Cuba a Half Century Later
By BRUCE VAN SANT
“What can I do for you, Sir?” Naked to her toes, she swung the door to Number 410 wide and hung tipsily onto the jamb with her free hand. When the heavy door completed its arc it took her with it. She went down thrusting her hand through the foot wide brass passkey ring I carried over my arm. When old Mrs. Swanson opened the door to 412 she found us doing a horizontal Mambo at her feet. The Mambo was the rage from Cuba in 1955.
That’s how I got to Cuba the first time. Old Mrs. Swanson, a seasonal resident at Ft.Lauderdale’s Governor’s Club Hotel where I bell-hopped, wasn’t used to the summer clientele. When she complained of the noises issuing from Number 411, the desk clerk sent up the house dick to investigate. In the summer that was me. Mrs. Swanson complained next to the Hotel’s owners who called me on the carpet. Did I swallow the injustice and go on with my job? At 16 years of age? Are you kidding? I drew out my college savings and hopped an Air Cubana flight to Havana. That’ll teach ‘em!
That was 44 years ago. This time I went to Cuba by boat, and with a plan. I meant to add Cuba to my repertoire of islands whose coastal effects can be used to shield a windward yacht from the horrific trades. In the past twenty years I’ve racked up more than 50,000 miles sailing about island coasts and lees from the Bahamas to South America, most of it single-handed. Islands big and small, even reefs and banks, change the trade winds and currents which pass them. Playing these effects in concatenation, a sailor can make good progress against normally impenetrable trade winds and seas.
I wanted to return to the Dominican Republic by Christmas, but, unusual for me, from a Gulf Coast port. Why not the coast of Cuba? The North East Coast of Cuba slants a bit southerly. That means only a narrow night lee, if any, from the easterly trades, and the bar on leaving harbor would have to be lowered from 15 to 10 knots of gradient wind.
But just maybe I could make the shortcut work. I rang Blue Water Books and Charts for the guide books and a landfall chart. I read both books from cover to cover.
Both Simon Charles’ The Cruising Guide to Cuba (Cruising Guide Publications) and Nigel Calder’s Cuba: A Cruising Guide (Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson) proved excellent for the uses I put them to: Nigel at the chart table and Simon at the wheel. Nigel used sterling contacts in the Cuban hierarchy to produce his book. His chart reproductions are quite helpful for planning purposes. Simon had more hands on poop from behind the reef. His chartlets contain those indispensable curving arrows one follows through entrances. One must have the printed narrative, but actually entering through a reef for the first time, I want to follow the dotted line on a chart. Both authors counseled against easting on the northeast coast for the same reasons stated above.
Another issue was the relative flatness of Cuba. Narrow and less than half as high as Hispaniola, could Cuba generate enough katabatic wind to be meaningful? Katabatic is the breeze created by cold mountain air sliding downhill at night. It's cruicial to deflecting the scraps of trades that survive the night lee. I decided to find out for myself.
All was fine until Key West where I got stymied by weather while I waited to cross to Varadero. Never one to stand still, I used the time to revisit the Dry Tortugas after an 18 years absence.
While there, a one-day window opened for a good crossing to Havana. I took it. At El Navigante, in Havana, I procured albums five and six of the Cartas Yates series, excellent Cuban charts of the entire coast which come in 15"x23" books, a good fit for a yacht's nav table. En route and in the city I noticed that easily one quarter of all windows were broken. Why should this be, I wondered. All nations but one will eagerly sell Cuba glass if they can't make their own. They certainly have enough silicone in their sands.
While working in 1972 in the gem of the Soviet empire I often saw people, as in Havana today, sloshing buckets of potable water from tanker truck to fifth floor walk-up. It took the Russians 55 years to get there. Cuba took only 40.
In Moscow, the beautiful French Empire period buildings got maintenance superior to their jammed inhabitants. In Havana, the elegant buildings from King Sugar’s Belle Epoch crumble while the rains leach binders from the concrete. Reinforcements expand with corrosion, cracking what remains. The buildings created before pipes and conduits were imbedded in the walls suffered less, while those raised since the 30s need replacement.
The 90-year-old patriarch of a large Caribbean enterprise had told me, “It shall take 30 years just to redo infrastructure. In that time only fools and Mafia will invest in Cuba.” I'm afraid he was right. It doesn’t take a village to keep the roofs of buildings sealed against moisture invasion, it takes a landlord or a
homeowner, both of which are tragically illegal in Cuba.
From Florida to Hispaniola I’ve rarely used less than 15 critical stops in playing the lees through the Bahamas against prevailing conditions. Cuba from Varadero to Punta Maisí on the east would need up to 20 anchorages, averaging 23 miles apart. Worst case would mean 20 night runs of 5-7 hours each, or at least a month of passage making, May through November, and up to two months with the fronts of December through April. For a Gulf sailor bound around Florida and through the Bahamas, it looks like a good trade off.
Many alternative anchorages exist beyond those shown in the waypoints data. Waypoints shown fit the criteria of (1) offering nearby refuge to wait for weather, and (2) most easterly staging point prior to a series of unprotected anchorages. After a while in Cuba I added the Cuban Guardia as a criterion. No Guardia post was a definite positive for an anchorage.
