Sister's Journal

Date: 19.February.2001
Location: Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba
Position: 23 degrees 05 minutes North, 82 degrees 30 minutes West
Key West y La Ciudad de la Havana
We sailed overnight, leaving Key West just before sunset along with the several large power and sailboats that carried hundreds of holidayers out to see the sunset.  Every day at this time they load their passengers and motor or sail out of Key West Harbor onto the banks, the shallow water that fringes the entire south Florida coast.  Once out they tack back and forth until the sunsets then they hustle their customers back to town so they won't miss too much bar time.
We spent a week in Key West, partly because we like it, partly because we were getting a marine radio fixed and partly because we were waiting for a weather window in which to make the crossing to Cuba.  It wasn't a tough wait because Key West is a fun place.  We ate excellent Cuban food at El Siboney a wonderful little restaurant in an unassuming, pink stucco building, which is well off the beaten path.  We "discovered" El Siboney when we visited Key West 4 years ago.  When we returned this year we couldn't remember the name or location so we asked.  We stopped someone who looked like a local (don't ask me what a local looks like) and started the conversation by saying "There's this Cuban restaurant..." and before we said another word she said "El Siboney" and proceeded to give us directions.
The heart of Key West is Duval Street.  Duval street runs pretty much from one side of the key to the other.  Between the "highway" and the waterfront the street leads past more restaurants, bars, taverns, saloons (the distinction is unclear to me but they had'em all) than one can count.  Every one of them is open to the street and virtually every one of them has more or less full time live music.  Some of the musicians are distinctly average but some of them are pretty good.  Get yourself a walkin beer and cruise the street to sample the music available at any given time.  There are at least as many such places off Duval Street but the street is clearly the center of activity.
The first time we visited Key West we listened to a local musician named Michael McCloud.  In fact we bought his CD.  McCloud was on stage by himself in the heat of the afternoon.  He was so laid back that I thought he was going to fall off his stool.  This year we stopped by the same bar and, sure enough, there he was, still laid back beyond belief and still singing the same songs, one of which included the lines "just came down for the weekend .... 25 years ago".  I believe he did.  We didn't buy another CD.
Key West to Havana is about 90 miles across the Straits of Florida.  One figures about 15 hours in a sailboat.  We wanted to arrive in the morning hence the evening departure. If you wait for good weather then it is not a challenging crossing.  If you don't then it can be a bitch.  In this part of the Straights of Florida the Gulf Stream flows west to east at up to 3 knots.  If an easterly (from the east) wind is blowing it opposes the flow of the "Stream" and the opposing wind and current make for very bumpy water.  To compensate for the easterly flow of the stream the navigator (that would be me) must maintain a heading that is some 10-15 degrees west of the heading that points directly to her destination.  We started out in a light breeze and flat seas.  Sailing out of Key West in those conditions with a gorgeous sunset off to the starboard was sublime.  The weather changed around midnight.  It didn't get bad.  It just got a lot less comfortable than it had been.  We continued to sail in pretty bumpy conditions until we approached the entrance to Marina Hemingway about 0900 the next day.
One is advised to call Cuban officials on the marine (aka VHF) radio as soon as one enters Cuban waters (I think it's 12 miles out).  When we called them they were more than gracious, welcoming us to Cuba and giving very explicit directions for getting through the reef and to the customs dock.  You can be sure that we followed directions precisely (the gap in the reef is about 100 feet wide) as we entered the harbor and found the customs dock.  When entering any country in most of the world on a private boat the skipper's (that would also be me) first responsibility is to report to customs and/or immigration and/or whomever else the local authorities want you to report to.  Until this happens no one but the skipper is allowed to go ashore.  It is a pretty universal practice.  In some countries the skipper has to go seek out the authorities.  In others the authorities find you.  Some countries (e.g. Cuba and Bahamas) require that you fly a green quarantine flag until you've cleared customs.  Cuba further requires that you tie up temporarily to a special dock to clear customs etc before you're allowed to go on into the marina.
During the two hours after we tied up at the customs dock we were visited by nine people and a dog.  First came the harbormaster and the medical officer.  (As soon as the medical officer gave us his blessing we were allowed to lower the quarantine flag.)  Next came immigration, customs, agriculture (one lady to inspect our fruits and veges,another lady to inspect our meat products), more customs (this one came with the dog) and more harbor officials.  They were all very friendly and courteous.  They searched the boat but they put things back where they found them.  The dog took a couple of whiffs here and there then took his handler and left.  The agriculture lady confiscated some onions that were so bad off we couldn't have eaten them anyway.  One of the customs doods made us put our small electronics devices (handheld GPS, VHF and cell phones) in a bag which he sealed and told us not to break the seal until we left Cuba.  I'm not sure what they're concerned about but it wasn't an inconvenience to us.  Immigration offered to stamp our passport but gave us the option to not do so (we got'em stamped).  Finally another harbor official came aboard and gave us explicit directions to the slip where we were to spend the week.
What to say about Cuba?  The revolution is still alive.  One is constantly reminded of it, primarily by billboards and signs one sees everywhere.  Che is lionized to this day.  Even Fidel doesn't get as much exposure as Che, perhaps because, like JFK, Che died young, before he screwed up too badly and before the Cuban people were faced with the economic hardships that they've lived with for so long with Fidel.
Cubans are tough.  Their economy and their people have suffered immeasurable damage due in large part to the US embargo, yet they keep on keepin on.  Many of them drive 1950's era American cars.  Lots and lots of old Chevys in particular.  Many of the old cars look to be in pretty good shape but, on closer inspection, you can see large sections where the body is mostly bondo.  Further, most of the old American cars no longer have American engines in them.  The resourceful Cubans have replaced the engines, for which it must be very difficult to get parts, with Russian or Chinese gasoline or, diesel engines.  It's a little strange to see a brightly painted, good looking, if bondo filled, 1953 Chevy chugging down the street emitting diesel sounds and fumes from it's Russian engine.
