Commodore Escrich Tours Key West

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad with the Commodore at the Green Parrot

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad with the Commodore at the Green Parrot

Meet the Commodore reception Key West Yacht Club

Meet the Commodore reception Key West Yacht Club

Cuban Commodore Jose Escrich and his wife Mariceo toured Key West last week as a guest of the southernmost city’s marine and tourist organizations. Escrich is the head of Club Natico, located in Marina Hemingway – fifteen minutes west of Havana. The club is the only non-government funded boating organization in Cuba.
“I started Club Natico as a non-political organization that welcomes sailors, cruisers and fishermen from the world over.” said Escrich. Key West Yacht Club was the first American boating organization to establish relations with the club. Today, Club Natico’s members come from sixty countries and the club is recognized by over five hundred yacht clubs and boating organizations worldwide
After manning the helm of the USCG Ingram, a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter, Escrich was honored at a reception at the Key West Yacht Club. Bob Harvey presented his fellow Commodore with a local artist’s painting of Ernest Hemingway’s famous fishing boat “Pilar.”
A replica of the boat docked in both Key West and Cuba last June. The original Pilar rest under cover at Hemingway’s house, Finca la Vigia, east of Havana proper. Hemingway left his beloved fishing boat to Gregorio Fuentes when he left Cuba in 1960. Fruentes was the famous writer’s fishing mate and friend and is believed to be the model for Santiago, the main character in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Unable to afford the maintenance on the boat, Fuentes donated it to the Castro government.
In addition to welcoming mariners from around the world, Club Natico host the Hemingway Billfish Tournament each spring. The longest running competition of its kind, Hemingway initiated the tournament in 1950, while serving as the vice president of the newly formed IGFA.
In the nineteen nineties, American boats took advantage of the Clinton administration’s relaxed Cuban travel regulations sailing freely between Key West and Marina Hemingway. Many of Key West’s sailors and fishermen made multiple trips yearly, ferrying much needed supplies to newly made friends suffering under what Fidel termed the “Special Period.”
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost an estimated seven billion dollars a year in direct subsidies sending the Cuban economy into a tailspin, creating shortages in food, energy and basic necessities. Key West and Cuba were once again linked by a thin tread of traveling Americans bringing food and friendship.
American participation also brought new life to the Hemingway Tournament which in 2003 had over 40 American teams trolling the waters off Havana for blue marlin, one of the world’s most popular game fish.
When Bush replaced Clinton, strict enforcement shut the gate on boat travel for Americans and the tournament once again was threatened with extinction. Only Commodore Escrich’s determination and unbending desire to preserve what he considers a Cuban national treasure, kept the contest alive.
“We must not let the tournament die.” He declared in a 2013 interview. Participation in the Hemingway had dropped to nine boats and the few tournament sponsors were pulling out. With relaxed regulations for American participants, the tournament could become one of the richest in the world.
A graduate of the Cuban Naval Academy, Escrich’s twenty-five year career as a Cuban Naval officer included four years in the former Soviet Union before returning to the college as a professor of naval history.
In 1991 Escrich became a consultant to Cubacan, the government arm in charge of the island’s newly emerging tourist industry. Cubacan had been directed to manage Hemingway Marina, the closest deep water harbor to Havana. Before resigning to devote all his attention to the newly formed Club Natico, Escrich was head of all marina operations in Cuba.
Commodore Eschich and his wife, sister in law Yuri and her husband, Julio Salvadore were hosted by many of Key West’s most prominent businessmen including restaurant and tour owners.
“We became family in three days,” commented Eco-tour owner Carla Bellenger. Carla was the constant companion of Mericeo and her sister during the three days of meetings and introductions.
“They were all so sweet.” She added. “I felt for Mericeo though. She was so anxious to see her grandchildren in Port St. Lucia, Florida. It brought home to me how many family separations this embargo has caused. Hopefully meetings like these will bring about change.”
Included in the busy schedule, the Commodore toured the new marina expansions taking place on neighboring Stock Island in anticipation of normal boat traffic and ferry service to and from the island. Some estimates claim eighty- thousand U.S. boaters are eager to cruise Cuba.
A new eleven hundred slip marina built in the resort city of Veradaro – an hour and a half east of Havana – is in preparation for the flood of American boaters.
“Key West has been abuzz since the December announcement re-establishing dialogue with Cuba. Everyone is looking south.” said Hog Fish restaurant owner Bobby Mongelli, during a luncheon he hosted for the group. “We have businessmen meeting here wanting in on the ground floor of the Cuban capitalist invasion. Everything from ferry operators to regatta organizers want the Commodore’s ear.”
Before arriving in Key West, Escrich attended the Miami Boat Show as a guest of the National Marine Manufacturers Association and was honored with an achievement award presented by the International Sea Keepers Society. The Commodore had been turned down in the past when applying for a visa to attend meetings and conferences in the U.S.

