Cruising Notes  /  Logbook

Cuba, Part I – Red Tape and Money

The old man of the sea predicts a bad year for hurry-canes

When we first arrived in the Caribbean and planned our itinerary amongst the islands Cuba was envisaged as the highlight of the whistle-stop tour; thus we had allowed ourselves four weeks in its waters. But by the time we left Luperon it was the 25th of April and only two weeks remained before the date when we must flee away from this region.
“Two weeks…” moaned Your Correspondent. “It’s not enough.”
“Well, it’s all we’ve got,” said the skipper firmly. “We’re leaving on May 15th, and that’s that.”
“Absolutely,” Johnson agreed. “This hurry-cane season is going to be a bad one. We have to get away from here.”

Cuba is different from the Windwards and the Leewards. It’s an island; yes – but in much the same way that Britain is an island. A foreign yachtsman visiting Britain would hardly be likely to think of circumnavigating the place – not in the space of three or four weeks, anyway – and yet that was what we originally planned to do when we first decided to visit Cuba. We intended clearing in at Santiago, on the eastern end of the island, and then heading westward along the south coast. When the coast turned north and then east we would follow it all the way to Havana, and perhaps as far as the cays. This route would have led us three-quarters of the way around the country.

The Cuban flag flutters amongst Mollymawk's sails

Happily, the reality of the situation eventually broke through to us. The journey that we had planned would be akin to clearing in at Falmouth, dashing quickly up to Liverpool, cutting through the Caledonian Canal, and then popping into Grimsby and the Thames estuary on the way back down to clear out at Brighton.
This is not the way to get to know a country. With only a fortnight now left to us we would do much better to restrict our cruise to a small area, and to explore the rest of the country by car or by bus.

When we left Cuba we would be heading off across the Atlantic, bound for Bermuda and the Azores, and this rather ruled out a last minute visit to the south coast. We would do much better to cruise along the north coast. Unfortunately the first port of entry on Cuba’s north coast lies almost one hundred miles along this shore, in the region of Guardalavaca.
“So be it; that’s where we’ll go first.”
Specifically, when we left Luperon we were bound for Puerto Naranjo.

We’re Off To See The Wizard (at last)

Cuban salsa band

Cuba. What excitement and curiosity the name conjured up!
What would we find in this Jekyll and Hyde land, where the people make merry with salsa and the bongos but where they are not allowed to leave the party?
What impressions would we form of this, the last outpost of Communism; a place held upright – almost singlehandedly, one is led to believe – by a tenacious old revolutionary whose presence is still strong even though he has not been seen in public for over a year?
Cuba –  the land so hated and so viciously and successfully oppressed by a whole succession of American presidents. There can be few people, even in the United States, who do not feel admiration for the under-dog which has resolutely stood up to the bullying of its mighty neighbour.

But when, finally, we drew near to its shores, the northern coast of Cuba was grey and drab and somewhat disappointing. We limped towards it in a light north-easterly, and eventually we reached the inlet which is Puerto Naranjo.
We knew nothing about the etiquette required of vessels arriving in Cuban waters, but we did know that the authorities here are absolutely paranoid about security. (And with good reason, perhaps…) Caution suggested that rather than just bowling on into the port we might do well to call on the radio and announce our arrival. This done – and no reply having been received – we bowled on into the port.

Puerto Naranjo

The scenery inside Puerto Naranjo was a little bit reminiscent of Luperon, except that here there were no exotic fruit trees and no rolling hills. The landscape was flat, and the wooded shores looked rather dreary.

Arriving in Cuban waters (Caesar and Nick)

Ahead of us was a low pier which jutted out into the inlet, dividing it in two. It was topped by a low, grey concrete building. There were no boats to be seen in the harbour; indeed, there was no sign of life at all, except for two smartly dressed men who were loitering on the end of the pier. At our approach these fellows scurried away around the back of the building – and, sure enough, a moment later a launch came hurrying towards us.
“Puerto Naranjo is not a port of entry,” one of the men explained – somewhat apologetically – and so we would have to continue our journey westwards along the coast to Puerto de Vita.
“When did this place cease to be a port of entry,” Caesar asked, in his fluent Spanish.
“Ten years ago.”

