Hope that the travel ban will soon be lifted fuels infrastructure expansion in Havana and other areas
Anticipating the end of the travel ban, Cuban state enterprises responsible for marine infrastructure have begun an unprecedented push to ready the island nation for U.S. boaters. With growing support across America and in Washington, the U.S. House and Senate may finally act upon legislation to allow Americans to travel freely to their island neighbor for the first time in decades - it could happen this year or next.
One estimate says 60,000 U.S. vessels will visit Cuba in the first year post-embargo. Though the number may seem high, leaders in government and business in the Bahamas and the Caribbean take this figure seriously, judging by their often-expressed fears that Cuba will siphon away American mariners and their dollars once the ban is lifted.
But Cuba has only 789 transient slips, most concentrated in the three marinas closest to Florida - Marina Hemingway in Havana, Marina Gaviota Varadero and Marina Darsena Varadero. Havana, of course, is associated with the classic cars, cigars and Cuban music scene. Varadero, about 80 miles east of the capital, is Cuba's version of Cape Cod, the Jersey Shore and Florida Keys all rolled into one. The rest of the country has just 12 additional marinas spread across a 3,000-mile coastline and interspersed between vast areas of mangroves, pasture, wooded shores and undeveloped pocket bays.
The "corporate" structure of Cuba's marina system is twofold. All marinas in Cuba are operated by either the Marlin Group or Gaviota. Marlin's director reports to the Ministry of Tourism, whose development of that economic sector was crucial in sustaining the Cuban nation after Soviet subsidies ended in 1989. Gaviota's lineage suggests even greater clout: It is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Castro military.
Recent actions by each of these government entities underscore the seriousness with which Cuba regards "nautical tourism" from the United States. One decision was the appointment last summer of Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich as director of the Marlin Group. To the marine industry on our side of the Florida Strait, Escrich is better known as the avuncular commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, which he founded with Fidel Castro's blessing in 1992.
Escrich, 62, will continue at the helm of his club, but is now responsible for 2,000 employees, 400 tourist excursion vessels and a hodgepodge of docking facilities around the country, including Marina Hemingway at Havana and seven other transient marinas. His job is to bring the facilities up to snuff as best he can with limited resources while courting foreign investors.
Cuba's other decision is more concrete - literally. With little fanfare, Gaviota has been working on an ambitious expansion of its Varadero marina. When finished, it will accommodate more boats than Marina Puerto del Rey in Puerto Rico, currently the biggest in the Caribbean. Gaviota Varadero will have 1,200 slips, including berths for six megayachts longer than 195 feet.
Credit Escrich with one of the great ironies of the Cuban revolution. The revolution was fought to rid Cuba of its plutocrats and elite institutions such as yacht clubs, but by 1992 times had changed. The country's economy had ground to a near halt after the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies.
Fidel Castro was an avid fisherman and, as the story goes, Escrich pitched the yacht club as an economic engine that would host several annual game-fish tournaments and sailing regattas. Castro's favorite writer is said to be Ernest Hemingway, another fishing enthusiast with international cachet, so why not name the club after him? Escrich, a retired Cuban naval officer, became the club's first and (so far) only commodore.
During the last 17 years, the Hemingway International Yacht Club has formed alliances with 57 yacht clubs around the world. Escrich says the club receives no government money and has supported itself with donations and dues ($150 a year) paid by thousands of members from 45 nations, including the United States. Escrich has used the club to form relationships with numerous wealthy Americans, U.S. congressmen, Coast Guard officers and business leaders.