Cuban Travel Tip # 8

Cuban Travel Tip # 8

Transportation:

7063Unfortunately in Cuba, public transportation is difficult. Buses are unbelievably crowded, make milk run stops and are best left to the young, adventurous backpackers with time and a Freudian desire for inconvenience.
Trains, are slow, crowded, subject to frequent breakdowns and delays. This mode too should only be considered by the courageous traveler. Frequently, a train is stopped because the rails have been stolen. When this occurs, passengers are often loaded into open trucks to complete their journey.
If you want to experience the island like a Cuban climb aboard. The train runs from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, the buses service every population center.
Rental cars are scarce in season and expensive by our standards. The lowest price I have found is around $70.00/day. I pay for my cars here with my travel agent and save the currency conversion charge. If you’re staying in Havana, it might be wise to delay picking up the car for a few days. Driving in Havana takes some getting used to.
English speaking drivers are readily available. Most are college educated and very reliable. Keep in mind when you hire a Cuban, he or she accepts responsibility for your safety. Sounds too good to be true…. but it is.
Another option used by visiting Cubans is to rent a private car. It’s cheap….but illegal. In case of an accident or a routine stop, it could jam you up.
I like horse taxis – or you can bring your own.

Cuban Travel Tip # 7.5 More on Casa Particulars

11 3Cuban Travel Tip # 7.5

More on Casa Paticulars:
Julia Cooke describes the Casa Particular relationship in her excellent book, “The Other Side of Paradise”
“Remember how she’d written down my passport number in that logbook for the authorities? She was accountable while I was in Cuba, she said before turning away. I wasn’t to worry: she’d keep me safe.”
This adoption process is part of what makes staying with private homeowners the safest and one of the most pleasurable experiences of your Cuba Trip.
Look for the blue anchor symbol.

Cuban Travel Tip # 7

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2013-04-23 08.10.02Cuba Travel Tip #7
Casa Particular – Cuban version of a bed and breakfast owned by private entrepreneurs….your money goes directly to the people. 5 star rated for safety and service.
So. You googled “Casa Particular” and found what looked to be a nice room off the Malecon in Havana. You booked two nights and left the rest of your week on the island open. You’d read some crazy travel tip advising a “book as you go” schedule for rooms. Worry not. No matter your travel schedule, Cuba’s Coconut Telegraph (thanks Jimmy) connects Casa Particular owners across the island.
Casa Particular owners, when told of your next destination will call ahead and find you a room. Their homegrown reservation system rivals Marriot. Whether you’re off to explore the valleys of Pino del Rio or dive the Bay of Pigs, there will be a casa particular close by. Even though you have a reservation, look around. If you find a nicer house in the area there will be no hard feelings.
Note:
At two separate book events over the weekend I spoke to several people just returned from Cuba. All were ushered through U.S. Customs and Emigration with a smile and a wave. “They don’t really care why you went.” Commented one traveler. Another returnee said, “If you read the regulations, the administration is telling Americans to go if you want.”

The Commodore is Coming!

Winning team Santi

Winning team Santi

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Dear Mr. Thompson,

I am pleased to write you on behalf of the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba and on my own, as well as to inform you I will be traveling with my wife to Miami on Wednesday, February 11th at 2:00 pm to attend the Miami International Boat Show, as invited by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA).