The pilot books kindly loaned to us by our friends were ten and fifteen years old, but before we set off for Cuba we had checked the internet for recent information about the place. So – for the sake of other yachtsmen planning a visit to the north coast – I would like to emphasise the fact (so that the search machines pick up on it):
Puerto Naranjo is not a port of entry to Cuba.

Fortunately, Puerto Vita lies only about five miles further along the coast, and we were able to reach it before the damp grey day drifted into night.
Puerto de Vita is a port of entry to Cuba.

Puerto De Vita

Like Naranjo (which might be worth a visit after one has cleared in), Puerto Vita is a narrow inlet lined with mangroves and low trees. We wound our way past a tiny beach – complete with cows paddling placidly in the calm water – and eventually we came upon a well-marked channel leading off across a “bag”, or open expanse.
At the far end of this bag we arrived at a very small marina (with one jetty, capable of berthing ten or twelve yachts), but we were instructed not to approach it. Instead we must anchor off for the night.
Cherub was already there, having motored through the calm of that morning, and we launched the dinghy and fetched her crew over for supper and a few glasses of rum. Johnson had somehow managed to use up all of the seven bottles which he had bought, four days earlier, in Luperon, and so he was in dire need.

On the following morning we received a visit from the doctor, who asked if we had recently been suffering from coughs or colds or sniffly noses. We assured the gentleman that we were all as fit as could be, and he provided us with quarantine clearance.
But that was just the start of things.

Clearing In

Next we were instructed to bring our boats alongside, in the marina. After a delay of perhaps an hour we were then boarded by a whole succession of very polite and rather shy but, nevertheless, still rather officious men who represented various departments ranging from the Interior Ministry (whose concern seems to be the defence of the state), through to the “Guarda” (or Coastguard, whose concern is similar), and the Ministry of Agriculture.

We had been warned that boats arriving in Cuba are usually subjected to a search which often lasts for four or five hours. Every locker would be opened and searched – or so we had been told. People have even had their engines taken apart and the underside of their boat examined by divers.
The only sensible way to face events of this kind is in a resigned manner, with a smile on your face. We prepared ourselves for a long morning.

The representative of the Agriculture Ministry was the first official to come aboard Mollymawk. He wanted to examine our food stores; or rather, he didn’t really want to examine them – he evidently found the fact of having to intrude into our private arrangements rather embarrassing – but he had his orders.
I opened the vegetable locker and the young man wrote down the names of each and every item therein, together with information about where the goods had been purchased. Most of the veg had been bought in the Dominican Republic, and that seemed to be satisfactory.
After that we had to go through the same business with our dry goods. I decided that these had all been bought in Spain, and this also went down very well.

Someone had once told us that the purpose of this scrutiny is to discover any imperfect goods and to force the disposal of any stores containing weevils. Thus I was a little bit concerned when the young man reached his hand towards my rice bin. I happen to know that our rice bin is a heaving nest of greater and lesser weevils. Fortunately the rice bin has a clear plastic lid. As he picked up the canister the man glanced down through the lid – and thought better of lifting it.

The sniffer dog explores Roxannes cabin

No sooner had the agriculture folks finished their examination of our stores than the Ministry of the Interior put a dog aboard. This didn’t go down too well with Poppy – she said something extremely rude to the visitor – and even after Poppy had been sent to visit Cherub, for the duration, the poor little spaniel was still very nervous. The scent of the big bad wolf lingered, and so she was disinclined to sniff very hard.

The spaniel’s wrangler lifted her onto each of our beds in turn, but the search was as half-hearted as the one made by the Min of Ag.
“Are you looking for drugs?” I asked.
The man cringed visibly and nodded vaguely. “Just routine. We search every boat.”
Roxanne picked up the sniffer dog – to its great surprise – and cuddled it like a baby. “Isn’t she gorgeous? Look, she wants her tummy tickled.”
The dog looked even more worried than it had done before, and the wrangler even more embarrassed.

