotels that cater to “sun-and-beach” tourists. For all of its amenities, however, the area lacks the cachet of Havana, which is three hours away by car.
All in all: great news for our fellow citizens of Cuban birth, a marketing opportunity for the marine industry and perhaps a bit of a hassle for the rest of us. Progress.