In 1955 I had run out of money, a place to stay, and I was getting hungry hanging about the western union office in Havana. I had called my mother with my last pesos, told her where I was, and had her wire the last fifty dollars of my savings. Banks let mothers dip into their kids’ accounts in those days. History was about to replay itself a half century later. Hurricane Mitch aimed to cross Cuba. Mitch aimed to cross Cuba five different times in two weeks. Each time they called it to cross over my head Mitch jinked 90 degrees to the left.
All forecasters, including my friend David Jones of the Caribbean Weather Center in Tortola, agreed that sooner or later Mitch would re-enter the Gulfstream and swipe the coast of Cuba. David came up with a world beater five-day window to Nassau well in front of Mitch.I bailed out on the first day. While in Nassau, the remnants of Mitch, one of the strangest hurricanes in history, exited the Florida Peninsula and streaked northeast at an incredible 40 knots. Another factor beside Mitch proved critical to my cruising plan: the Cuban bureaucracy.
Clearing in and out of some ports requires up to four searches of the boat. That means up to 40 searches along the coast, each with its concomittant wheedling for money or presents. Also, it took me many years to train the Dominican Coast Guard to let a yacht exit at any time of the night it may require for a safe passage to the next port. I’m now too old to start on militant Cuban Communists in twenty remote harbors. It needs a stout Texan with lots of patience. We were sorry to leave the task undone, but not to leave Cuba.
Embargo? What Embargo?
They call the U.S. embargo a blockade. But the only pickets I saw were US Coast Guard Cutters harassing innocent American yachtsmen. Cuba trades with all comers, at least those who accept IOU’s or have their own agendas. Lack of goods and services and the paralysis of distribution comes from 40 years of a reductionist, backward marching economic model, not unearned access to American capital.
In Batista’s Cuba, hated though he became, one saw members of his family shopping in the streets, among the fruit vendors. And the putas (prostitutes) paid no taxes. While the Revolution bellowed about the enslavement of the nation’s children to the Mafia sex trade, now Fidel himself runs the racket.
We nearly saw one of Fidel’s many residences. It was a square mile cut from the edge of a town where all the street approaches were closed off and marked “Zona Militar”, their homes long abandoned. The cannibal economics of Communism can make even a tropic isle grim and grey, listless and hopeless. There isn’t even any fresh fruit! Some committee — or maybe just one of the top gangsters — had a brain storm and caused all the fruit of the island to be put into little cardboard juice boxes as poisonous sugar water. There was not one fruit vendor anywhere, not one orange to eat. And this in Latin America! The six-lane Pinar del Rio expressway was empty at an hour that all the highways in Latin America are crammed with every type of overloaded vehicle distributing goods and people to the nation as blood does nutrients to the body.
Old guys like me can remember a time when the sight of a Coastie abeam or cop on the beat (on a beat!) actually was reassuring. In those days we even waived merrily at them. That's all changed with the profusion of regulations and authorities to enforce them. In Latin America one gets dizzy keeping track of all the uniforms and the crisscrossing jurisdictions. Even in South Florida the scramble for funding has created dozens of new purviews for what we used to call cops. But in today’s Cuba the enforcers are everywhere. Everybody watches everybody else. Often from atop tall buildings with large ocular machines. We got closely looked over several times daily.
It seems the putas hadn’t paid their taxes properly, and a grand roundup went on including house to house checks forfemales without residence documents for those addresses. Initially my 48 year old, cinnamon skinned wife considered it a backhanded compliment when the various petty authorities stopped her and asked her to prove she didn’t work as a puta. Though courteous, the shakedowns and rousts after dark put my patience to the test.
One evening a large silhouette presented itself at our door. The puta patrol. This time the inquirer was a hairy, knuckle dragging hulk. Not at all intimidated, Rosa demanded to know his occupation and nationality as well. “Russo!” he barked. Without further comment, the Russian dragged himself over to the freshly painted (confiscated?) Island Trader on which he lived.
Upon another occasion I explained to two young marina guards, with quite some passion, my surprise at finding racism in Communist Cuba. “Racism does not exist in Cuba!” they vehemently denied. I explained, again most passionately, that while I had not seen unreasoned race hatred in Cuba, they themselves showed plenty of unreasoned race prejudice by constantly accosting my wife solely due to her color. They lost some of their steam while they reflected on the different faces of racism, so I sang them two bars of: “Ojos negros, piel canella, que me llegan nadie esperar”. They finally left this crazy gringo in peace, and after my bad singing the problem did not reappear.
All’s Well That Ends Well
My return to Ft.Lauderdale in 1955 was met with a properly repentant boss. Even old Mrs. Swanson hugged me. I got a scholarship and the world treated me well. This time, though once again I departed Cuba with my tail between my legs, I at least got to the Dominican Republic for Christmas. And I have a plan for using the night lees of Cuba’s coast to advance against the trades, a boon for Gulf sailors. I only need now a sailor or two willing to go the distance. Do I hear a Texan?