Rambo, the ex-U.S. Marine in Cuba by Denis Dextraze
Todd liked to be called Rambo. He was an ageing New Yorker vet wearing a bandana to hide his balding head. He had long ago forgotten his boot camp training judging from his beer belly and his unshaven face. Sometimes, he might exceptionally shave that face by showing off his marine field shaving technique of using his razor-sharp twelve-inch combat knife that he always wore on his belt. He was a tough SOB who forgot that he was getting old. When he was not on what he called his first mistress, Fantasma, his fifty-three-foot Cheoy Lee ketch, he divided his time between his real Cuban wife and sons and his younger mulata girlfriend, his second mistress after Fantasea. In Cuba, any man of stature has to have mistresses. “Noblesse oublige”. Didn’t Fidel have dozens?
One day, Rambo asked me to accompany him for a crossing to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. He would assume all travel expenses including food, entry and exit cost and a ticket back to Cuba. He knew that, as an experienced blue water sailor, I had navigated the Bahama channel many times and negotiated the tricky entrance to the small Puerto Plata harbor twice, the first time on a moonless night. He also knew that both the currents and the prevailing winds were against us. He wanted to bring Fantasma to D.R. to close the sale to an American resident who had already inspected her. My interest was not so much the discomfort of spending four or five days beating the prevalent easterly wind against the current in his old disorganized and smelly boat, but I wanted to bring my Yamaha Virago motorcycle into D.R. to sell it. Indeed, the Customs authorities in Havana would not renew my temporary import permit and I was not allowed to sell the motorcycle in Cuba.
I knew that hot-tempered Rambo maintained tense relations with the Marina authorities, especially the authorities. I once witnessed an altercation he had, in his poor Spanish, with the security guards, and finally, the coast guards on duty that came to the rescue. In some kind of premonition of events to come, I decided to get a reference from the Canadian Ambassador who lived in the Canadian mansion in Siboney, Playa District only ten blocks away. This beautiful and large estate, just a mile away from the immense estate where Fidel Castro’s family passed most of its time, was Canadian owned land in Cuba with its own pre-revolution titles. The Canadian Ambassador`s residence bought in 1945 had never been expropriated after the revolution because Canada never broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. I had easy access to the Ambassador because I was a member of the Canadian Club, a businessmen`s group chaired by the Commercial Attaché. Since her agenda was full at the Embassy`s office that day, she invited me to the mansion early in the morning and over a quick coffee gave me two business cards which she back signed after a short introduction. It started with something like “To Cuban authorities…” and ended with “give him the utmost considerations”. That was enough. It justified the hundreds of dollars I had spent for two years contributing to the Canadian Club and encouraging the Canadian charity fundraising events like the Terry Fox cancer fundraiser which had become an International Canadian Embassy annual event and was promoted by the Ambassador in person.
Our sail for the first day of this memorable journey was acceptable because although we were against the current which was not yet too strong and against the prevailing easterly wind, we had enough room at sea to manoeuvre and change tack every now and then. Once we passed Varadero, the channel got narrower and narrower and the current stronger and stronger as I had experienced before. Therefore, considering that the wind direction had not changed, we had to start the engine and bring all sails down except the mizzen which I like to keep for stability. Keeping some canvas up reduces the rolling action. We went on motoring all night making slow headway. This undersized engine could not propel us forward against the bottom at more than two or three knots against a three or four-knot current. Fortunately, it only gave up huffing and puffing the next morning after we had passed the narrowest stretch of the Bahama Channel.
So, while Rambo was down in the bilge cursing as if that would help in fixing the engine, I put all sails out and started sailing closed hauled in an east-northerly direction towards the Bahamas. That big cow was a lost cause if you tried to sail close to the wind. So, sailing by depth meter only, I would get as close to the shallower bottom as possible and tack back south towards Cuba. Rambo never could fix the engine and we found ourselves tacking back and forth until we thought that we could make a run for the entrance of Puerto Naranjo in the lee of the Guardalavaca peninsula. Regardless of the fact that I had my hands clawed to the helm and my mouth shut grinding my teeth, the sails ran out of wind about half a nautical mile from the entrance. Since we started drifting towards shore, we had to drop anchor. Through the binoculars, we could see the Coast Guard shack on our starboard side just ahead of us but our repeated calls on the VHF were never returned. That was probably normal because it was around 13.00 hours. Siesta time!
