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Scuba Diving in Varadero, Cuba October 15, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Dive Log.
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Cuba is place where Canadians get to go without finding many of our American friends. In 1993 the Cuban economy was slowly opening up from necessity as the collapse of the Soviet Union removed much of their foreign support. So foreign investment was being encouraged in order to build a tourism business. I was expecting to see a strong military and police presence in the country, except on the resort, as the country is a totalitarian police state.

So I was surprised to see a friendly a relaxed atmosphere from the airport onwards. Clearing customs and immigration was much smoother, friendlier and more efficient than in Jamaica, and there was no excessive questioning or overt exercise of authority. There was, however, an undercurrent of resentment of the government by many Cubans, although in many there was also a belief in the socialist revolution. I wouldn’t say the people were divided from each other, but within themselves – brought up to believe in the revolution but also jealous of the affluence of tourists and their US relatives.

Cuba was an embodiment of the advantages and disadvantages of socialism. I suppose Canadians are more tolerant as we have more elements of socialism in our society and consider many of them, like our universal health care system, mostly a good thing. Cubans are in general well-educated and have very good health care, although there are many shortages of medicines, fuel and other supplies, and people are generally extremely poor although many of their basic needs seem to be taken care of. Jamaica in comparison seemed to have a lot more freedom but the poverty appeared much more extreme and the locals vastly more aggressive in finding ways to separate you from your money.

We’d chosen the resort “Club Varadero” for a stay of two weeks, which was a little past half way along the Hicacos Peninsula, including the beautiful 12 mile long Varadero Beach. I heard on the way down that the dive boat had been sunk in a tragic incident. Apparently a guard had been overpowered by two Cubans on the beach and his gun stolen. They then commandeered the dive boat, taking the manager of the dive operation and one of his staff as hostage, and headed for Florida. They were intercepted by the Cuban Navy who rammed and sank the dive boat, resulting in the loss of the manager’s life and the staff member’s leg. The two would-be escapees were uninjured and arrested, their fate unknown.

So we had a dive bus, rather than a dive boat, and shore diving was our only option. The general opinion of the dive staff was not sympathetic to the Navy, but they were furious with the hijackers, and wished them a quick execution at the hands of the authorities.

So we did some unmemorable shallow dives at Playa Coral on March 8, 10 and 11 of 1993. The last dive was a wreck dive, but I didn’t catch its name. It was to a depth of 40 feet, while the first two maxed out at 25. Visibility was between 30 and 50 feet on all dives.

On the third day however, they took us to a beautiful cave. We didn’t dive it but there were some divers in the water. It was a fairly open cave with a large entrance, and a large body of water inside, perhaps 60 to 80 feet in diameter. The water was fresh, and crystal clear. You could see everything clearly down to 30 or 40 feet. Below that, the water was saline, flowing underground from the ocean, and you could see divers suddenly coming into sharp focus as they ascended through the halocline.

I think they took us there because they felt sorry for us, being restricted to shallow shore dives by the loss of their boat. We were told that they were breaking the rules by being there, but I think rule making by the government and rule breaking by the citizens is a national sport there.

The time we chose was also unfortunately when the Storm of the Century happened. A front extending from Canada to the Caribbean brought snow to the North and wind and rain to the South and closed all diving and beach activity for several days. We consoled ourselves that we had decided to take 2 weeks for our vacation rather than 1, as if we’d chosen that week, as many had, we would have had a completely ruined vacation. As it was, I only got three dives in the entire two weeks, and the last one was the day before the storm hit.

We did some other tourist things, visiting Havana, where the old city is stunningly beautiful but frozen in time, and a museum containing Che Guevara’s automobile. At the time the only beggars on the street were school-age children, who begged not for money but for pens and paper. Closer to the end of the Hicacos peninsula is the Xanadu Mansion belonging before the revolution to the DuPont family, which must have been an idyllic spot all by itself on the beach.

The money being brought in by tourism has twisted the communist economy in strange ways. Those who spoke English well could make more money in tourism that any other sector. The guy who took over the dive operation was a month away from his PhD in English when he dropped out. If he had finished his degree, he wouldn’t have been allowed to get a job at the resort. Our maid was a dental hygienist. It was a sad state of affairs but as a visitor I benefited from having interesting and well-educated locals to chat with.

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1. Canada’s National Film Board « Chronicle of an older diver - January 23, 2009

[…] second connection is that while my wife and I were on our first visit to Cuba we became acquainted with Sydney C. Newman, who worked for the Film Board during World War II and […]

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