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The Forbidden Island

Scenes from the forbidden island continue to captivate us. No wonder US sailors travel here despite admonitions by the Treasury Department.

Early the morning of September 11, National Public Radio reported that a package of bills moving through Congress with bipartisan support raised the possibility that Americans would be able to travel to Cuba freely by the end of the year. Forty years of embargo seemed to be ending.

Introduced in February by Sen. Baucus of Montana with bipartisan sponsorship, S. 400 "The Free Trade with Cuba Act" and its companion House bill HR 798, would have opened up trade and removed restrictions on travel and expenditures related to travel to Cuba. They are part of a package of legislation spearheaded by farm state senators that would undo the embargo.

Another action being considered for introduction in the Senate would have removed Cuba from the State Department list of states supporting terrorism. And a bill called the Bridges to the Cuban People Act was being crafted to expand humanitarian aid to Cuba by lifting the embargo on food, medicine, farm equipment, and goods for use by children. This bill also would have lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba.

"Ironically, tourists from the rest of the world are spending US dollars in Cuba to the tune of $2 billion a year."

Hours after the news reports on Cuba, these efforts went up in smoke. Cuba remains on the list of states supporting terrorism, the legislation has stalled and the "bridges" act was never introduced. So where do things stand today for sailors considering a voyage to Cuba? First, it is not illegal to go to Cuba, it is illegal to spend money there. The purpose of the sanctions, Treasury Departmentís materials clearly state, "is to isolate the Cuban government economically and deprive it of US dollars." Ironically, tourists from the rest of the world are spending US dollars in Cuba to the tune of roughly $2 billion a year.

Theoretically, a well-equipped cruiser could sail over and drop anchor somewhere in Cuban waters without spending money on marinas and provisioning. But to set foot on Cuban soil you will need a $15 visa, and to cruise Cuban waters you will need a $50 cruising permit. And thatís illegal.

So how do 100,000 Americans get to Cuba? Some have licenses from the Treasury Departmentís Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the group that enforces the embargo. If you go to Cuba you will be dealing with Treasury, not the State Department, and Treasury has US Customs under its umbrella. Cuba is now the last thing on OFACís mind. This is the group responsible for seizing terrorist funds.

Authorized travelers from the US are allowed to spend up to $183 a day in Cubaóa princely sum for most Cubanos. 

Some travelers slip in on package tours organized out of Mexico, the Bahamas or Canada, but the Treasury Department isnít buying the notion that if you pay the money in Mexico you didnít spend money in Cuba. A charter operator out of Nassau paid a $125,000 settlement for "record-keeping deficiencies" in its Nassau-Havana charters. In June, OFAC issued an advisory stating that such travel "will expose travelers to the possibility of civil monetary penalties from OFAC."

Many people go to Cuba on tours with educational institutions that have been granted licenses, usually on tours with specific themes like photography, medicine or cultural exchange. Some fly in from places like Cancun, Nassau, Montreal or Toronto and donít tell anybody about it. Cuban officials usually ask if you want your passport stamped, and this is the time to just say no.

Many sailors simply sail in, as we did from Key West. During our month-long stay at Marina Hemingway near Havana we were among five boats in a row flying the American flag, and a dozen more were scattered throughout the marina. Several of these vessels were frequent visitors and none had been fined, although all mentioned tough talk on the part of Customs and one had been boarded at sea by the Coast Guard. Essentially US officials know that sailors are going back and forth, some pretending to be "fully hosted" as the guest of Marina Hemingway while they participate in a race or sportsfishing tournament.

"Unauthorized travelers may not purchase meals, pay for transportation, lodging, dockage or mooring fees, cruising fees, visas, entry or exit fees...nor bring any Cuban goods back to the US."

Here is the official OFAC position on vessels: "All persons on board vessels, including the owner, must be an authorized traveler (licensed) to engage in travel transactions in Cuba. If you are not an authorized traveler, you may not purchase meals, pay for transportation, lodging, dockage or mooring fees, cruising fees, visas, entry or exit fees and you many not bring any Cuban origin goods back to the United States. Any payments to the Marina Hemingway International Yacht Club is considered a prohibited payment to a Cuban national and therefore in violation of the Regulations. Vessel owners are prohibited from carrying travelers to Cuba who pay them for passage if the owner does not have a specific license from OFAC authorizing him to be a Service Provider to Cuba."

Marina Hemingway can house hundreds of boats at face docks in a guarded-gate resort community with itís own supermarket, hotels, restaurants, and swimming pool. The cost per night is a fraction of the cost in Key West. An old VW bus hauls sailors back and forth to Old Havana three times a day.

While Americans can travel to Cuba legally with a license from the US Treasury Department, those licenses are granted for very specific reasons and the sailor traveling to Cuba without one walks a tightrope that gets increasingly narrow. Simply put, it is easy to get into Cuba, the problems arise when going home. So sailors should simply not bring anything back that could prove they spent money in Cuba.

Havana's Marina Hemingway is a haven for foreign sailors with restaurants, a store and other amenities all enclosed in a guarded resort compound.

