Saturday, December 20, 2014

While Circumnavigating Cuba



The world held its collective breath in October 1962 when the United States and the Soviet Union came within a heartbeat or two of launching nuclear weapons at each other.  The Cuban Missile Crisis as it was known came to a head because the Soviet Union put nuclear warheads in missile silos in Cuba just a stone’s throw away from the United States.  Havana, Cuba is only 90 miles south of Key West Florida.  A missile could streak between the two places in slightly more than a nanosecond.  President Kennedy and his Administration did the proper amount of bluffing and cajoling and luckily (and thankfully) the Soviet Union blinked first and removed their nuclear weapons.

Almost exactly two years earlier, in October 1960, the United States imposed a commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution.  It was enacted after Cuba nationalized he properties of United States citizens and corporations and it was strengthened to a near-total embargo on February 7, 1962.

Titled the Cuban Democracy Act, the embargo was codified into law in 1993 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government continues to refuse to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights." In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act that further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, President Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. In 2000, Clinton authorized the sale of certain "humanitarian" US products to Cuba.

More than 50 years after end of the Cuban missile crisis and after imposition of the embargo it remains in place.  Ironically and hysterically Cuba survived it and today sits with its middle finger pointed at the United States because of it.  In fact if you walk along the malecon in downtown Havana as I did in 1990, you’ll see a large sign in front of the US Interests Section office (where the CIA maintains its listening posts) that carries a caricature of someone who looks almost exactly like Fidel Castro.  The caricature is pointing his index finger north at the United States and is saying in Spanish “Mr. Imperialist we will not be afraid.”  Other signs around the country send a similar message.

Granted things in Cuba aren’t like they are even in Little Havana in Miami but the country has not buckled.  Cuba has universal health care for all of its citizens.  Cuba has a widespread and effective collection of national parks and marine sanctuaries protecting some of its most vulnerable natural resources and Cuba also has an extensive and lucrative tourist industry.  Flights from all over Europe and Canada bring visitors to the sunny beaches of Varadero and Cayo Coco and they flock there in huge numbers.

Meanwhile the United States continued to pout and stomp its feet and some still dream of driving Cuba into submission.  I was able to travel legally to Cuba in 1990 and again in 2007 because I possess a US Treasury Department license that allows me to expend American funds on travel to and in Cuba.  Absent the Treasury Department license I would be in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 that forbids those expenditures.  Ironically the United States is the only “free” country in the world that restricts where its residents can travel – North Korea and Cuba are off limits under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917.

One of the many frustrating aspects of the embargo is the almost total lack of air transportation between the two countries.  In recent years that has become less of an obstacle as restrictions have been lifted but still it’s a pain in the ass if you want to travel there.  When I traveled to Cuba in 1990 I had to do so by flying from Canada.  Because I was on Cubana de Aviacion, the national flag carrier of Cuba and because of the embargo, we left Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and flew for the shortest distance possible over American airspace.  Once over New York City we were directed to a point 200 miles offshore in the Atlantic outside the American exclusive economic zone and clearly in international waters.  There we were allowed to follow a course south to a point over the Bahamian island of Andros where we turned west and flew directly to Varadero.  At no point other than when we flew across New York State to the ocean were we over American airspace.

Two ironies are at work here.  First of all, when I traveled to Cuba in 1990 our flight had to follow that circuitous routing because we were in a Cuban aircraft.  Had we flown to Varadero from Toronto on Air Canada we would have been allowed to fly over American airspace but because of the embargo and because we were in a Cuban plane we had to take the long way around.  It didn’t matter to the United States that the Canadian aircraft is flying to Cuba.  What matters is that a Cuban aircraft was and the embargo denies them the ability to fly in American airspace.

The second irony in play is that Cuba doesn’t reciprocate with this childishness and allows American flag carriers to fly over its airspace. Take a flight to Jamaica or Grand Cayman or to Bogota Colombia on an American flag carrier from an airport in the eastern United States and the route of flight will take you on a course just east of Santa Clara, Cuba.  You will be over the island for nine minutes and then you are out over international airspace.  The only exception to this rule is flying to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station as I did in 2007.  There we were required to fly around the east tip of Cuba and approach Gitmo from the south.  For final approach the American flag ship was not allowed to cross over Cuban airspace at any point which resulted in a sharply banked right hand turn near the end of the Gitmo runway. No doubt this exception is in place because the Cuban government is still upset that the Americans refuse to leave Guantanamo Bay.

Recently I flew from Orlando to Montego Bay, Jamaica and I did so aboard Jet Blue Airlines, an American flag carrier.  We left Orlando, traveled to a point over Miami then south over Cuba for 9 minutes and then into Montego Bay. The next day when I returned to Orlando, we followed the same route in reverse including nine minutes over Cuban airspace.

The Cuban government, in spite of the ridiculously ineffective American embargo, allows American flag carriers to fly over its airspace saving those American air carriers millions of dollars in fuel costs annually on top of saving travelers thousands of hours of air travel time.  The Cubans do so because it’s the right thing to do despite the two nations still at each other’s throats.  At the same time, however, Cuban aircraft (of which there are about 10!) are strictly forbidden from crossing American airspace except for the shortest distance possible to get to international waters.  We could care less about the cost of fuel for the Cuban aircraft and we could care less about the extra time it takes for people to get to Cuba from a place like Canada.  What matters apparently is this in-grained notion that we have to somehow continue to punish Cuba for an incident that happened when the Beatles were still largely unknown outside of Liverpool, and the Dow Jones Industrial average was about 500!