To tell the whole story, there are lots of modern cars as well.  They are primarily Japanese cars with a few Korean and even fewer German cars mixed in.  Virtually all the cars are "taxis".  It appeared that most of the modern Japanese cars are legitimate taxis with meters but virtually every person driving a car will claim to be a taxi and offer you a ride for a fee.  The base unit of Cuban currency is the peso.  The  preferred currency, however, is the US dollar.  The official exchange rate between the Cuban peso and US dollar is 1:1.  The real exchange rate, the rate one gets on the street, is about 22 pesos per dollar.  Actually there are two different pesos in Cuba.  The one I've already mentioned is the long time standard.  The second, we've seen some call them "convertible" pesos, was established in the mid 90s, when, for the first time, the government made it legal for Cubanos to possess US dollars as well.  The official exchange rate for these pesos with US dollars is also 1:1 but the rate is real in this case.  Government agencies and tourist facilities will actually exchange 1 "convertible" peso for 1 dollar.  We didn't see any convertible pesos while we were in Cuba.
We heard all kinds of claims about the income of the average Cuban.  I've read that the average income is somewhere between 150-400 pesos per month. Think about it.  At the black market exchange rate 400 pesos is less than 20 US dollars.  Therefore, if one can figure out some way to get close to tourists then one will certainly make a lot more money that he/she could at virtually any other type of job.  That's why every car is a taxi.  That's why Cuban doctors, lawyers and other professionals abandon their profession to operate bed and breakfasts or get involved in some other tourist related businesses.   Clearly this cost Cuba dearly at least in terms of lost contribution from such professionals.
We met a Adrian, a young Cubano "independent contractor" who worked on boats around the marina.  A neighbor boat paid him about 200 USD to do clean the bottom and wax the hull of their boat.  200 USD translates to more than 4000 Cuban pesos or about 10 times what Adrian would make in a month at a good job in Havana.  Adrian made more money working for himself at the marina than he would have made as a surgeon.  The only down side was that Adrian had to pay the marina 250 USD per month for the privilege of working on boats there.
Havana is a city of 2 million people, about 20 per cent of the total population of Cuba.  It is a city of old buildings, many of which look as though they've been bombed.  They haven't been bombed.  They've just gotten old and deteriorated to the point that they've collapsed.  For the most part there's no effort being made to restore them ...there's just no money for it.  These conditions exist throughout the city, even in areas like the waterfront, which, under other circumstances would be considered "prime" real estate.  Some of the buildings are so bad; they look so precarious, that it makes one a little nervous to walk close to them.
On the other hand, while walking in Havana we encountered a street fair, street performers, bars and restaurants with live music and lots of Cubans, generally enjoying themselves.  They've learned to live with the hardships and seem to be determined to enjoy life in spite of them.  That's not to say that they are happy about their circumstances.  Those that we talked to were realistic about Castro and his system.  Some thought he's been in power long enough.  (Considering the history of Cuba in the 20th century it is absolutely amazing that Fidel has been able to hang around so long (he literally "took" the office January 1, 1959)).  Fidel has improved some aspects of life in Cuba.  Someone told us, that Fidel has three major successes and three major failures to his credit.  The successes are healthcare, education and athletics.  The failures are breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In a sense the US has contributed significantly to Fidel's stability.  On the one hand our punitive policies toward Cuba are at least partially responsible for their economic difficulties.  On the other hand, because of those policies, Fidel has always been able to point the finger at us and, to some extent, divert blame/responsibility from his government and it's policies.
I think (I know you're waiting with baited breath for this) I think that Cuba will open to US visitors (and investors) within the next 10 years, for sure, 5 years, perhaps.  This is why; two of the major reasons that hostility still exists between Cuba and the US are 1) Fidel, 2) the Cuban expatriates living in south Florida.  These expatriates are the people who lost their property and/or businesses when Fidel took over.  They are a political force whose lobbyists keep the pressure on US politicians to maintain the irrational US policies toward Cuba.  Fidel and the expatriates are getting old.  They don't have many years left.  The sons and daughters of the expatriates and their sons and daughters must be more American than Cuban.  It stands to reason that these folks are preoccupied with their own lives to the exclusion of paying a lot of mindshare to whether we do business with Cuba or not.  So, as Castro and his nemeses in South Florida (and perhaps Strom Thurmond) go by the way, the pressure to keep the pressure on Cuba will diminish to the disappearing point and Cuba will open up. . My opinion.
Before we left home we had planned to spend a month in Cuba.  As is usual we got started late, stayed too long in Key West and ultimately only spent a week in Havana.  Actually a few days is enough time to see Havana.  If we return we will spend most of our time in other parts of the country.
The Cubans require that you check out of Havana in pretty much the inverse process to checking in.  On the outgoing stop at the customs dock another 6-8 officials came aboard to fill out various forms, ask lots of questions and verify that we hadn't opened the sealed bag into which he had put our handheld electronics devices.  Once again all the Cuban officials were friendly and courteous.
Note:  In general, it is not against US law for US citizens to visit Cuba. It is, however, against US law for a US citizen to spend money in Cuba.  That is ANY money . not US dollars, not Canadian dollars . not nothin.  Clearly this strange policy makes a visit to Cuba difficult.  We prepared by stocking the boat as if we were going to be at sea the whole time so we wouldn't have to buy any supplies in Cuba.  The Cubans, as I've said, are only too happy to welcome both visitors and dollars from the US.
Follow this link to a few pictures we took in Havana.

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