We sat there for a while waving at the few small pleasure crafts like Seadoos rented by tourists going in and out until one larger official boat with a portable VHF noticed us and out of curiosity came by. We told them of our predicament and after a call to the port authorities, they accepted to tow us into the marina. That is when we had the welcome red carpet treatment! The port authorities, the coast guards armed with AK-47s, and some other kids wearing olive-green uniforms were there to grab our mooring lines at the pier. Their “investigation” lasted the remainder of the day. Our papers were checked. We were individually interviewed. The boat was meticulously searched. Divers went underneath to check if we weren’t carrying torpedoes or what? An electronic “expert” checked our radar and GPS for our sailing history. We were the actors reliving a 1960 spy movie but it was forty years late!
Finally, because of my less aggressive stance than Rambo and my better command of the Spanish language, they accepted our story that we came in for repairs and we would be on our way as soon as the engine could be fixed. It was explained to us, like the situation that I had experienced a year before when coming into the port of Baracoa (See Chapter 2), that this facility was not a port of entry and that we had to stay on the boat. We were given the privilege to access the terrible cafeteria up the hill. It took three days before a mechanic showed up and got the engine started again. Then late afternoon, we did not waste time and were out of that hole without looking back until… the engine quit again, never restarting.
We tried sailing but the wind was very mild and coming from the east as usual. While wasting time at the pier, Rambo had rigged a steel outboard motor mount on the side of Fantasma as an emergency propulsion system in case the engine quit again. So, while still protected from the current by the Guardalavaca peninsula, we busted our backs lowering the very heavy 35 HP outboard on the side motor mount. After nightfall, when we got into open sea, the current just swung the twenty-ton ketch around and took control. We spent all night trying to get back into the protection of the peninsula and finally into the harbor entrance. This time our VHF call was received and the same impressive welcoming committee was there waiting for us upon our arrival at the pier. Before I went to sleep from exhaustion, I remember the technician watching the radar history on screen and witnessing a bunch of circles which was our previous night’s route. Funny!
The next day, Rambo and I agreed after a short meeting that Fantasma was not going anywhere unless she got a new engine. So, wearing my four bars Captain’s uniform with my name on the I.D. plate like any military officer, I surprised the harbour master in his sleep. My desire to leave the boat with my motorcycle was met with strong resistance from both the harbour master and the Coast Guard officer. Their argument was that we originally had come into the marina illegally without stopping at the coast guard station. My answer was that the Coast Guards never answered our numerous calls and that they failed in their obligation to render assistance to a boat in danger which, as a licensed captain, I know is the law of the sea. I told them to call Marina Hemingway, to confirm that I owned a boat, called Aventura, moored in the Marina. I also I told them that I was not an American but Canadian and that I had embarked on this journey as a second mate to come back to Cuba once Fantasma was delivered. Finally, I handed them out one of the cards that the Ambassador had given me and told them that if both Immigration and Customs officers did not show up that morning to legally clear me into Cuba again, I would create a diplomatic incident because I was being held under house arrest for no reason at all. I don’t know what worked the arguments, the uniform or the business card but by 11.00 am I met an Immigration officer who stamped my passport and a customs officer who wrote a temporary import permit for the motorcycle. I was free again but I was still in Cuba. I would never make it to the D.R. but I no longer needed to as I now had a new import permit issued by Cuban customs from the next town, Holguin. I had no more need to sell the motorcycle.
So, on a Friday afternoon, I found myself on a fast run to Holguin to find a Registro de vehiculo, Spanish for vehicle registration office that could issue me a temporary plate to make my Yamaha, Virago legal to ride in Cuba. Of course, when I finally found that office, there was as a line-up of the kind that would not be eliminated until the next Monday even if the office was opened all weekend. The long line-up was a nuisance that every Cuban had lived with all their life and gotten used to. It was inspired by the Russian system where I had seen people lined up in Moscow at 7.00 a.m. in the cold and snow waiting to storm the store when it opened at 9.00 a.m. to buy shoes which were rumored to have finally been made available. Somehow, the officer in charge spotted me not for my good looks but my foreign looks which is understandable since I was wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket, Durango riding boots and a black Harley Davidson T-shirt. It only took about thirty minutes and the equivalent of a ten dollars propina, Spanish for tip or more appropriately bribe, to complete the formalities. Now, not only was I free but I was also legally riding again in Cuba.