While the dog was doing her thing on the beds, the proper business – of clearing into the country – was being conducted by two white-collar officials and a member of the Guarda. (This last fellow wore a khaki uniform but seemed to be unarmed.)
The spokesman for the trio was a lean, balding gentleman in his fifties, and – retrospectively – we are able to identify him as the perfect embodiment of the conundrum which is Cuba. Polite, very intelligent, and interested in everything that he saw and heard – everything from the construction of the boat to our tales of adventure on the high seas – this pleasant and helpful man was, nevertheless, the most officious person imaginable; and I use the word not in its original sense, of being overly helpful, but in the sense of being a zealot for petty rules and regulations.

Happily, the little man could find no fault with arrangements aboard Mollymawk – but Johnson fell into deep water: his ship’s papers were out of date.
As a matter of fact, Cherub‘s papers were more than four years out of date, but the fact that no previous authority had been the least bit concerned about this trivial detail cut no ice.
The man was not angry; he was simply amazed. How could Johnson have allowed his papers to lapse, he asked in shocked tones? He finally agreed to allow the yacht to stay, “in order to facilitate its immediate direction, forthwith, to the port of registry.” (As luck would have it, Cherub is registered in Bermuda, and Bermuda was to be our next port of call after Cuba.)

Mialee becomes Miglee

Later in the day we noticed that our other neighbour, alongside us in the marina, had stuck pieces of plastic insulating tape over parts of his boats’ name.
“What’s that all about?” I asked.
“Ah, well. The chap who typed the name onto the ship’s papers must have misread my writing. He put Miglee instead of Mialee.”
“Well, the fellow here, when he read the name on the papers, didn’t like it. And he wouldn’t let me alter the papers – in fact he was a bit upset when I suggested doing that – so I had to alter the name on the
boat. He stood over me while I did it.”

Officious behaviour notwithstanding, we reckoned that our first encounter with the Cuban authorities had not gone too badly. Unlike European or American immigration authorities and Customs officers – unlike those in almost any other country that we have visited, indeed – the Cubans were polite, respectful, and genuinely friendly.
Although the entire procedure wasted the best part of a morning, the officials were only actually aboard for an hour. (Recent visitors to Santiago have reported the same improvement.)
Yes, it’s still a bit of a hassle, but that’s just the way life works around here; it’s part of the experience of Cuba. If you don’t like the sound of it, don’t come…!

Safety and Security

After we had been cleared into the country we were permitted to cast off from the marina and anchor – free of charge – on the flat sheet of water where we had spent our first night. (A berth in the marina would have cost around £20 per night for a fifty-footer.)
In theory we were not allowed to leave the boats unattended after dark, and before we moved them our captains had to sign a waiver, to the effect that we accepted full responsibility for their safety.

Cherub and a Norweigan yacht anchored off in Puerto Vita

Well… we wouldn’t want anyone else trying to assume responsibility for the welfare of our boats anyway!
From the point of view of the weather, this mangrove-lined lake on the upper reaches of the Vita inlet is about as safe as anywhere ever could be; one could even ride out a hurricane in here. And since the anchorage is only half a cable from the jetty, with its vigilant 24-hour security patrol, and since it is also overlooked by the Guarda, in their hilltop tower, we found it hard to believe that there could be any kind of security risk. Moreover, there was no sign of any local craft, so that the odds of a break-in looked incredibly remote.
As for the curfew: we have since been told that it applies in all of Cuba’s ports, whether the boat is at anchor or not. At Marina Hemingway (near Havana) the security guards even knock on the boats, and wake people up, to see if they are aboard!
In practice, we were never challenged when we came ashore and wandered out of Puerto de Vita in the hours of darkness.

What To Do In Puerto Vita

Viewed simply as a place to moor the boat Puerto de Vita is perfect, but safety and security were not our only requirements; indeed, they were not even our principle requirements. At long last we had arrived in Cuba, and we wanted to get to grips with it. We wanted to meet the people, hear the music, taste the rum… and so forth. If it would have served our purpose we would have settled for a rolly anchorage upwind of a reef instead of Perfect Safety.