I guess we are showing them aren’t we.

Dawn of our first full day at sea found us about 20 miles off the coast of Cayo Coco, part of the region of Cuba known locally as the “Cuban Keys.”  Well into international waters the ship chugged along on a southeasterly course with the forbidden island almost a stone’s throw away.  From the ship we could see cities on the horizon and roads and power plants.  Cuban fishermen sailed out in rickety boats plying their trade and waving at the ship as we steamed past them.  Cruisers on the ship responded with a perfunctory “Oh, that’s interesting” when I’d answer their finger-pointed question, “What island is that over there” by telling them it was Cuba.  Cuba remained on the horizon until we reached the Windward Passage between it and Haiti.

The day after our time in Grand Cayman we awoke at sunrise with the westernmost tip of Cuba to starboard as we passed through the Yucatan Channel.  A slight adjustment in our course soon put us parallel to the north coast of Pinar del Rio Province.  Its irregular skyline filled the horizon as we steamed northwest toward Miami.  All the while nobody on board seemed even marginally interested that we were so close to the fascinating culture and landscapes that make up Cuba.  To many it was just another island that they had not “done” yet on a cruise and to others it was a place they may have heard about but right now the antics of the Kardashians were of greater interest than the geopolitical role Cuba plays in the Western Hemisphere.


Sunrise over Cuba from the deck of a ship

Watching the mountains of Pinar del Rio brought back memories of my first trip to Cuba in 1990 when we traveled west from Havana and spent two days in this beautiful landscape finding and studying the birds of western Cuba.  One of the species we found was the Cuban Solitaire, a kind of thrush related closely to the American Robin that everyone knows from their backyard.  Cuban Solitaire is one of the 21 species of birds that occurs nowhere else on earth but this island.  Returning from that first trip I prepared a report on my observations across the entire island and because of his intense interest in Cuba, I mailed a copy to Jimmy Buffett solely for his edification if he chose to read it. 

Imagine my surprise a couple weeks later when a letter appeared in my mailbox that had been postmarked “Key West, Florida.”  It was from Jimmy and he was interested in the Cuban Solitaire.  He said that he was writing a book and the name “Solitaire” caught his fanciful attention.  He wondered if the Cuban Solitaire was a species of bird that a sailor would find if he sailed into Havana harbour.  Unfortunately the Solitaire is a mountain bird that was highly unlikely to ever be found at a low elevation like Havana.  Although my answer was not what Jimmy wanted to hear a month or so later I received another letter from him.  He wanted to know about what a pilot would see if he was flying over the Platte River in spring time when all of the Sandhill Cranes were there.   This request was easy to fill and several weeks later a copy of a chapter in his book “Where is Joe Merchant” arrived in my office mailbox. Jimmy asked me to read the chapter for biological accuracy and return it to him when my editing was completed.  A year or so later, because of our correspondence, before a concert in Fort Lauderdale I sat back stage with Buffett drinking a beer (he opened it for me) discussing politics, the environment, and bone fishing.  It was among the greatest 30 minutes of my life and it all started because of a non-descript bird that lives in the mountains of Pinar del Rio.

The Carnival Victory maintained its course northeastward toward Miami during the remainder of the daylight hours and we passed just north of Havana near sunset.  I looked out across the Cuba Straits toward Key West just 90 miles north and longed for an end to the ridiculous embargo that forbids Americans from traveling to a neighboring country.  As I contemplated the nonsense of all this we turned on CNN International on the television in our stateroom and were overwhelmed by the news.  Just that morning the United States and Cuba reached an agreement on the release of two American’s from Cuban prisons in exchange for the release of three Cuban spies from American prisons.  Along with the humanitarian exchange the United States was going to substantially ease and reduce (but not totally eliminate) most of the restrictions on travel between the two countries. 

Important among the changes was that the Secretary of State had been instructed to normalize relations with Cuba and to establish an American Embassy there.  As President Obama made this historic announcement he recognized that the embargo has failed, that it hasn’t impacted the government of Cuba but only its people, and that more than half of the people living in the United States now were not even born when the embargo was put in place.  Fully 88 percent of American’s of Cuban descent living in South Florida fully supported easing or eliminating the embargo.  The President ended his historic announcement saying in Spanish “Todos somos Americanos,” or “We are all Americans.”  It was refreshing to hear him say that.

During the President’s address a news roll scrolled across the bottom of the screen announcing new and important changes that were on the horizon because of the easing of restrictions.  Despite the news being only a few hours old, already Carnival Cruise Line announced that it was investigating the possibility of beginning cruises to Cuba.  At the same time Fort Lauderdale International Airport announced it was investigating how to begin and how to expand air service from it to Cuba.  Carnival can rest assured that I will be on one or more of its cruises bound for Cuba when that magnificent day arrives and airlines flying from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba can count on me being one of the frequent fliers aboard their craft. 


I’m not sure if it was serendipity or happenstance or some other noun that was involved in today’s announcement.  However I found it almost karmic after so many years of hoping and wishing for a change in policy toward a neighbor who could use neighbors, the President changed the policies that had hurt nobody but Americans and he did so while we were circumnavigating Cuba.  

It was a tad more than ironic that the historic sunset of America's bullying embargo of Cuba was announced by Barack as we watched the sun set over Cuba that very same day

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