Another American with a Drone Arrives in Cuba

Obama and Cuba Policy: Motivations for Change and Expectations for the Future

Graham Sowa

The Bay of Pigs Museum at Playa Giron.
The Bay of Pigs Museum at Playa Giron.

HAVANA TIMES — “It’s another American with a drone!” The airport security officer shouted as he held up my passport with one hand and quadcopter with camera in the other.

All of a sudden my cheap-o remote control “drone” and I were shuffled over to the customs declaration desk where I was promptly told it would be confiscated. So much for the aerial shots of Parque Lenin, the Botanical Gardens and the Malecon at night I was hoping to put on YouTube.

While there is no specific prohibition against remote control toys the customs officials told me too many people were bringing these items back from their Christmas vacations. It was a matter of state security combined with a luddite fear of new technology.

I did my best to convince the otherwise pleasant people at customs that the quadcopter, with its 1 megapixel camera and 10 meter flying range, was less of a state-security risk than the millions of cameras and cell phones already in Cuba. No dice.

56 years of antagonism between the United States and Cuban governments has fueled similar paranoid attitudes toward recent changes in U.S. policy.

Even through the persistent fears of U.S. meddling in internal affairs Cuba has been methodical in their response to the recent United States opening. The government generally praises the changes while continuing to criticize specific policies such as the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Cuban Medical Parole Program, and continued funding of subversive USAID programs.

Sugar refinery museum in Caibarien.
Sugar refinery museum in Caibarien.

Meanwhile the United States, led by President Obama, have been moving rapidly. The timing and quickness of his Administration’s Cuba policy update is probably tied to the results of the November elections and the crisis in Venezuela.

After winning the Senate and widening the margin of control in the House of Representatives during the November elections the republicans are trying to maintain unity around their agenda of immigration, Obamacare, and taxes.

The republicans appeared united until President Obama drove the wedge of Cuba down on the GOP, cleaving off a small but vocal group that support ending the embargo and lifting the travel ban completely.

Senators Jeff Flake and Rand Paul have voiced their support for ending the embargo. Senator Bob Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is examining the new relationship with Cuba. Senator Jerry Moran thinks amending regulations is good for commerce and increasing the standard of living among Cuban citizens.

In the House Representatives Mark Sanford and Jason Chaffetz have voiced their support for policy changes.

All of them are Republicans, and most agree with the majority of U.S. citizens (up to 70% in recent polls) in ending the blockade and allow unrestricted travel to Cuba.

Of course these Republicans are at odds with their colleagues such as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. These two champions of freedom are now in a somewhat awkward positions as they try to explain why free trade and unrestricted travel are bad things.

With one fell swoop President Obama made being a Republican and having an opinion over Cuba a difficult proposition.

Meanwhile the price of oil probably played no small part in the recent changes.

Bay of Pigs invasion museum.
Bay of Pigs invasion museum.

Venezuela, Cuba’s strongest bilateral partner in the past 20 years, is hurting bad because their only significant source of foreign income just fell by 50%. Venezuelan shipments of subsidized oil to Cuba will be tenuous at best and disastrous at worst if oil prices remain less than 70-80 USD a barrel.

Venezuela will eventually need to curb subsidies and raise prices of petrol in their domestic and foreign markets.

The Cubans, who I doubt are ready for a return to the worst days of the early 1990’s, are probably predisposed new economic opportunities with the United States in order to hedge against the prospect of a weakened Venezuelan economy.

The Republicans will need to decide if they will establish a party line on Cuba to confront President Obama (and waste valuable time doing so), or go ahead and just end the blockade and travel ban then move on with the rest of their agenda.

It would be historic irony if a democratic President and republican congress overturned the Helms-Burton Act. The law was originally passed by an identical distribution of power in 1996 with Bill Clinton as President working with a republican controlled congress.

A week after returning to Cuba I passed by a Committee of the Defense of the Revolution meeting in Vedado. I stopped when a guy asked me where I was from. When I told him the United States of America he chuckled and said “Hey, tell Obama that he should come here to learn about the CDR, it is better than any drone to find out what your neighbors are up to.”




Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

46 thoughts on “Another American with a Drone Arrives in Cuba

  • May 18, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Two words, checked luggage. And cross your fingers that the custom people are clueless or too lazy to open your luggage, that there is another plane who landed shortly before and that there is a sh!tload of luggage at customs.

    Quite harder to pass it in carry on luggage and face the same people when they X ray your stuff, you’re just right here for them to ask you to open your stuff.

    That’s how I’ve done it and how I’ll do it again.

    Cuba, que linda es Cuba ??? ( and more from above 😉 )

  • June 26, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    literacy is the biggest security risk in Cuba.

  • February 22, 2015 at 9:36 am

    The Paris Club is a group of 19 nations that extend credit to trade
    partners. Cuba
    ranks No. 2 on the Club’s list of most indebted nations. (Greece, with more than five times Cuba’s economic
    output, is the world’s most indebted nation.) Creditors’ claims against Cuba now total
    $35.193 billion (a $5 billion increase from the previous year). Moody’s
    Investors Service gives Cuba’s
    sovereign debt a Caa2 rating, which translates into “very high credit

  • February 13, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Hey, back to the topic of drones (quadcopters) in Cuba………I am traveling there in March and wanted to bring my Cheerson CX-20 with me to get some video. I am Canadian, so maybe that would make a difference? Maybe if I store the gopro and gimbal in my camera bag with my Nikon gear that may help? I saw one guy on youtube with video from his DJI and he said he had no problems with getting it in and flew it all over, so maybe they were just having a bad day for you? Did they say what the problem is with the drone? Do you know the name of the dept. that takes them away (customs?). did they return it when you left?

    Any help would be great


  • February 9, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks Jimmy. Where are those Guys ?

  • February 6, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Griffin, you present a well-reasoned & persuasive argument, which I am not going to try to dismantle in it’s entirety. Do you not think tho’ that as the poorer nations masses acquire more & more of what makes our lives so comfortable that we will become, inevitably, less so ? I heard a lecture by an economist who explained that because we have transferred so much of our manufacturing overseas we are increasing local unemployment to unsustainable levels & creating a precariat who live hand to mouth doing small amounts of poorly paid work just to exist.
    Do you not agree that our comfort is at the expense of others ?
    You refer to the Cuban state as all- powerful. Are not all states all-powerful unless they are failing or failed ? If my country’s govt. decides it needs to conscript men to go & fight a war on foreign soil it has the power to do so. That to me is all-powerful.
    Why has the U.S. been so pro-active in it’s efforts to prevent socialism if, simply by giving them time, all socialist states will fail?

  • February 6, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Capitalism did not make the poor. The original state of humanity was poverty. Various economic & social systems have been tried by humanity to organize and operate economies and societies. Capitalism has proven to be the most successful of all systems tried so far in producing new wealth and lifting the majority of humanity out of poverty.

    The official poverty line in advanced societies, such as Canada, the EU & the US, has been steady raised, so that people today who are classified as “poor” live at a standard of living better than the middle-class of a hundred years ago.

    The ongoing poverty in third world countries, where it can be soul-crushing in it’s severity, arises from cultural influences, political corruption and personal cruelty. When third world countries adopt modern liberal democratic political systems and stamp out corruption, the overall standard of living rises, even for those at the lowest end of the economic scale. Chile has achieved this kind of real growth in wealth for all it’s people.

    However, when countries attempt to enforce irrational socialist policies as a quick fix for poverty, the inevitable result is increased corruption, the destruction of wealth and the further impoverishment of the poorest. Look at Venezuela under Chavez & madder to see that process in action.

    You mentioned Haiti, not socialist, and compared it to Cuba, and then ask which is poorer? Haiti is, but is that because it followed a capitalist economic system, or were there other more important factors? One thing Haiti never tried was a liberal democracy.