I will be attending the events organized by the NMMA on February 12th and 13th on the occasion of the Boat Show. Following these two days, I would like to meet with executives and personalities of the American boating community that, after the announcement of the beginning of the process of normalization of the diplomatic relations between our two countries, have expressed their interest in meeting me to discuss the organization of races, participation in fishing tournaments, marina business investment and general actions related to recreational boating industry.

After the program with the NMMA, I will receive an award from The International SeaKeepers Society on Friday 13th. Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th, I am willing to meet with or visit people and nautical institutions interested in talking with me. From Monday 16th to 19th, I have planned to be in Key .

I look forward the opportunity to greet my friends and establish new friendship and cooperation relations with the honorable members of the American boating community.

Waiting for your comments, I take this opportunity to reiterate my greetings and express my highest respects.

Yours sincerely,

Lic. José Miguel Díaz Escrich
Commodore
www.hemingwayyachtclub.org

Cuban Travel Tip #6

67For first time travelers to Cuba, Havana is a must see. Narrow stone streets separate magnificent architectural monuments in this former colonial capital…. it exudes old world charm. At night, except for the tropical aromas and reggaeton beat, it could well be Seville or any number of European enclaves.
So, you’ve landed a Jose Marti airport outside Havana….now what?
Going through customs in Cuba is a breeze most times. As a foreigner you’ll be photo’d and passed through with a normal luggage search. Declare nothing. Everything you’ve brought – other than personal belongings – are gifts for the Cuban people.
Outside the airport is organized chaos with reunions, hawkers, and Cubans waiting for their muled goods from the U.S.
If you rented a car you might want to delay picking it up for a couple of days. Taxis are the way to see Havana. Driving in the city is a nightmare. Spend a couple of days acclimating before heading out on your own.

Cuban Travel Tip # 5

470Cuban Travel Tip #5

Direct flights from Tampa and Miami to Cuba require a check in four hours before flight time. This rather early requirement is to facilitate handling the enormous amount of baggage headed south. Each passenger is allowed forty pounds of free luggage in addition to carry-ons. These limits are tested by travelers carrying everything from vitamins to flat screen T.V.s.
While waiting, get to know some of your fellow travelers. You’ll meet farmers from the Midwest, birders, academics, students and Cuban Americans reuniting with relatives on the island. Many of the seniors are returning for the first time in over half a century and the reunions which take place a Jose Marti airport are stirring. Start your Cuban experience at the airport, you’ll enjoy the head start.

Medical Servants Not Slaves – published in The Huffington Post

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“What I will miss most about Cuba is waiting in the bread line.”

So says a young Cuban doctor displaying humor before leaving for Venezuela. The Medica is strikingly beautiful, resembling a young Gloria Estefan of Miami Sound machine fame. But there the resemblance ends. The women — both Cuban — are as opposite socially, politically and ideologically, as music is to medicine. Twenty-four-year old Dr. Yaquelin Manero Bastista believes that music may soothe the savage beast, but it takes a doctor to cure him.

Medicine propelled Dr. Bastista, from the tiny sugar-mill town of Baquanos to the University of Holguin, in the eastern province’s capital city. There, after six years of intense study, she earned her medical degree with a specialty in physical rehabilitation.

“The most rewarding experience in my career so far was helping to bring a child into the world,” she says, her dark eyes sparkling.

Tomorrow, Dr. Batista will board a bus to Havana, the first leg of a journey that trades her healing skills for oil.

Like the majority of Cubans, she’s never been off the island. That changes next week when she boards a plane for Caracas, Venezuela. On the eve of her departure on a two-year mission, though nervous and excited, Dr. Bastista gathers with her cousins, economist Susan, and Tanya, the owner of a soon-to-open hair salon. Tanya is my fiancée – already I’m family. The trio, close in age, are flowers from the same stem, raised together in the countryside as sisters, best friends.

The exchanges tonight are lively, full of remembrances punctuated with laughter. But, beneath the surface of the gathering, apprehension lingers. It’s fear for Dr. Bastista’s future. The young women are aware of how dangerous Venezuela has become, so concern for the dedicated doctor is real.

“I will miss the freedom of Cuba.” she adds seriously. In Venezuela she will be behind locked doors, from dusk to dawn, a necessity for her and her colleague’s safety. “I like to walk the streets of Holguin, sometimes late at night. I will miss that.”