If US Customs finds a box of Cuban Cohiba cigars or a few bottles of Havana Club rum, for instance, in the hands of an unlicensed traveler returning from Cuba, the penalties can beóbut usually arenítósevere. Individuals who spend money in Cuba can be fined up to $250,000, face up to $55,000 in civil penalties, and be jailed for up to 10 years. Boats can be seized. Although violators rarely are hit with such fines, the Treasury Department says that it has collected more than $2 million in penalties for Cuba embargo violations since 1992. One such settlement was with Harperís Bazaar magazine, which paid $31,000 for unlicensed payments for travel expenses for a 1998 photo shoot in Cuba involving models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.

The truth about penalties involving sailors is hard to extract from the Treasury Department, but sailors have been fined. There is a dockside story about a sailing couple slapped with a $10,000 fine for buying a few items like ice and provisions in Cuba and admitting it to Customs officials upon their return. Reportedly, the fine was negotiated down to a much smaller number.

The Tampa Bay to Havana Race for sailors was called off in 2000 when the officials at the Treasury Department issued a cease and desist order to the race organizers, Ocean Racing Ventures. The race, started in the mid-1990s, at one time involved as many as 200 boats. One participant who is also a frequent cruiser to Cuba said the race "was just too much in Treasuryís face."

"Customs boarded my boat, tore up floorboards, separated crew members and asked if any of them had paid to go to Cuba."

The same Florida sailor said people who had filed paperwork for the 2000 race were getting phone calls at home from the Treasury Department, and those participating in past races were getting six to eight-page questionnaires probing what they did in Cuba. On one occasion returning from the Cuba race "Customs boarded my boat, tore up the floorboards, separated crew members and asked if any of them had paid to be transported to Cuba. But I donít know of anybody who has had their boat seized," said the same source.

The racers in that event were supposedly "fully hosted" by Marina Hemingway and thus did not violate the embargo because they did not spend money in Cuba. Did the Treasury Department suspect that a hundred or more boatloads of thirsty racers might spring for a beer or two in Cuba? Or did they suspect that a substantial amount of money changed hands across the Florida Straits well before the race?

Since 1996, when Cuban MIGs shot down two small planes that had flown into Cubaís air space to drop leafletsóthe event that led to the Helms-Burton Actóboaters who plan to go to Cuba not only are required to get the normal Customs sticker, they also must fill out a form available from the Coast Guard: "Acknowledgment of Security Zone and Permit to Depart During a National Emergency." This form, along with names and photo IDs of all on board, is faxed from local Coast Guard centers to Miami for review. But the turnaround time is usually quite promptóa day or two. But, to travel to Cuba legally it is necessary to get a License from OFAC. These are not issued for tourism, and that includes cruising sailors. So who can get a license?

A license to legally travel to Cuba allows its holder to spend $183 a day in Cuba and bring back $100 worth of Cuban goods. Licenses are good for six months and might be renewed if the situation warrants renewal. These documents take from four to six weeks to process and there are several categories under which licenses to travel are granted:

  • Official government travelers

  • Humanitarian travelers

  • Journalists and broadcast support personnel

  • Individuals with close relatives in Cuba, in circumstances of humanitarian need

  • Professionals doing research for academic purposes

  • Professionals attending a meeting or conference organized by a professional group or association that regularly organizes such conferences

  • Amateur or professional athletes under the auspices of an international sports federation

  • Educational exchanges (Teachers, graduate students and even average citizens might be able to travel for specific reasons, but they must travel under the auspices of a licensed academic institution with proper accreditation.)

    The flavor of Cuba comes across readily in nautical scenes that are repeated all around the country's ample coastline.
    Someone who simply wants to cruise to Cuba would have to be very creative to fit the criteria. And there are other considerations. You can find yourself out on a long, lonely limb. If you run out of money or the boat breaks in Cuba, forget calling home. No wire transfers, no credit cards, or travelers checks will clear US banks. Cruisers to Cuba carry US dollars in small denominations. The crew of a boat that burned and sank during the last Tampa-Havana race lost passports in the fire and wound up in a Cuban jail for several days until a friendly foreign embassy helped them out. The US has a Special Interests Section in Cuba, but not an embassy. If you sneak in, donít expect a lot of help. As an example, Gregory Jones, the editor of Sailing magazine, was picked up by Cuban authorities while sailing the north coast. He was released, but his film was seized.

    Despite all of these hurdles, Cuba still tempts us. Even after realizing that Marina Hemingway is a stage set for boaters and tourists, even after growing very weary of being watched all the time, a month in Cuba did not seem like enough. Be very careful if you sail to Cuba. It is still against the law. And if you are not careful, Cuba will steal your heart.

    Researching the Forbidden Island

    There are several ways to get details about restrictions on travel to Cuba.

    1. Download information from the Treasury Departmentís OFAC website (you will need Adobe Acrobat to download details,

    2. Use the OFACís fax-back service: 1-202-622-0077.

    3. Log on to the State Departmentís Cuba website (

    4. Call or write to: 
                Office of Foreign Assets Control
                US Department of the Treasury
                1500 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
                Washington, DC          20220
                Attn: Licensing Division 

    The author sailed his 32-foot sloop from Vermont to Cuba, entering with a Treasury Department license as a freelance journalist. His book, Sailing to Hemingwayís Cuba, was recently published by Sheridan House.

    Suggested Reading:

    Cuba or Bust by Doran Cushing

    South American Ports by Tom Wood

    Rethinking Sinking by David Schaefer

    Buying Guide: Chartplotters

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