    Now try this comparison: North Korea vs South Korea. Which is richer? An interesting detail in that comparison is the fact that for several decades, South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship while following a capitalist system. They achieved some growth, but poverty was still prevalent and the people were miserable. In the 1970’s they achieved a transition to a liberal democracy. Today, South Korea is one of the most prosperous & innovative countries in the world. The people are proud, dynamic and hard working. Meanwhile, North Korea continues it’s long slow slide into misery and decay under it’s totalitarian socialist system.

    Now look at the current situation in Cuba. They followed a sort-of-Soviet style socialism for several decades, and the result has been a steady destruction of the wealth of the Cuban nation and a rising level of poverty. Now, over the last few years, Raul has introduced a few economic reforms which aim to spur private businesses, as a means to generate economic activity, which the all-powerful state will tax for it’s own purposes. Raul has invited foreign capitalists to invest in Cuba. Unfortunately, Raul has ruled out any political changes or reforms. Cuba will remain a single-party state ruled by the military elite, even as they transition to a pseudo-capitalist economy. What will the result be? The ruling elite will get richer, foreign corporations will make profits, and the vast majority of the Cuban people will live in poverty and oppression.

  • February 6, 2015 at 10:08 am

    It is their dictatorship, don’t go there, and if you go, don’t bring any drones. Nobody is forcing you to go. Now, since you like to complain about other countries rules, go and complain to Saudi Arabia because they don’t allow liquor in their country, jeez.

  • February 6, 2015 at 7:32 am

    That’s the problem with Cubans after 3 generations of Castroism. Quit begging and learn to work for what you need.

  • February 6, 2015 at 5:14 am

    true, I might not be as good as I think. But just need to be slightly better than you. okay so you were speculating after all, just like always. What makes you think I am from Cuba?. I am actually from Sedona, AZ

  • February 6, 2015 at 5:08 am

    Good point Ron

  • February 6, 2015 at 5:02 am

    But the embargo. Moses if you can part this embargo like you parted the red sea. May be Santiago can be rebuilt. Please send cement.

  • February 5, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    The point is the US can and does repay its debt. That’s why US debt is a form of international currency. Everyone wants in on it. No one seems to want to buy Cuban debt.

  • February 5, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Well, I guess you cannot be convinced even with an explanation. I am done replying to you. It just jumps in front of you eyes that the 35 billions you early mentioned from the Paris Club, perfectly match the amount owed to Russia that was mostly forgiven. I wonder who else would have lend 35 billions to a country that is not part of IMF or the World Bank, perhaps you did it.

  • February 5, 2015 at 11:02 am

    I was in Madeira a while ago. A storm did a lot of damage still unrepaired.

  • February 5, 2015 at 10:58 am

    The U.S. & the U.K. have massive per capita external national debts, U.S. $54k. per head, U.K. $160k. per head.Cuba does not, less than $2k per head,I was going to say more but what’s the point ?

  • February 5, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Hi Moses, is capitalism really better than socialism ? Most of the world lives in poverty. Sweatshop factories collapse in poor capitalist countries, as just one example, is that ok so long as we can have cheap clothes ? Our comfortable lives are at the expense of the vast majority of the rest of the world aren’t they? On the subject of debt, do you know which is the world’s most indebted country & which country they owe most of it to? Which country is poorer Haiti (not socialist ) or Cuba? Sorry there are so many questions !

  • February 5, 2015 at 6:53 am

    Jimmy, since you brought it up, have you been to Santiago lately? The devastation from Hurricane Sandy continues to this day. Lots of Cuban to Cuban help there? Gun violence in the US is bad, very bad. Castros police state has served to remove guns from the Cuban people. The only way the same kind of violence could take place in Cuba is if some crazy campesino went on a rampage with a machete. Not likely. There is a great difference between the repudiation rallies fomented by Cuban counter-intelligence and the NSA. You wouldn’t know that as I suspect that you work for Cuban intelligence and believe that arresting and beating middle-age women who march from church on Sunday is a manly thing to do.

