HAVANA TIMES — A few days ago I went to Guanacabibes Peninsula, in the extreme west of the country. It’s an unspoiled nature reserve where one can see iguanas, deer, crocodiles and all kinds of birds – in addition to a wonderful seabed.
Everything went fine until we wanted to participate in a diving excursion. We were denied access onto the yacht because among our group there were Cubans, who aren’t allowed to board. The guide told us that this was a directive of the Naval Command Center.
Once we returned to Havana, we wanted to know if the parliament had passed some legislation that prevented Cubans from traveling aboard boats. Very kindly, the Legal Office of the Assembly informed us that there’s no law prohibiting nationals from sailing.
Of course there was no law that prevented Cubans from staying in tourist hotels; nevertheless they spent nearly two decades on the outside looking in as foreigners enjoyed the facilities that were closed to them.
But now we had assumed everything had changed, since almost half a million Cubans who live on the island vacation in those same hotels, and because a new immigration law allows the unrestricted exit of citizens… unless you want to leave by boat.
At the Cubatur tourism office they told us, “Cubans — wherever they live — can’t be sold package tours that include a catamaran or a yacht.” Likewise, at the Gaviota tourism agency, they repeated the same information to us: To be able to take a boat trip, we had to show authorization from the Naval Command Center.
Finally we called the National Department of the Naval Command Center, where they confirmed that Cubans aren’t allowed to sail, with the only exception being those people who are married to citizens from other countries – though they still have to apply for a permit.
To receive one of these authorization letters, a letter from the foreign spouse is required, because a request from the Cuban partner isn’t accepted. The letter has to detail the reason for travel, provide the itinerary and give the boarding place, the days at sea and the ship’s name.
On top of this, it’s required to present the couple’s original marriage certificate and photocopies of the personal documents of both spouses. All of this is forwarded to a commission headed by a colonel, which within five days decides whether to grant the permit.
But even those citizens who are married to foreigners, and who are fortunate enough to not appear suspicious to the commission, can only sail in Cuban waters. Under no circumstances are they allowed to board a cruise ship to visit another country.
It must be that they’re trying to prevent illegal emigration. But the truth is, even if a Cuban has a passport, a ticket and a visa, they still can’t leave the country by boat. Somehow the spirit of the new immigration reforms got diluted at sea.
At the Naval Command Center they explained to us that “this point wasn’t addressed in the immigration laws reforms, therefore the old regulations remain in force.” They also explained that the commission is the entity with the final word, meaning there’s no one to whom an appeal can be made.
None of the people we spoke to — in hotels, travel agencies, marinas, parliament and the Port Authority — could explain why this prohibition remains. They simply repeated that “it’s well established” – though they didn’t know by whom.
Therefore, the only way to sail is to go to the Port Authority with all the documents attesting to one being married to a citizen from another nation. Only then will it be possible to open the seas and adjacent cays to a Cuban.
Still, if you and your partner are both Cuban and decide to take your vacation on Cayo Largo, you won’t be able to ferry over to the nearby Island of Iguanas or go on any of the boat excursions available to tourists from other countries because you won’t be allowed to board a catamaran.
What’s more, if you want to visit Cayo Levisa (on the north coast of Pinar del Rio Province), you’ll have to wait for them to build an overseas highway or embankment to reach it by land.
This is because right now there’s the paradox: Cubans are authorized to stay in the hotel there, but they’re not allowed to get on the boat that takes people there.
(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.