Just say no (but if you can’t, please give a ten, not hundreds)

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Last month marked a milestone in nautical relations between Cuba and the United States, but the occasion was marred by the boneheaded behavior of individuals on both sides of the national divide.

American sportfishing boats competed legally in a Cuban sportfishing tournament for the first time since at least 2004, when the Bush administration cracked down on travel to Cuba by boat.

The Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament happened over five days at the end of May in the waters outside Havana Harbor. To mark the occasion, one of the American vessels, a Hatteras 50 named Therapy 2 out of Key West carried news reporters, plus two Hemingways — John and Patrick, Ernest’s grandsons.

Nick Miroff, Latin America correspondent for the Washington Post, wrote a thoughtful account of the tournament, which included these quotations and observations:

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” said Kurt Winters, pointing his boat at Key West, Fla., 97 miles north. During nine days in Cuba, his crew caught only one marlin. He pushed the throttle.

Officials clear a U.S. boat into Cuba in 2002. American sportfish captains participating in a tournament in Havana last month complained about being shaken down for “hundreds of dollars” while entering and leaving the country. Loose Cannon asks why they lacked the cojones to refuse to pay.

Officials clear a U.S. boat into Cuba in 2002. American sportfish captains participating in a tournament in Havana last month complained about being shaken down for “hundreds of dollars” while entering and leaving the country. Loose Cannon asks why they lacked the cojones to refuse to pay.

Immigration agents and inspectors in Havana had squeezed Winters and his crew for several hundred dollars in bribes, he said, shaking them down as they arrived and again when they left. Some of the U.S. boat captains had to pay even more. Winters was disgusted. “Cuba was on my bucket list,” he said. “I’m never going back.”…

The marinas of Key West came into view, crowded with million-dollar yachts and vacationers. Winters’s crew bellowed a rendition of “God Bless America.”

It’s astonishing to me that someone who has achieved enough in life to afford a $1.5 million boat and who aspires to a tournament championship would agree to pay “several hundred dollars” in bribes to low-level Cuban officials. I would have been embarrassed to admit that to a reporter.

Why not just say no, I asked Winters via a Facebook message? What do you think would have happened if you’d refused? I’m waiting for his reply.

Culture shock

It is a fact of life that clearing in and out of Latin American ports often involves having to deal with local officials with their hands out. Cuba has a reputation for being less of a problem than most, especially compared to the Dominican Republic. Soliciting bribes is against the law in Cuba, but one gets the sense that it is tolerated as long as the customs and immigration officers do not overreach.

“Several hundred dollars” is a big-time overreach. Those officers splitting Winter’s greenbacks are lucky if they earn $30 a month in wages.

Assuming an arriving or departing boater has not broken any rules, one strategy in Latin ports is to refuse to pay outright. This worked particularly well for me once when I did not have money and needed to clear out of Samana in the D.R. It was the only play I had.

Kurt Winters posted this photo of his Hatteras 50 Therapy 2 on his Facebook page. He bought his $1.5 million boat from a Cuban American businessman who had made the journey as a rafter two decades earlier.

Kurt Winters posted this photo of his Hatteras 50 Therapy 2 on his Facebook page. The Washington Post reported that he bought his $1.5 million boat from a Cuban-American businessman who had made the journey as a rafter two decades earlier.

“But señor, it is customary,” the guy behind the desk complained. “Sorry, buddy, I’m broke, and the ATM machine is in Puerto Rico.”

And we were talking ten bucks here, not several hundred. Given their low salaries, those Cuban guys should have been happy to squeeze a ten or twenty out of the gullible Yankees, but they couldn’t resist the big play.

I would bet you that those officers have some big problemas right now. Not only did they break Cuban law, but they also violated the tacit understanding that they would not steal more than their share. Cuba does not stage the Hemingway tournament just because Cubans like fishing (although they do). The tournament is part of a foreign policy initiative to brand Cuba as a “nautical tourism” destination for U.S. boaters.

Now those greedy goobers on the customs dock have made the Washington Post. They are lucky if they’re not in a Havana jail.

Shakedown advice

Here’s some advice for dealing with shakedowns from years of sailing in Latin waters:

  • If you speak Spanish, pretend you don’t. A language barrier works in your favor.
  • You can say no to bribe money, but nevertheless offer cold soft drinks or beers, especially if the officers have offered to take their boots off when boarding.
  • Remember that you are in a rum culture here, so the boys might appreciate a bottle of a more exotic intoxicant, like whiskey.
  • If you feel you must pay cash, try not to pay anybody except the boss, say ten bucks. The comandante should not be hard to identify. Otherwise pay only a buck here and a buck there to underlings.
  • Have a get-out-of-jail-free card. This may not be easy for first-timers, but spend enough time in a Latin land and you may meet an important person or two along the way. Keep their business cards with you at all times, and call them when you need a lifeline.
  • And here’s the best advice of all, from Don and Cheryl Barr, a father-daughter team that has made 18 voyages to Cuba so Cheryl could research her Yacht Pilot Guide to Cruising Cuba. The Barrs never outright refuse to pay a bribe. Instead they ask for a signed receipt, and when they do, the Cuban officers say never mind. A receipt is evidence.

Walking cash machines

Our sportfishing friends could have demonstrated some situational awareness by having a shakedown strategy in place. All they would have had to do is conduct some research before thundering across the Florida Straits. Instead they’ve helped poison the well for all of us who will follow in their wake. Their willingness to hand out the Benjamins has reinforced the image of Americans as walking cash machines. Well done, captains!

And by the way, about the “God Bless America” thing: It rings a little hollow as a comment on America’s superiority vis-a-vis corruption. To be sure, Latin America still enjoys corruption at the retail level, the way we used to in the good ole days. But as anyone who follows the news can testify, corruption continues wholesale in our country — that is, at the highest levels of government and commerce.

So please spare us your pious rectitude.