  • February 5, 2015 at 6:49 am

    Hey, we’re on this post to comment our opinions. I’m not asking you to like them. And it’s not “they’re country” as you say. It’s unfortunately the Castro oligarchy that has final say on everything. Yeah I know….it always seems to come back to that. I wish it were otherwise.

  • February 5, 2015 at 6:45 am

    Kevin, we ‘speculate’ that is not your name, of course this comment is speculative. In English, when we begin a sentence with “I suspect…”, it implies speculation. You guys in Cuba who attack these sites are not as good as you think.

  • February 4, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Paris Club debt owed by Cuba.does NOT include the debt forgiven by the failed Soviet Union. Until the announcement was made last year, little was known about Cuba’s outstanding debt to the former Communist Bloc.

  • February 4, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    I am not sure how you can claim that any other country under the embargo that Cuba could have even existed past 50 years. And become a prosperous global economy inspite of it. Do you have an example of a country under a similar embargo that is a global economic powerhouse?.

    the fact that the socialist system has existed inspite of the embargo is a testament to the strength of Cubans. A people who help each other during hurricanes and hard times. Tell me what happed during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. People were attacking and robbing others at gun point. Help never arrived. When has anything even remotely close to the violence Americans perpetrate on each other ever happened in Cuba?. The cuban government and secret service and oppression, sure that is no different from NSA spying and police brutality on anerican blacks. That is true forcany country that suppresses what is politically undesirable to its values.

  • February 4, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    I would respectfully disagree. Most of what you are saying is purely speculative. You cant claim to see the future any more than the next guy. or are you now Nostradamus?. And even he got most of it wrong.

  • February 4, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    I guess you forgot to read the rest of the story “Cuba’s debt outstanding to the Paris Club of creditor nations, an informal group of 19 countries, is officially a bit more than $35 billion. However, that figure may be cut significantly when the Paris Club updates its figures next year, because Russia last April forgave $32 billion of $35 billion in Soviet-era debt owed by Cuba.”. The keyword here is “update” the Paris Club and you need one, so you check your facts.

  • February 4, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Ok, dude, whatever makes you happy, it is their country, their laws, their fears, jeez

  • February 4, 2015 at 11:11 am

    I suspect that when the current excuses are no longer valid, the Castro sycophants will simply claim that the former existence of the embargo crippled the ‘natural development’ of the Cuban model. Within my own circle of Cuban friends who support the regime, I am beginning to hear this new excuse. All but the most devout Fidelistas realize the failure of the revolution. Both globally and domestically, Castro socialism has failed to deliver as promised. What I am beginning to hear more often is the claim that “it might have succeeded but for the resources diverted to resisting US imperialism and the costs imposed by the US embargo”.

  • February 4, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Check your facts. A group of creditor nations known as “The Paris Club” extends credit to trade partners. Cuba ranks No. 2 on the Club’s list of most indebted nations. (Greece, with more than five times Cuba’s economic output, is the world’s most indebted nation.) Creditors’ claims against Cuba now total $35.193 billion (a $5 billion increase from the previous year). Moody’s Investors Service gives Cuba’s sovereign debt a Caa2 rating, which translates into “very high credit risk.” How have European and Canadian investors in Cuba fared? In 2000, there were 400 foreign companies operating in Cuba as minority partners in joint ventures with the Castro regime. Today, there are less than 200. The British news service Reuters reports that Cuba “failed to make some debt payments on schedule beginning in 2008, and then froze up to $1 billion in the accounts of foreign suppliers by the start of 2009.” Lastly, let’s not forget the nearly 6,000 unpaid, certified claims, worth nearly $7 billion arising from the Castro government’s confiscation of American-owned business and properties.

  • February 4, 2015 at 7:31 am

    As a Someone who fled the island I can say that my comments are against the authoritarian Cuban regime, not against Cuba. There is a world of difference. But you can indeed say I am prejudiced against communist dictatorships, having lived the reality behind the lies.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when the excuses behind the failure of Cuban Communism are removed and the Castros die. My fear is that it will follow the China model.

