Cuba Prohibits Its Citizens from Boarding Boats

March 28, 2013 | Print Print |

Fernando Ravsberg*

Even if they have passports and visas, Cubans can’t board cruise ships. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.

Cubans aren’t allowed on even near-shore excursions. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.


What's your opinion?

  • Griffin

    So Cuban’s aren’t allowed on boats? It’s because if they let Cubans on boats then the seas would be full of boats and they would all crash into each other. Or maybe it’s the blockade! Yeah, that’s the ticket… or maybe it’s something to do with the Old Man and the sea. No, not Hemingway’s Old Man, the other one.

  • Moses Patterson

    Every year (at least when I lived in Cuba) the energy drink company ‘Red Bull’ hosted a yacht race/regalla based out of Mariel/Hemingway boat harbor. Yachts with flags from all over the Caribbean and the US would anchor in the mini-harbor there and party for the three day festivities. Cubans from the ‘elite’ social classes appeared to have no problems boarding the sea-worthy vessels. The only security was the guards at the entrance to the Port and they did not stop anyone from entering, at least not that I noticed. There was a guest list to enter the party where identification was required but I always managed to get my name on the list so it couldn’t have been that hard to do. Seems to me that this post represents simply a holdover from the worst of Castro/Soviet-style controls and will likely be fixed once one of the Cuban elite is prevented from boarding a craft. What a stupid way to run a country!

    • ac

      While I disagree it in principle with that rule, it has some sort of rationale in the context of the dry foot-wet foot policy: it minimizes the chance of Cubans hijacking ships to get safely to US borders and apply for the Cuban adjustment act.

      This has happened before many times, and the US typically does NOT prosecute or return the hijackers to Cuban authorities if they land safely in US soil and more than once impounds the hijacked ship and auction it to pay for some of the ridiculous claims that US citizens have won in court against the Cuban government.

    • Luis

      A regatta is a special event that does not fit the situation what Fernando described here. What a stupid way to make propaganda!

      • Moses Patterson

        Hahaha. Typing comments from my smartphone has its pitfalls.

  • Luis

    Apart from the conflict/misunderstanding between different power spheres (the national legislative one and the naval office), there’s also the lame excuse for the Cuban Navy not to intensify efforts on patrolling since there has been a history of boat hijackers taking vessels by force and boarding at the US shores to be hailed as a ‘hero’ with the blessings of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

  • CUBAQUS

    Another example that shows that those claiming that Cuban now are “free to travel” are mistaken. (or plainly lying).

  • http://www.facebook.com/sherri.hoban.7 Sherri Hoban

    Great article…except for the fact it is not entirely true…I just returned from Cuba less than a week ago and while there had the opportunity to take a very good Cuban friend on the Catamaran excursion…no problem getting him on or off the catamaran. No :special” paperwork or letter needed, and no I am not married to him…

  • http://www.facebook.com/sherri.hoban.7 Sherri Hoban

    Great article, just slightly off base…having just returned from Cuba less than a week ago, I can tell you Cubans are indeed allowed on boats. While there I had the opportunity of taking a Cuban friend, whom I am not married to, on a catamaran excursion. We needed no “special” paperwork, clearance or invitation…just bought the tickets and boarded…was a great day and my friend was able to experience it all with me.

    • Luis

      I think eventually this situation will eventually ‘straighten up’ since apart from the history of hijacked vessels that me and ac brought upon there’s no functional difference between a ship and an airplane. The surrealistic explanation of that “this point wasn’t addressed in the immigration laws reforms, therefore the old regulations remain in force.” Fernando says he got from the Naval Command Center tells us this. And your tale about the cruise tells us different officials got different orders.

  • Pingback: Castro’s ‘reforms’ still do not allow Cubans to board boats | Babalú Blog

  • Pinero

    Go to Isle of Pines. That is one of the free ferries Cubans can take.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004221939111 Alberto N. Jones

    Another great and timely posting by Fernando. The last time I checked11/12, everything included in Fernando’s article is just that. Cubans are simply not allowed on any of these vessels. Reason, None, except the loss of millions of badly needed hard currency.
    I hope everyone having anything to do with that issue, would read it from his/her desk and ask themselves, if this regulation could be less thoughtful? Until January 14, 2013, Cubans needed an exit paper or Carta Blanca. At the same time, a Cuban living abroad, who flew into Cuba, was still not allowed to go on any of these vessels or to visit Caimanera and Boqueron, two fishing villages outside of Guantanamo Bay, without obtaining a police permit. Did anyone fear he/she might swim across the bay into Gitmo?
    A Cuban living in Europe for many years, who worked on a cruise ship visiting Cuba, was not allowed to desembark and had to continue on board to Mexico, from where she was able fly back and visit her family in Cuba.

  • Walter Teague

    OK Fernando Ravsberg*, it looks like you need to check out the comments and at least consider an update on your article.

    As an ex-military member, I despise unnecessary regulations and restrictions, whether in the U.S. or Cuba or wherever. But having ridden the ferry from Havana to Regla, I can understand why hijacking one of those flat bottomed boat and attempting to take it and it’s passengers out on the open seas is clearly a violent act. But even if such acts were one of the reasons for the restrictions in the past, it seems from the more up to date reports, that things are changing.

    So check it out and give credit where due. By the way, are there any restrictions on U.S. citizens taking boats to Cuba?

  • Nasty

    Generally ordinary Cubans are not allowed on boats except state ferries. Occasionally there are exceptions. Some can take catamarran day cruises if they are not noticed and appear to be tourists. I once was on a ferry to Cayo Levisa when a Cuban girl in the company was allowed to sail over and spend the night in the hotel. This was before all the hotels were open to Cubans. However the old rule applies if you ask and sometimes reaches ridiculous limits. A young man born in Holland to Cuban diplomats emigrated to Canada as an infant. He grew up and got married to a Canadian girl. His wife was allowed to sail on a catamarran excursion but he was refused even though he had a paid ticket. He didn’t get a refund. Cuba would do well to remove silly rules because it makes the country look ridiculous to the outside world.