After spending the weekend on R & R in Holguin, I headed out east towards Bayamo. Once past the Holguin airport, the Virago died suddenly as if you had turned the current off. I found myself in the middle of nowhere in front of a few shacks bordering the street on the left-hand side. As I pushed the motorcycle through an entrance, I could feel eyes bearing on me and watching my every move. My efforts to use my cellular phone proved useless since there was no service in that area. The owners standing on the porch told me that there was no phone in this neighborhood but invited me to come in and bring the bike inside the house out of view of any curious passersby. In reality, it was against the law to let a stranger come into your house without informing the authorities but I guess that this family’s curiosity was bigger than their fears. I tried to do a few basic checks on the bike but it was clear the there was no more electrical current feeding the spark plugs. Jorge, the head of the house went to get a friend who fixed the local old motorbikes. When that mechanic saw my shining new wheels, he threw his hand up in the air in an emotional mixture of awe and incapacity and admitted that he did not have any experience whatsoever at servicing these “beasts”. I needed to call Luis Enrique, my friend in Havana who was an expert about the modern Yamaha Virago motorcycles. He was the official mechanic for the state police who were using the exact same model. There were only two privately owned black Virago in the whole country. To confuse the local police in their car when they saw me coming at top speed I had bought a windshield of exactly the same model as used by the Cavallitos, the Spanish for “Small cowboys”, the local motorcycle police.
Jorge informed me that the only available phone in the area was a public phone located two miles away inside the pharmacy in the next town, called Cacocum. In lieu of public transportation, a friendly and generous neighbor let me borrow an old trail horse which I rode proudly without saddle to town. I finally could reach Luis Enrique in Havana but he told me that he could not come to Holguin for personal reasons. Because I knew Luis Enrique well, I knew what the personal reasons were. Luis Enrique was a known womanizer and his new wife would never let him out of her sight to go to Holguin, the Cuban city renowned for having the most beautiful women in Cuba. Instead, Luis Enrique told me to call him the next day. He knew Roberto, the mechanic in Holguin who was fixing the police’s Virago motorcycles in that area. So, loaded with a “Care Package” which contained two bottles of rum, a chicken, detergent, soap, a few soft drinks and some candies, I jumped on the old horse and hip-hoped my way “home”. We spent the night eating the chicken, playing dominos and drinking rum with the neighbors. I had been Cubanized!
Jorge’s small wooden house had luxury like electricity but no running water. There was a well, an outhouse and a shower stall in the back. The plank floor was worn out from being scrubbed and the bedrooms had no doors just curtains. Although the accommodation was minimal, to say the least, I enjoyed my three day stay with that family who welcomed me with open arms but surely with some concerns about the Cuban authorities. Every day, I hip-hoped to town on the old horse to make phone calls, buy food and drinks and every night we would have a noisy domino competition, sometimes interrupted by some woman wanting to teach me salsa.
On the second day, Roberto showed up and quickly diagnosed the problem, the mysterious black box which is the small computer controlling everything. Of course, this part was not easily available in Cuba especially in Holguin but Robert was a true Cuban. He knew how to “invent” which as I mentioned before is a Cuban term used for “stealing” from the State. He told me that he knew of a Virago that had been completely wrecked and still sitting in the police garage. He would have the black boxes substituted and nobody would know any better. The third day, he showed up with the part, installed it and the Virago started immediately. If I recall, the service cost me the equivalent of U.S. $ 100 which was one-third of what the part alone cost in the U.S.
So, regretfully, I saluted my new family after leaving a bit of money on the table for their hospitality. I made a promise to come back which I must admit I never could keep because I never came back to this area of Cuba. Based on my experience of driving a modern motorcycle in the “deep country”, I was now reluctant to ride out of the Havana area unless I was driving a Chevrolet ‘53 which everybody can fix anywhere in Cuba and which I ended up buying later. I rode to the Cacocum’s train station, took the saddlebags off the Virago, checked it into a cargo rail car and spent the next twenty-four hours enduring this terrible ride to Havana. I was back home on Aventura again without ever having been in the Dominican Republic as planned!