This is an update on news stories from today about the US Embassy and acoustic phenomena in Cuba. This situation has been going on since late 2016. I have been following it closely. It is rather complicated, and the political situation makes things even more weird. It is nothing that I am worried about personally, but it has caused much unease among US travelers (but not very much from visitors from other countries, and with good reason).
These phenomena have only affected US and Canadian diplomats in the US Embassy and in one hotel. It is not a contagious illness. Remember–Canada is one of Cuba’s most loyal allies. The Cuban government has been working closely with our F.B.I. and the Canadian government trying to find out the cause. It apparently is not any type of “weapon,” but probably some type of listening device. My first thought when I heard about this several months ago was that it was probably of Russian origin. It fits their m.o. perfectly.
To sort things out involving Cuba, you have to figure out who benefits and who loses. Cuba has, and will have, a lot to lose. If Americans go to Cuba in fewer numbers, it would be a large economic hit. This is particularly important, because over half the major Caribbean areas visited by tourists have been seriously damaged or destroyed by hurricanes. Cuba’s damage was relatively minor, and power has been quickly restored over almost all of the island.
On the other hand, this issue benefits the Russians, who have begun very comprehensive international programs aimed at destabilizing certain countries and political entities. If you follow the news in the U.S., you’re probably aware that this has been an ongoing issue that representatives of both major parties are well aware of, even though some won’t admit it in public. (It is difficult for me to remain a middle-of-the-road Independent these days, but I’m still trying!)
The top diplomat at the US Embassy a few years back (when it was called the “US Interests Section) was Vicki Huddleston. Today she was asked about these occurrences. She said that there are several groups that may want to damage US-Cuba relations, and one is most likely behind these weird events. She identified likely groups as 1) Cuba Hardliners–those supporters of the late Fidel Castro, who do not trust the US government (Gee–I can’t imagine why!), 2) Miami Cuban-American Hardliners, who have been involved in dirty tricks against the Cuban government for decades. (Thankfully, most have died off, given up, or changed their minds about Cuba. Today, the remaining pro-Embargo Cuban-Americans represent a very small minority of those in south Florida, but you would not know it if you haven’t been paying close attention. Their younger “leaders” are Cuban-Americans like Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who were born outside of Cuba and have NEVER BEEN TO CUBA. Their supporters still envision returning to Cuba someday and claiming billions of dollars of real estate.)
Huddleston said the most likely culprits are #3 China or #4 Russia. I disagree that China would be involved, because it is now the major financial contributor for large economic projects in Cuba. They fully expect to profit from the large, nearby US tourist market visiting Cuba. On the other hand, Russian agents are the most likely suspects. They probably have the technology to do this, and their “fingerprints” are on a wide variety of other similar projects in multiple countries throughout the world.
At this point in history, the Cuban government would have absolutely nothing to gain by beginning and continuing these activities. But it is easy for Rubio and others to blame Cuba. if you study the last 50 years of US-Cuba relations, you will discover that the concepts of “Fake News” and “Alternate Facts” are nothing new.
The US government now states that the Cuba government is probably not responsible, but over half the existing diplomatic staff are being recalled from the embassy. Most significant–an official Travel Warning has been issued for Americans visiting that country. This will undoubtedly result in fewer American travelers.
It is extremely rare for anybody who has actually been to Cuba to believe that we should continue the embargo. I know only one person in this category. I also want to remind you that you will probably have friends and family members who will warn you about the so-called “dangers” of going to Cuba. Just remember that Canada–one of our very best allies–is also a close ally of Cuba. It is the favorite country for Canadians to visit, bringing their families and children to this kid-friendly country.
In conclusion, when you visit Cuba, you may meet visitors from all over the world, especially travelers from our best allies–UK, France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Japan, and of course, Canada. You should keep in mind that the history they learned regarding US-Cuba relations is vastly different than what we were told growing up here in the states.
There is much speculation about the future of the Caribbean basin, especially regarding tourism and economic survival. Many Caribbean islands were affected to some degree by the Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria. Tourism has been the main source of income for these islands. There was so much destruction on some that they may never recover, and may be eventually re-populated with only a small fraction of their former residents. They will not likely attract foreign visitors for many years, if ever.
