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February 2, 1999

Cuba: Forbidden Fruit

(In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the second episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.)

by David Underhill

How do you get to a place where you're not supposed to go, a country that officially doesn't even exist? The US has refused to recognize Castro's Cuba: no exchange of ambassadors, no embassies, no consulates in each other's major cities.

An embargo tries to prevent or sever private bonds too: no plane or ship traffic, no American tourist or Cuban labor invasions, no cigars and rum from them, no Whoppers and Apples from us.

But neighbors separated by a narrow strait that's been a watery bridge for centuries can't really wish each other away. So the Swiss embassy in Washington has a "Cuban interests section," which is staffed by Cubans in the building that was pre-Castro Cuba's embassy. And the US has a counterpart in Havana, also under Swiss cover. These unofficial embassies preside over the numerous connections that actually occur.

To legally evade the ban on travel to Cuba you're supposed to have an approved purpose for the trip. Delivering humanitarian supplies is permitted. So are academic and media trips. And you're not supposed to take many American dollars, nor leave many behind in Cuba. The specifics are changeable, bureaucratic processing may be sloppy, and enforcement may be spotty. International affairs is not a realm ruled by logic and consistency.

The Mobilians aiming for Cuba had to submit to the Sister City group copies of their passport and a form declaring their intent. Most said they were escorting donated medicines, which was true. I branded myself a member of the dreaded and despised media, which I could verify, if challenged, by WABB radio paycheck stubs (unlike work for The Harbinger, whose rewards are more elevated and refined than vulgar money).

These documents disappeared to Washington, where both Cuban and American paper shufflers and computer keyboard snoops (I assume) checked us out. Finally word returned that most of us had survived scrutiny. The US would let us out, Cuba would let us in.

The exception was several local government leaders. Their names on the original list of Cuba-trippers didn't need bold print to look prominent. Nor was their presence a surprise. Some day proximity and history will close the current breach between the two nations. As that time approaches, folks with a nose for a buck will notice. Those poised to leap first across the narrowing gap will get the jump on competitors. Shrewd business sorts understand this and will reward politicians with similar foresight. The sister city link to Havana can serve them as an early route toward full commercial consummation.

But something went amiss. I didn't absorb all the particulars. Perhaps the government officials couldn't pass inspection as alleged humanitarians or scholars. Or perhaps their role as scouts for business opportunities erosive of the embargo was too apparent. Whatever, they dropped off the roster.

Maybe they exhaled in relief. They wouldn't need to explain--as some of us had to later-- a sacrilegious act: voluntarily paying a friendly visit to a neighbor, communist Cuba.

Receiving permission for travel to a forbidden land is easy compared to actually getting there. For those financially able to equate time with money, an airplane might be the preferred vehicle. Rumors arose of an impending relaxation in the embargo to allow some regular passenger service from Miami to Havana. Then they dissipated. The alternative was long dogleg flights via Canada, Mexico, or some Caribbean islands. A few of the Mobilians did this, by exactly what loop I never knew.

For the rest of us the journey would be by sea on a craft from, strangely, Kentucky. It belongs to a fellow whose business ventures tapped a vein of money that flowed copiously enough to coagulate into a BIG twin-diesel-engine boat. Or so it looked when it parked briefly at a marina here after descending the inland waterways.

The owner is retired, I gathered, and ferrying Mobile Sister Cityites to Havana has become a kind of hobby for him. How that happened I don't know. He doesn't do this for free, but his fee is a sliver of the cost for island tours on immense cruise ships. (His boat, too, is a sliver next to those wave-flattening hulks--as I especially would discover.) He invited us aboard to confirm that he, the captain, was sober and the ship seaworthy, to unschooled eyes like mine at least.

Then he motored away with his little crew on a leisurely tour along the Florida coast. We would rendezvous weeks later in Key West for the hop to Havana.

Seasoned tourists travel light. I'm not and I didn't. Bearing more stuff and less cash (American plastic money is just plastic in embargoed Cuba) than I'd really need, and armed with a Spanish-English dictionary, a cassette recorder from the radio station, and a borrowed camera, I shed Mobile on Tuesday, November 10, with two companions in a rental car. The antique I own panics at high speed in heavy traffic. They didn't explain the reasons for stashing their cars at home.

Florida is reputed a vacation wonderland. If so, those parts are sequestered from the main highways. The long arc from Pensacola down and around to Key West was a tedium of asphalt and steel on wheels. It can't be driven sanely in a day. We paused midway at a cheap motel that could have been a set for a 30s flick and eased into Key West the next day with time to prowl before departure to Cuba on Thursday the 12th.

It turned out we also had time to kill. We found our boat, the medical supplies were already aboard, and the other passengers were trickling into town. But the wind spirit and the water gods decided to play pranks with our plans. The captain said the waves were too boisterous in the straits and we'd have to wait. His one vote outweighed all others. It was the only vote. Some are more equal than others. A few could camp on the boat; for the rest of us this delay rang up another motel bill.

Key West has a reputation as a sanctuary for gays self-exiled to the farthest southern tip of America. That's merely the town's most flamboyant trait. Explorations by foot and rented bike during our weather-stranded spare day there revealed the main story. Key West is really a fishing village and military outpost bulked up into a cramped, busy city by feasting on straight tourists.

A stream of them flows in by car and plane. And great gobs are disgorged for several hours--in wads of thousands it seemed--from cruise ships to stroll, eat, buy, gawk, revel, and reboard. They are replaced swiftly by another batch from the next ship.

Beside these floating cities, our boat was a dinghy. But the captain spied on the weather reports a narrow window of calmer seas we could squeeze through. Somehow the word spread to all the scattered voyagers sampling Key West. Everybody and their baggage got aboard in a medium bustle.

At 2 a.m. on portentous Friday the 13th we slipped from the harbor like a blockade- runner under cover of darkness and headed for Castro's mysterious island.

(to be continued)

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