In pre-revolutionary days, thousands of U.S. travelers every month arrived in Cuba aboard the overnight City of Havana and other passenger-car ferries from Key West, Palm Beach, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville. You could drive down to Key West and the next day be in Havana.
In 1949, when Ernest Hemingway traded in his Lincoln Continental convertible for a royal blue Buick Roadmaster convertible, he drove it from Miami to Idaho and the following spring shipped it to Cuba on the ferry from Key West. (For more information on vintage American cars in Cuba, see my coffee table book, Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles.)My friend Rob Hodel, owner of Tico Travel, also has (or had) hopes to receive permission to initiate ferry service.Alas, the Cuban Revolution and the U.S. embargo that swiftly followed (and is still in place five decades later) put an end to ferry service between the two nations. In September 1962, the City of Havana ferry was the last passenger vessel to sail between Havana and the United States. Since then, no cruise ship has sailed to Cuba from any U.S. port.
In recent years, several Florida-based companies have tried to secure licenses to operate ferries, which would offer a cheaper option to Cuban-Americans and others authorized to visit Cuba.
In 2009, for example, Cuban-American-owned Florida Ferry International applied to the US Treasury Department for permission to operate a 600-cabin ferry between Miami and Havana. And Paris-based Unishipping is currently seeking a license to operate Fort Lauderdale-Havana service through its U.S. subsidiary, United Americas Shipping Co. And Port Everglades is also reportedly talking with several ferry operators about potential Cuba service, pending U.S. government approval.
Service could cost about $200 round-trip (including LOTS of luggage) compared to about $600 to fly on Miami-Havana charters, where checked luggage is limited to average of 40-80 pounds. That’s a piddling amount of luggage for Cuban-Americans returning to Cuba with everything but the kitchen sink for their relatives back home on the island.
My friend Rob Hodel, owner of Tico Travel, also has (or had) hopes to receive permission to initiate ferry service. (Tico Travel holds a Travel Service Provider license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, permitting the company to legally make travel arrangements to Cuba.)
Since the Republican Congressional victory two weeks ago, the door has slammed shut for at least the next two year’s on any possibility for a lifting of travel restrictions (see my blog post: End Cuba travel ban dead if GOP win). I guess we’ll just have to keep on hoping.
Meanwhile, as to private boaters, I have more bad news…
Those of you who have read my book Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba know that in February 1996 I hoisted my BMW motorcycle onto a private yacht and set out from Key West, Florida, for a three-month, 7,000-mile journey through Cuba.
Such a trip was entirely possible back then, and Havana’s Marina Hemingway never lacked for U.S. yachts. The Bush administration slammed the door shut by tightening up on the regulations.
U.S. law requires that U.S. boaters get pre-authorization from the Coast Guard 7th Division Marine Safety Office; an export license from the U.S. Commerce Department; and a specific license from OFAC. Needless to say, such licenses are only granted for vessels carrying licensable humanitarian goods.
Plus, all persons subject to U.S. law aboard vessels, including the owner, must be a licensed traveler. Vessel owners are prohibited from carrying travelers to Cuba who pay them for passage if the owner does not have a specific license from OFAC authorizing him or her to be a Service Provider to Cuba.
Flaunting the regulations can have serious consequences. Not only do you risk a massive fine. If things go wrong you truly do have problems, as the United States and Cuba do not have a Coast Guard agreement (however, the U.S. Interests Section has arranged such assistance to U.S. yachters). There are many reports of Cuban authorities being indifferent to yachters in distress, some of whom have had their vessels impounded; in several cases, foreign yachters have lost their vessels to corrupt officials.