Cuba: A Dry Run

North of Havana is a fantasy world of mangrove-lined cays and green water flashing with tropical fish—perfect sea-kayaking country. But the line between what's permissible and what's not in Castro's kingdom falls in a gray area, and comings and goings by water always mean trouble.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE FRIEND IS KNOWN simply as Guajiro, which means "farmer" or "peasant." He was a field commander in the Angolan war, to which Cuba sent thousands of troops. He moves two glasses of rum and two demitasse cups to the edge of Fernando's wrought-iron table and spreads the map. Above the little courtyard the sky is mauve with dusk. Fernando's wife, Diana, is in the kitchen making dinner; his two small children, Laura and Fernandito, are at our feet, building parking garages with our dominoes.

Guajiro wears a camo bush hat, left over from his days in Nicaragua, where he also served, fighting against the contras with the Sandinistas. He's my age, 40, but he looks older. It's in the creases around his eyes and the stiffness of his shoulders. In Angola he and two Cuban comrades got lost in the jungle for 70 days, after a firefight with rebels who torched a church full of terrified villagers. The three men lived on insects and rodents. Later, Guajiro returned to the village and asked the priest, who survived, where God had been that morning, why he had let the church burn. "He was busy with other things," the priest said.

Guajiro laughs and downs his glass of rum. "After that," he says, "I didn't have much to do with God. We were both very busy."

He traces the route we will paddle and marks the islands. "Here, this is called Cayo Alto. On the outside is a sand beach, very clear, many, many lobsters. In the center of the biggest island you will see tall cedars that mark a spring of sweet water. Here is the Río Chica la Sagua. You can paddle up it through the mangrove some kilometers to a small village."

Guajiro says that at night the cays are dangerous because cigarette boats come across from Florida—torpedo-fast with twin 500-horse Mercuries—to pick up fleeing Cubans from the estuaries. The Guarda Frontera, the border patrol, is helpless to stop them because the speedboats easily outrun their military frigates.

"At night, if the smugglers were to see you, and there was some confusion..." He shrugs. I ask him where, exactly, are the Guarda posts. It's not a state secret; the Cubans are proud of their defense system. Guajiro makes a series of small X's along the coast. Adam shakes his head. The stations are ten to 15 miles apart, almost within sight of each other. It's like the Great Wall.

The old soldier sits back and smiles. He knows what we're thinking.

"If you paddle out there, every Guarda station, every patrol, will know the length and weight and color of your boats, your passport numbers." He leans forward. "They will know your mothers' names."

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