Alas, Puerto de Vita consists of one small, very sleepy marina with one small bar – and that’s about it. It’s true that outside the gate to the marina there is also a very small village – but it’s just a linear settlement of two dozen small houses, with no bar or any other focal point. And outside the gate is where it stays. With the exception of the workforce, Cubans are not allowed into this, or any other marina complex.

The nearest towns to Puerto de Vita are Guardalavaca and Santa Lucia. The latter is a one horse affair with no bank and no shops. The first is a fairly low-key tourist development forming a hinterland to a couple of all-inclusive hotels.

L-R Che, Che, Che - Xoë, Rox, T-shirt vendor in Guardalavaca, Che, Caesar, Che, and Che

Ordinarily we would have given a tourist resort a wide berth, but the circumstances were such that we had no choice but to hire a taxi and visit Guardalavaca. It was the only place where we could change our Euros into Cuban pesos.
The fees for clearing in to Cuba amounted to 135 CUCs (about £90 / € 110 / $ 150 USD), and this was payable only in the local currency. There is no facility for changing money in the marina, and credit cards are not accepted either by the marina or by the authorities. (However, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, credit cards and debit cards both work perfectly well in the bank – provided that they are not American ones. In retaliation for President Bush’s intensification of the American trade embargo, Fidel Castro has introduced a 25% penalty against the dollar, making it a costly currency to use.)

Pesos and the Cuban Approach To Communal Living

While we’re on the subject of money I must explain Cuba’s curious monetary system.
Basically, Cuban money – known as Moneda Nacional – is worth peanuts. To be exact, at the time of our visit (May 2010) one peso of the Moneda Nacional was worth about 4 US cents.
In theory this means that a cruising bum visiting the country can live like a lord. In reality… well, in reality the situation is much more complex. To understand it we need to take a glance at the Cuban economy and, in particular, at Cuban wages.

Cuban crab catchers show their wares to Rox. They earn about two-thirds of the wage that a Cuban doctor gets.

The Cuban government pays its people a wage which varies only slightly according to the type of work that they do. The rate of pay ranges from 240 to 360 Moneda Nacional pesos per month. This is not a lot – but in reality it represents only a part of each worker’s earnings. Besides receiving a cash hand-out, to spend according to his wishes and whims, each member of the community also receives free housing and free health care, and they also get their food handed to them on a plate.

Since the country is large, and the soil relatively fertile, Cuba could probably be self-sufficient – but at the moment much of the land lies fallow and the government finds itself obliged to import more than half of the nation’s food. In order to ensure that each receives “according to his need”, the staple foods are rationed. Every member of the community is accounted for, and the head of each family is issued with a ration book entitling her to buy a specific amount of goods – including flour, rice, bread, cheese, milk, potatoes, locally grown coffee,  and loo rolls – at a cost which is significantly less than it’s true market value. In other words, the ration issued to himself and his dependents is part of each worker’s pay.

Besides being issued with a certain amount of cut-price food and toiletries, Cuban nationals are also provided with very cheap transport, whether by bus or train or taxi. This, too, is effectively a part of their wage.

Illegal photo of Cuban ration store (Tourists may not shop here)

Where do we it into all this?
Well, bearing these facts in mind, one can understand the reluctance of the Communist government to allow relatively wealthy Western visitors to share in the bonanza. They have enough on their plate, what with one thing and another, and they have no wish to subsidise folks who are not contributing to the Communist way of life.
Why should we be able to travel the length of the country for a few dollars? Why should we be able to eat out every night of the week without feeling the pinch?
Tourists managing to get by on ten dollars a week are parasites… and so the government had to come up with a way of making us pull our weight.

The Cuban government’s solution to the problem of rich hitch-hikers living off the fat of their subsidies was to introduce a secondary monetary system. They invented a new coinage, called the Cuban Convertible (pronounced, convertee-blay), and they made it hard for tourists to use anything else.
Beer, restaurants meals, most clothes, imported soap, toothpaste, souvenirs, tinned food, and much else is only available in Convertibles. And – in theory at any rate – tourists may only travel in taxis and buses and horse-drawn carts which are licensed for our especial use and which charge in Convertibles.
(The abbreviation for Cuban Convertibles is CUC and so the units are also known as “cooks”.)