  • February 4, 2015 at 4:40 am

    Drones are now considered a security risk everywhere. There are already planned restrictions ( rightly ) on where they can be used.

  • February 4, 2015 at 4:36 am

    Thanks for replying.

  • February 4, 2015 at 4:35 am

    Moses replied to me , which I appreciate. He didn’t suggest that my question was loaded, why do you ? Comments on here are very often loaded IMHO against Cuba, but that’s my perception, not everybody’s. I have come to realise in 67 years that a confrontational comment attracts a confrontational response, mutual respect is lost & nobody’s learns anything except how prejudiced people are.

  • February 3, 2015 at 9:22 am

    welcomed back to cuba mr.graham no drone for you today my friend get used to what Cubans have been dealing with for 56 yrs.

  • February 3, 2015 at 7:15 am

    Moses answered the question, loaded as it was. Now answer me this. Which [stupid views] specifically do you have an issue with? And why are they stupid? This is a forum of debate … debate. Don’t just call something stupid without reason or explanation. that’s just being intellectually lazy.

  • February 3, 2015 at 7:06 am

    It’s not new technology that’s the issue, it’s fear. Fear of new technology. Everything is considered a potential threat. Anything that gives the average Cuban a level of independence or control is to be feared.

  • February 3, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Check your reading skills. “Yes, they do” answers his question.

  • February 2, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Moses why is it acceptable for you to hold stupid views, but not acceptable for us to point it out?.

    What Ron asked was a actually a good question. Can you answer his question?

  • February 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Two-bits is understood to mean about 25 cents in American money. To call Cuban socialism “two-bit” is a compliment.

  • February 2, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Yes they do. I choose to express those concerns in a forum designed to address problems in the US. This blog deals with Cuban issues. Thanks for reading my comments.

  • February 2, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    They are just catching up with certain technologies.

  • February 2, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    Actually, based on recent reports from Moody’s ratings, Cuba doesn’t owe billions in unpaid bills. Its rate is in fact better than Venezuela and Argentina and there is speculation that could rejoin the IMF and the World Bank if the US doesn’t object to it. Update your old facts or biased diatribes.

  • February 2, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Moses, you harp on about Cuban human rights abuses. Do U.S. human rights abuses not concern you at all ?

  • February 2, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Cuba’s a two-bit socialist dead-beat nation at the bottom of the poverty scale.
    Cuba is an economic and social basket case.
    Every other nation on the planet already trades with Cuba and is owed billions of dollars in unpaid bills. So, normalizing relations with them only means one thing for us. “Taxpayer Subsidies”…

  • February 1, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Lots of good points, as usual, Graham, and very few typos (haha!). A bit of irony can be quite tasty.

  • February 1, 2015 at 10:53 am

    A drone crashed somewhere near the U.S./Mexican border with an overload of amphetamines ..
    This will be the new smuggling tool until the authorities figure a way to both spot the relatively tiny objects on radar and intercept the radio signal that controls them .
    One also crash landed on the White House lawn. It turned out that a U.S. gov’t employee did it while drunk.
    I’m sure drones will be used by “terrorist” groups in the USA in the very near future to bomb people and places . It’s too easy for them to not use it as a weapon.
    The laws and counter-technologies have to catch up with drones or you can expect their manufacture to be outlawed……. except, of course for the giant ones the Empire/World’s Policeman uses to bomb wedding parties and such. .

  • February 1, 2015 at 10:23 am

    I find it quite funny that a simple $15 toy, available to any child in the US, is feared as a security risk in Cuba

  • February 1, 2015 at 9:03 am

    As I have commented many times before, the Castro regime’s tyrannical control in Cuba manifests itself through these small and capricious extra-legal governmental actions as well the more obvious and distinctive human rights abuses. Freedom in Cuba will someday mean the right to air grievances in Revolution Plaza without fear of arrest and imprisonment but also the right to bring toy drones into the country without being harassed by fickle airport staff.

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