On February 26, 2004, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation, based partly on a “national emergency” declared in 1996 after the Cuban “shoot-down” incident that gives government officials the power to seize any vessel, at any time, anywhere in the territorial waters of the United States, if officials have any reason to believe “it may be used, or is susceptible of being used, for voyage into Cuban waters.” That’s right matey, federal, state or local police can now board your boat, inspect, place guards, and take possession and control of the boat, evict the crew and captain/owner, inpound, then sell the vessel and keep the money, based on their belief that you may be going to to Cuba. Herb McCormick, editor of “Cruising World” magazine describes this as “stunning…and unprecedented in its scope and purpose.” His sentiments are shared by many in the sailing community who are outraged at the prospect at having their most prized possesion, their sailboat, seized and sold at auction for merely expressing an interest in voyaging to Cuba.
Citing a litany of reasons, including; the administration’s determination that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism, Cuba’s “reckless willingness to use excessive force, including deadly force”, and “threat to United States international relations,” Mr. Bush harkens back to an obscure 1917 law for further authority. Bush administration contentions that Cuba sponsors terrorism are a direct contradiction to past State Department statements that Cuba no longer poses any threat to the U.S. or its allies.
Interestingly, in terms of international relations, this edict will apply to boats of all nationalities, not just those registered in the United States. So, by the letter of the law, world cruisers from other countries who include U.S. ports in their itenarary are now subject to having their boats seized and sold, and themselves arrested, on the suspicion they “may” travel to Cuba. Such a chilling prospect will perhaps influence world voyagers, who keep in touch via radio nets and are quick to pass on such information, and they will skip American destinations altogether, affecting U.S. port economies that benefit from revenues and anchorage fees of visiting sailors, especially along the east coast, Florida, and the Gulf states.
Making reference to the 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the freedom to travel is an established Fifth Amendment guarantee, many sailors chaff at this new assault on their rights of ownership and freedom of movement. Bill Schanen, editor of the immensely popular “Sailing” magazine called the new edict “outrageous” and has written a scathing article against it in his latest edition. No doubt his opinions will be shared by many in the sailing community, historically composed of independent souls who chart their own course and take pride in their ability to master wind and wave in boats powered only by their wits and nature’s forces.
Once again, it appears Mr. Bush has alienated an influential group with his heavy-handed Cuban policies, normally associated with the more extreme elements in the Cuban-American community. McCormick describes this tactic as “unseemly…..little more than a ploy to court the anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Florida whose support the President must maintain to stay in office.”
Time will tell if Mr. Bush’s new policy will be strictly enforced and coastal regions will see boardings and seizures, with dozens of boats impounded and their captains and crew hauled down the dock in shackles. But one thing is sure, Mr. Bush’s new “proclamation” has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the sailing community and brought into sharp focus the questionable constitutionality of travel restrctions to Cuba and the government’s rights of seizure under “national emergency.” Sailors, known for having long memories and hardened hearts for those impeding or violating their rights of way, are astir.