The catch is that one CUC peso is equal to 24 pesos of the Moneda Nacional.

Sauce for the Tourist Is Sauce for the Cuban Too

At first glance this dual economy looks invidious – and it is; but not for the reason that initially presents itself to one’s mind.
At first glance the dual economy looks like a kind of racist apartheid. Cubans get to pay for things with their own special Monopoly money, while we pay with gold. Cubans travel for peanuts, whilst we of the Capitalist world have to pay through the nose; Cubans eat cheaply, whilst we sinners fork out a fortune for a beer.
However, the reality is that Cubans, too, if they want to drink beer must cough up one CUC per can. And Cubans, too, if they want to buy a bar of Palmolive soap, or an extra roll of toilet paper, or a tin of baked beans must somehow get their hands on a CUC.
CUCs are the only way that anyone can pay for a night in a hotel, or a ride on a jet-ski, or a pair of fashionable denim shorts.
Looking again at those wages, we find that the Cuban worker earns the equivalent of only 10 to 15 CUCs per month – which is why you won’t find many amongst them who can afford a bar of Palmolive soap or even a can of beer; still less a night in a hotel.

For what it’s worth, we found that prices for meals, clothes, and car-hire were much the same as in Spain and often rather less than in England (where eating out, in particular, is very expensive).

Girls queuing to buy pizzas at a fiesta

Cuban street-food is the exception to the rule. It can only be bought using the local pesos – Fidel never imagined that we would just as soon eat a pizza as sit down to snapper in white wine sauce – and so it is very, very cheap.

The only area where the Cubans win and we lose out is that of public transport. We aren’t allowed on their buses – the drivers can spot us a mile away, as tourists, and won’t let us board for fear of losing their jobs. Locals-only taxi drivers – with their ancient Buicks and Cadillacs – are sometimes willing to take the risk after dark.

Too Many CUCs Spoil The Society

Deeply concerned to attract as much money as possible into their country, the Cuban government has embraced its enemy: it welcomes tourists wholeheartedly. But it’s our money that the men at the top want; our ideas and attitudes are anathema to the Communist more and they want to protect their people from our evil influence. Thus, as explained above, the locals are not allowed into the marinas. Nor, as a general rule, are they allowed onto the hotel beaches. Essentially, they are discouraged from fraternising with us.

Fraternise they do, however. The ordinary Cuban men and women love their foreign visitors, not only for our money but for our exotic difference. They find us quite as fascinating as we find them!

But they all seem able to afford cigars - so maybe those are subsidised too.

The down-side to all this is the gulf which has formed between those Cubans who do have contact with foreigners and those who don’t. The “haves” generally work for the tourist industry, either in the hotels and restaurants or as diving instructors, taxi drivers, and so forth. Canadian and American tourists can’t resist tipping these workers, it seems, and ten percent of a meal or a taxi fare can easily amount to a week’s pay for a Cuban. Thus, the Cubans who work with tourists are rapidly being transformed into an upper class within society. They have the ability to buy some of those desirable imported items, and one sees them shopping in the CUC stores or even eating out in the restaurants. Meanwhile, the average Cuban, with little or no Western contact, still has to get by on his government wage.
So, in the end it’s the Cuban people who suffer through the faults of the dual economic system. It’s upsetting the status quo, and in the end it will probably bring down the regime.

For less info about Communism: The Way it Almost Works, and a lot more about cruising Cuba’s North Coast, join us again in a fortnight.

One Comment

  1. We are about to embark on our second attempt at cruising as and when the wind blows. The first time we were shipwrecked in Madagascar- during a freak storm and its taken 20 years to get up and do it again! Best of all- my children have grown up in the interim- and although they are all completely different-they were unanimous at the family conference. An overwhelming yes vote! They are coming with us! Hooray. We are undecided where to go first and will probably leave that decision to the winds and time- but a must on my list is Cuba and Croatia. Thanks for the inspiration and the example!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.