Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Customary Customs

I have put my name on the mailing list for the new CubaKat projected ferry service to Cuba. Plans are fluid but they are hoping to start boats going to and from Cuba, possibly from Marathon later this year. They have plans also apparently to get cargo boats or car ferries in the pipeline if I have read it correctly  and that's what I really would like to see, me and a motorcycle in Cuba...fingers crossed.
However some weird stuff is happening around these projected Cuba Ferry services. US Customs has weighed in announcing a series of roadblocks as though attempting to stop ferry services to the Godless Communist island. A couple of weeks ago Customs announced that without a million dollar customs office at the ferry terminal they wouldn't sign off on international travel. Then last week they announced that ferries to and from Cuba would be boarded in mid stream for safety inspections and to make sure no illegal migrants would be on board. What I fond odd about these statements is that they are unprecedented in the Keys.
Cruise ships land in Key West from foreign ports and disgorge thousands of visitors onto Key West docks with not a single Customs shed in sight. Sometimes inspectors ride out to the ship on the pilot  boat and start checking passports as the ship approaches the dock and ties up. Other times they board at the dock and set up tables on the ship. Occasionally they find passengers with arrest warrants and they hand them over to local police for transport to the jail on Stock Island.  A quick walk around the cruise ship docks in Key West will show no sign of permanent Customs offices anywhere. So a Cuba ferry with a few hundred passengers seems much ado about not very much by comparison. 
The odd thing about foreign entry in Key West gets even odder if you come in your own boat from Mexico or the Bahamas and I've done both. The rule is no landings by anyone on board until the boat is cleared by Customs, Immigration and Agriculture. So you find a dock (you can't come in by dinghy), call Customs and they come out to meet you from their imposing building on Simonton and Caroline and they check papers and fruits and vegetables and all that and then you are cleared to take a permanent dock or to anchor out and enjoy the town. That's when you take down your yellow "quarantine" flag. The yellow signal flag spelled the letter Q and has been traditional used to indicate the crew on a boat are in quarantine either because of infectious illness or customs clearance. Technically you are supposed to fly the flag as soon as you enter a country's waters from abroad.
But here's the thing: its all on the honor system, and based on fear that you might have been spotted by surveillance aircraft and the fact that you get a hefty fine if they catch you not checking in. And if you've been to Cuba have fun explaining that. The fact is the waters of South Florida are porous and it would take a lot more money and personnel to create a Berlin Wall down here. In fact authorities here are looking for Cuban hovel craft and Haitian migrants struggling to reach the promised land of freedom and middle aged poseurs in fiberglass pleasure craft are low on the priority list. Which makes sense. So why are Cuban ferries viewed as a threat? 
US Customs & Border Protection at Philadelphia

I view the work done by immigration and customs inspectors as thankless and unending checking miles of tired fractious tourists day after day in  long lines at airports on foot and land ports in cars and at cruise ship docks everywhere. I am giving serious consideration to the Global Entry Program where you pay a fee and fill out some forms and get speedy check in and out when traveling. I think its a smart idea and long overdue in our technological world. Harassing ferry boats because you disagree with opening up to Cuba seems somehow 19th century in its pettiness and banality. Not the attitude of a great sea power.