Following is a list of the top 10 Caribbean islands (or island groups) listed in order of those most visited annually by foreign visitors. I will also comment on their post-hurricane status (with available information) as of today. #1 is The Dominican Republic, which consistently has had the most visitors—over 4 million a year. It was not hit directly by Irma, but there was much damage due to Hurricane Maria. #2 Puerto Rico has been devastated. #3 is Cuba, and the damage from Irma was localized mostly on the north central coast. It looks like Cuba will recover more quickly than most of the others. #4 is Jamaica, which has weathered Hurricane season very well so far. #5 is The Bahamas, which were severely impacted by Irma. #6 Aruba and #7 Barbados were apparently only lightly affected. #8 U.S. Virgin Islands were greatly affected by Irma and catastrophically affected by Maria. #9 St. Martin was devastated. #10 Turks and Caicos were hammered by Irma, and a week later by Maria. Other islands such as Dominica were essentially wiped out.
In addition, the Florida Keys and some parts of the southern West Coast of Florida may not be ready for visitors for several years.
So where are winter visitors (especially Americans living in the eastern part of the country) going to go to get away from the upcoming winter season and relax on the beach? I believe that Cuba is in the best position. It is the Caribbean nation best-prepared for hurricanes. It is much larger than the other islands, so even when it has taken direct hits from hurricanes in the past, the damage was mostly localized. Hurricane Irma caused severe damage to the central part of the north coast, with minor damage to the south coast and the east and west parts of the 800-mile long island. Also, it is a safe country for visitors, in contrast to some other Caribbean islands.
So with perhaps half or more of Caribbean vacation areas destroyed or heavily damaged in the last few weeks, it seems logical that many foreign visitors will now consider Cuba for their next vacation. Because of the Law of Supply and Demand, you should expect that prices will increase as availability of hotels and services decreases.
Many of you are probably following the progress of Hurricane Irma through the Caribbean. At this point it looks like the state of Florida will take a very serious hit. Some areas will likely have catastrophic problems.
There is a lot of of current news about how Irma destroyed most of the homes on St. Martin and several other small islands a few days ago. There are also lots of projections about what will likely happen to south Florida beginning this evening. However, I believe the information reported about Irma in Cuba is very incomplete, and actually misleading. I have been monitoring reports from three major cable news networks. Only CNN actually has a reporter on the scene–Patrick Oppman. He has lived in Cuba off-and-on for many years. For the past 24-36 hours, he has been reporting from the seaside town of Caibarién. It is located almost in the middle of the north coast of Cuba. He has reported that several towns in the area have flooded, but most people were previously evacuated. This area was hit harder than expected, because Irma changed course slightly and continued to the west, instead of turning to the north as predicted. (It is finally turning north now as I write.) The two most notable results are that the eye will now move through Florida west of previous predictions, and the eye has traveled closer to Cuba’s north coast. There are over a thousand small islands (cayos) off the coast. Most are uninhabited, but there are several resorts in the area. I presume they were hit pretty hard. There are no large cities on the coastal mainland in this area. The eye traveled over many of these islands, resulting in Irma breaking up to a certain extent, losing a lot of energy. Irma briefly dropped from a Category-5 to Cat-3. Unfortunately, now there is warm open water between Irma’s eye and Florida, so it is quite likely to gain strength again and will likely hit south Florida as a Cat-5. Because of this new course further west to Florida, the Gulf Coast looks like it will have much more destruction than Miami and Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Tampa–a large city where many Miami residents escaped to in the last few days–may now experience an unprecedented storm surge with widespread destruction. Also–there is a good chance that at least one of the 42 bridges connecting Key West to the mainland will be destroyed, further isolating this well-known island. The latest projection indicates that the eye of Irma may pass very close to Key West as a Cat-5 hurricane. I hope everybody got out while they could.
I have been communicating with friends in Havana this morning. They still have power and internet services. Things are relatively okay there, but waves are crashing over the Malecón seawall, flooding some areas. This happens several times every decade, so it is nothing new–it will be costly, but not catastrophic. However–the CNN reporters in the U.S. are interpreting Oppman’s reports as though Irma has been very destructive for all of Cuba—not just in a limited area. Cuba’s north coast is almost as long as California’s west coast. I believe there is a huge difference between: reports of damage to a fairly limited, mostly uninhabited area in central Cuba, and “Cuba has been devastated by Hurricane Irma with cities under water!”