Once in country — after a week of orientation — she will be assigned to one of the barrios or rural pueblos where she and other health professionals will treat Venezuela’s poor. “Doctors for oil” it’s called. And it’s the most important exchange in Cuba today. Venezuela supplies the largest of the Antilles with 100,000 barrels a day in payment for these trained medical professionals — a sweetheart deal, say some.

To Dr. Batista, the politics are unimportant. In serving, she sees only the chance to help and learn. Many of the health problems she will deal with in Venezuela have been eradicated in Cuba, so opportunity overshadows the danger of living in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Dr. Bastista describes the selection process with pride — passing the interviews, background checks, and personal recommendations by neighbors, colleagues and teachers.

For her service, two-hundred convertible pesos (approximately two-hundred dollars) per month will be deposited in a Cuban bank. On her return, Dr. Bastista will be issued a debit card for the account that also authorizes a 30 percent discount for purchases in government stores. Should she serve another two-year term, she would be eligible to purchase a late-model car at a substantially reduced price.

Oil for Doctors would appear a win-win situation for Cuba and Venezuela alike. But critics of the program exist in both countries

Many complain the assignment of so many medical workers across South and Central America and Africa deprives Cubans of sufficient doctors needed to staff its own highly touted free-health-care system.

On the Venezuela side, many criticize the cost of the medical service, believing it overpriced.

“Even though my group will total 70 doctors from Holguin province,” Dr.Batista explains, “it will create no shortage. Each year, Holguin University graduates between 500 and 550 new doctors. Add those to the returning medical personnel and the care of our countrymen will not suffer.”

“As far as the cost, what price can one place on a life, be it the birth of a healthy baby, the curing of disease or the relief of pain? Ask a poor Venezuelan mother or father what price they place on the health of their children.”

The party breaks up finally, no one wanting to leave. These women have grown up together, sharing so much of their young lives and are fully aware tomorrow will bring an end to a part, one that will never be relived.

Susan will soon will leave the island to live with her new husband in Switzerland, Tanya will remain in Holguin and, with the opening of her business join an emerging class of Cuban entrepreneurs.

It’s a new story in Cuba, young people heading off island, striking out, experiencing a world outside the revolution.
Today, thanks to the 2013 elimination of the hated “exit visa” by current president Raul Castro,
most Cubans may come and go as they please- or as their personal finances allow. No longer branded traitors to the revolution, now they retain their property and citizenship while traveling abroad.

Cuba currently claims some 80,000 medical personnel serving in more than 20 countries worldwide. In Brazil, arriving doctors have been met with protest and branded “medical slaves.”

Told of this, Dr. Batista merely smiles. “Do I look like a slave to you?

Cuban Travel Tip #4

Cuba Travel Tip #4
Cuban American travel agents are invaluable to those desiring to visit Cuba. Not only will they book your direct flights, but can also save you money on rental cars.
Rental Cars in Cuba are never cheap and not always available during peak tourist months – December thru April. By reserving and paying for your car through an agent here, you’re guaranteed a vehicle upon arrival.
Also, by paying for the car in dollars, you avoid the currency exchange charge when converting dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos.
I use Caribe Travel in Tampa. A complete list of licensed travel providers can be found on the O.F.A.C website.063

Cuban Travel Tip #3

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Once you’ve selected a General License category, you’ll need to find a flight that fits your schedule. In Florida, ABC Charters flies out of Tampa and Miami to not only Havana, but Santa Clara, Holguin, Santiago and Cienfuegos as well. Flight schedules are on their website.
ABC Charter’s web page offers reservation service for other locations in the US, but a call to their office revealed no other airports service Cuba at this time. Other airports including O’Hare and Dallas-Ft.Worth have been licensed for flights to Cuba, so expect them to ramp up service soon.
When you Google “flights to Cuba” you will be directed to websites featuring passage through another country. In most instances the American emigration and customs officers in those countries have been dealing with Americans returning from Cuba for quite some time. Recent returnees from the island through Cancun or Nassau have experienced few problems.
If you can fly out of Tampa, I recommend it. Tampa wants to be known as a gateway to Cuba and the attitude of the customs and emigration officers are refreshingly welcoming.