The bottom line is that Havana and western Cuba (where most first-time visitors spend their time) will do just fine, and will probably be mostly or fully recovered by December. A much bigger concern for me is how well the Cuban-American communities in south Florida weather Hurricane Irma. They send billions of dollars every year to their families and business partners in Cuba. The total amount has increased dramatically in the last few years. This is yet another significant factor affecting island’s future that Cuba can’t control.
I’m getting a lot of requests lately about hurricanes and Cuba, and which months to avoid getting caught there. Those of you scheduled for our December Expedition shouldn’t be overly concerned, because the hurricane season will be finished by then. However, at the moment, the eye of Hurricane Irma is just north of the eastern tip of Cuba. It appears to be following the path projected by both the U.S. and European Hurricane Agencies. It is expected to soon start curving to the north, and head directly for Miami and south Florida. Irma has the potential to be as destructive as Harvey was in Texas a couple weeks ago, but for different reasons. Harvey remained almost stationary over southeast Texas for several days, so that record amounts of rainfall were produced. There was no place for most of it to go, so many areas were severely flooded. In contrast, Irma currently is moving forward at 20-30 miles an hour, but it may very well straddle the Florida peninsula and affect both coasts. With most hurricanes in the past, Floridians could usually anticipate where the most destruction would occur, and then escape to the opposite coast. Irma’s eye and destructive winds are about 200 miles across–wider than the entire peninsula. The Category 5 hurricane’s winds could conceivably blow over almost all of the southern part of the state. The biggest problems will be due to these winds, coupled with record storm surges. South Florida is very flat, so storm surges of 10-12 feet would travel many miles inland. It will be difficult for everybody to evacuate to the north, because there are only a few major highways, and gasoline will be in short supply.
In addition—I haven’t heard much about this issue, but there are usually dozens of large cruise ships returning to dock every day in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. The passengers likely planned to get off their cruise ships and catch flights out of these airports–which will likely be closed beginning tomorrow. Today they are overcrowded with people trying to catch flights to ANYWHERE. Irma could very well be another major disaster, with much greater loss of life. Let’s hope and pray for a miracle.
Ironically, if Irma had traveled west by northwest over Cuba, rather than in the ocean, it’s power would have been greatly diminished. Instead, it is now traveling north of Cuba over unusually warm open water, gaining strength. The main affect on Cuba will be large waves crashing into the north coast. By the way–I haven’t seen any reports yet, but you can expect that rapid responders from Cuba’s EMS teams are right now preparing to head for and assist the hardest-hit Caribbean islands, such as St. Martin and Barbuda.
Regarding hurricanes in general: the peak period for hurricanes in the Caribbean is early September, so we are currently in that “window.” The “Hurricane Season” actually lasts for half a year: the six months from June 1 until November 30, but they can occur any time of the year. A bell-shaped curve of hurricane activity indicates that almost all occur from July through October and the peak months are August and September. If you choose to visit Cuba any particular week during these peak months, the odds are 1 in a 100 that your trip will be significantly affected by a hurricane.
Cuba has a climate similar to Hawaii’s. Both are located about the same latitude, just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Technically this makes their climates “tropical,” but the surrounding oceans and trade winds make their climates effectively more “semi-tropical.” Both island groups range from northwest to the southeast, where it is usually warmer. Both have trade winds that bring rain primarily to the north and east sides, where there are many more rivers and rainforests. The south and west sides of all these islands tend to be dry and desert-like, and the ocean waters are consistently more clear, due to less run-off from streams. The higher you go up into the hills and mountains of both island groups, the cooler it is, especially at night.
Cuba has a wet season and a dry season, but it can rain any day of the year. The dry season is roughly from November to April. During the wet season, from May to October, it may rain several times a week, but it rarely rains continuously day after day. It often comes down hard for a short time, then the clouds break and the sun comes out. Because it’s warm, the rain isn’t as difficult to deal with as in many mainland locations. If you get wet, you’ll stay cool, and you’ll eventually dry off. I usually carry a small compact umbrella with me during the wet season. Unlike Hawaii and California, Cuba’s afternoon storms are often accompanied by dramatic thunder and lightning, adding even more intrigue and excitement to the Twilight Zone that is today’s Cuba.
The Cuban Emergency System has been shown to be very capable of carrying out large-scale evacuations, especially with regards to visitors. Newer beachfront hotels have been built to international safety standards. Unlike south Florida, Cuba is less populated and much more mountainous, so there are plenty of higher-elevation locations to escape storm surges.